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Hearing that today, Sawyer laughs in surprise: "Really! I thought I wandered aimlessly into this profession." She went to Wellesley, majored in English and marched in one campus protest -- against mandatory Bible class. ("I have to confess I was ambivalent about it, because I loved Bible class.") Meanwhile, she suffered through an identity crisis and an undernourished social life, which she traces to the Junior Miss "aberration." "I only dated four or five times in college," she says. "I went to my first mixer my first year, and I heard some guy say to his date, 'That can't be her. She's nothing special.' And I slinked out of the room and never went to a mixer again. I became very self-conscious."
After graduation she got a job as a weather girl at a TV station back in Louisville. Too nearsighted to see the western half of the map from the East Coast, she made jokes on the job. "I had no interest in the weather," she says, "and it showed nightly." Later she did reporting; her first assignment was to follow Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on a hike through Kentucky's Red River gorge. Toting the camera and recording equipment herself, she fell backward into the gorge while trying to get a shot. The Justice's comment: "Are you new at this, dear?"
"I felt that the journalist's perspective was home for me," Sawyer says, "but I really wanted to know something about making decisions, taking responsibility." That led her to Washington, where her father's connections helped her land a job in the White House press office. She started answering phones, was soon writing press releases and eventually became a chief assistant to Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Her personal contact with President Nixon at the White House was limited: their only face-to-face encounter came when she accidentally barreled into him on the stairs leading to the Situation Room. The eager young press aide made a better impression with a piece she wrote for a magazine that expressed Nixon's feelings about his mother. The President called to compliment her; thereafter he dubbed her "the smart girl."
"She brought an intellectual spark to the press office and creativity that was invaluable," remembers Ziegler. Another colleague recalls, "She had a great deal of political sensitivity for someone her age. She was smart and cunning, very clever and resourceful. She was dogged in her approach to things: she covered all the bases." Loyalty was another of her hallmarks. One Washingtonian recalls sitting next to Sawyer in the cheap seats at a radio and TV correspondents' dinner in 1973. Satirist Mark Russell was taking swipes at Nixon's Watergate troubles, and the audience was laughing; even Ziegler seemed to roll with the punches. But Sawyer broke down in tears.