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Diane Sawyer Describes Her 'Doofus' Moment With President Nixon

04/22/2015 10:27 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

As a journalist, Diane Sawyer is known for sitting opposite notable figures ranging from Bruce Jenner to President Obama. But before her job was to report the news and tell other people's stories, Sawyer had a much different role at the other end of the media landscape: She was a staff member inside Richard Nixon's White House.

When sitting down with "Oprah's Master Class," Sawyer gave a revealing look inside her time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which she readily admits may have been a stretch initially, given that her own background didn't include much political work. "I was so young, and I was there because of a number of circumstances -- not one of which I was political," she says in the above video. "My father had been political and in politics, so his Republican history in Kentucky before he died made a difference in my ability to get hired there."

Sawyer may have lacked the political expertise, but she was eager to work inside the White House nonetheless. "I kind of looked at it as another horizon, something I'd never seen," she says.

Looking back on her first moments with the Nixon administration, Sawyer adds that her job didn't get off to the smoothest start.

"I was a doofus," she says. "I knocked the president down my first week there! I actually physically knocked him down... I didn't exactly know where I was, but I was bounding down the stairs, rounded the corner and knocked him flat."

In an instant, the Secret Service had sprung into action. "The Secret Service hoists me up over him, like a tent," Sawyer laughs. "I thought, 'That's it, forever.'"

But Sawyer wasn't fired from the White House; she instead became a valuable staffer to Nixon -- even if he didn't quite know her name at first.

"He used to call me the 'tall girl.' 'I saw that tall girl, ask her to research that thing,'" Sawyer says the president would remark. "That's how it began, really."

As time went on, Sawyer began to understand what it really meant to work inside the highest office in the country. "It took me a long time just to figure out the dynamics, which I think are true of any president. Namely, that the whole White House is oriented like tropism, like sunflowers and the sun. It's oriented to the president and his approach to things, his reality," she explains. "In that White House, [it was] particularly complex because he was not your usual politician, to say the least.

"He was far more introverted, I think. Far more inscrutable," she continues. "Far more -- this will surprise you -- sentimental and vulnerable. And then, in other ways, driven by the anger and the feeling of an unjust history and what it had done to him."

Even as a White House insider, Sawyer can't help but observe her boss and his administration through the same lens as those who didn't have such unprecedented access to the White House.

"It's overworked to say it, but it's a real Greek/Shakespearean study in character writ large," she says.

"Oprah's Master Class" tells the stories you've never heard from the people you thought you knew best.

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