Sam Donaldson on George H. W. Bush’s relationship with the press

Former ABC correspondent and host Sam Donaldson, who covered the White House going back to the 1960s, remembered George H.W. Bush as a president who was “accessible” and “understood” the role of a free press.

Donaldson told Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday that Bush, who died Friday at his home in Houston at the age of 94, sometimes challenged reporters but he was always respectful.

“I never heard of him calling a reporter to chew him out, never being angry at a reporter,” he said. “He understood what we were about.”

Charles Bierbauer, who served as CNN’s senior Washington correspondent during the Bush years, told Stelter Sunday that Bush always came across as “informed.”

“And, gosh, that’s what journalists like,” Bierbauer said.

Donaldson expressed admiration for Marlin Fitzwater, who served as press secretary under Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Fitzwater would “slide around” questions “but he didn’t try to insult reporters,” Donaldson said.

Former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno told Stelter that Fitzwater was upfront with reporters when Bush misspoke and would actively work to set the record straight.

Fitzwater would “walk around and say what the president meant to say was this or that,” Sesno said. “There was no attack, there was no suggestion it was fake news.”

“It really I think was a mark of that sense of respect, as I say, that was very, very noticeable then and is all — well, is virtually absent now,” Sesno said. “Of course, this was a different environment. …This was before the age of the Internet and before cable exploded into what it is now.”

Bush did, however, have his reservations about the press, just as other presidents did, Sesno said.

He remembered sitting down with Bush in La Crosse, Wisconsin, shortly before he lost his reelection bid to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Senso asked him about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and Bush was “furious.”

“At one point said, ‘Are we going to talk about anything else?'” Sesno said. Bush “canceled the other interviews after that.”

“So it was not all sweetness and nice,” Sesno said.