Diane Sawyer: ‘God Can Forgive Failure, But Not Failing to Try’

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Diane Sawyer: ‘God Can Forgive Failure, But Not Failing to Try’

By Movieguide® Staff

Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.

Former GOOD MORNING AMERICA anchor and iconic broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer said that she credits her successful career on the idea that God will “forgive failure, but not failing to try.”

“Many of us, I think, can look back and recall certain specific moments in our lives that take on greater importance the longer we live. ‘The past has a different pattern,’ T.S. Eliot wrote, when viewed from each of our changing perspectives,” Sawyer wrote in 1986.

“For me, one of those moments occurred when I was 17 years old. I was a high school senior in Louisville, Kentucky, representing my state in the 1963 America’s Junior Miss competition in Mobile, Alabama,” she continued.

One of the judges at the competition changed Sawyer’s perspective on pursuing a career.

“Along with the other young contestants, I was doing my best to hold up under the grueling week-long schedule of interviews, agonies over hair that curled or wouldn’t, photo sessions, nervous jitters and rehearsals,” Sawyer remembers. “In the midst of it all, there was one person who stood at the center—at least my psychological center—someone I viewed as an island in an ocean of anxiety.”

She continued: “She was one of the judges. A well-known writer. A woman whose sea-gray eyes fixed on you with laser penetration, whose words were always deliberate. She felt the right words could make all the difference. Her name was Catherine Marshall. From the first moment I met Catherine Marshall, I was aware that she was holding me—indeed all of us—to a more exacting standard.”

For Marshall, the crucial questions for the young women competing were about their ambitions and values instead of their “favorite hobbies.”

“While other pageant judges asked questions about favorite hobbies and social pitfalls, she sought to challenge. She felt even 17-year-old girls—perhaps especially 17-year-old girls—should be made to examine their ambitions and relate them to their values,” Sawyer explained. “During the rehearsal on the last day of the pageant, the afternoon before it would all end, several of us were waiting backstage when a pageant official said Catherine Marshall wanted to speak with us. We gathered around. Most of us were expecting a last-minute pep talk or the ritual good luck wish. Or at most an exhortation to be good citizens, but we were surprised.”

“She fixed her eyes upon us. ‘You have set goals for yourselves. I have heard some of them. But I don’t think you have set them high enough. You have talent and intelligence, and a chance. I think you should take those goals and expand them. Think of the most you could do with your lives. Make what you do matter. Above all, dream big.’

“It was not so much an instruction as a dare. I felt stunned, like a small animal fixed on bright lights. This woman I admired so much was disappointed in us—not by what we were but by how little we aspired to be,” she added.

Sawyer went on to win the contest that year. But soon afterward, Sawyer knew that what she wanted to do involved reaching people across the globe through writing.

After graduating with a B.A. degree in English in 1967 from Wellesley College, Sawyer admitted that journalism was not on her radar but soon became her dream.

“At that time there were few if any women journalists on television in our part of the country. The idea of being a pioneer in the field sounded like dreaming big,” Sawyer said. “So that’s how I came to get up my nerve, put on my very best Mary Tyler Moore girl journalist outfit, and go out to convince the news director at Louisville’s WLKY-TV to let me have a chance.”

She got the job, but judge Marshall’s words kept coming back to her; dream bigger.

“What I didn’t realize is what Catherine Marshall undoubtedly knew all along—that the dream is not the destination but the journey,” Sawyer said. “I was still working at WLKY when, in 1969, my father was killed in an auto crash. His death—coupled with my urge to make a change—spurred me in the search for a different job and also seemed to kindle my interest in the world of government, law and politics.”

“Several months later, in the autumn of 1970, I said goodbye to my mother and Linda and to the good folks at WLKY, and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. Now, I know this may sound incredibly naive, but when the plane landed at National Airport, I got off with a very firm idea of where I wanted to work. At the White House,” she added. “Thanks to a few kind words of recommendation from a friend of my father’s, I was able to obtain an interview with Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, and I was hired.”

Although Sawyer loved her work, in 1974, her career would change once again after the events of Watergate.

“In the summer of 1974, the President resigned. Immediately I was appointed to his transition team in San Clemente, California. My assignment on the West Coast was supposed to last only six months. But a few days after my arrival, the President made a request that I was totally unprepared for.

“He asked me to consider staying on in San Clemente—along with several other writers and aides—to assist him in researching and writing his memoirs. I had to make a choice, and a choice that I knew would have consequences.”

Despite others telling Sawyer that the decision was “career suicide,” she chose to stay.

“But I had worked for this man and he had been good to me. Now he was asking me for something that I was in a position to give. I have never regretted the decision. I stayed,” she recalled.

A subsequent visit from Marshall once again encouraged Sawyer to answer the question, ‘whats next?’

“Again, I came to appreciate the immense power of someone who is unafraid to hold other people to a standard. And again I realized the way a single uncompromising question can force reexamination of a life…

“When I go out into the world again—and who knows where I’ll be flying next?—I can almost hear a wonderful woman prodding me with her fiery challenge to stretch further and, no matter how big the dream, to dream a little bigger still,” she said.