George Stephanopoulos is smart, handsome, famous and popular - all desirable attributes in a budding star of the network news world.
As Stephanopoulos makes his debut tomorrow as the new anchor of ABC's Sunday public affairs show This Week, however, there are two people who could stand in the way of his success. There's Tim Russert, the boisterous NBC News Washington bureau chief who is host of rival Meet the Press. Then there's George Stephanopoulos, the smart, handsome, famous and popular former aide to Bill Clinton.
Stephanopoulos, 41, cheerfully acknowledges both challenges. "My burden is to prove to people that I can bring the benefits of that [political] experience to the table without being biased," he says in his familiar soft rasp during a telephone interview. "I think I can do it - I have done it. If I fail to do it, the public will sniff it right away, and I won't succeed."
As for Russert, who has established himself as a force in Washington through his high ratings and unrelenting questioning, Stephanopoulos offers only respect. "He does it through well-researched, well-informed interviews and solid analysis," Stephanopoulos says. "I hope I can match him."
The Sunday public affairs shows offer major figures a chance to explain (or typically advance) their agendas in exchange for opening themselves to a live interrogation. Yet it remains one of the few forums of civil discourse on commercial television, a point of distinction from most cable talk shows that Stephanopoulos and ABC executives very much want to keep.
Of the five major programs, three have anchors with strong political ties: Stephanopoulos; NBC's Russert, a former top aide to two New York Democrats, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and Fox News Channel's Tony Snow, the former chief speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. CBS' Bob Schieffer and CNN's Wolf Blitzer emerged through the ranks of reporters.
Stephanopoulos' appointment to the anchor chair once held by David Brinkley, however, involves a greater element of star power. While head of Clinton's campaign and White House press shop, Stephanopoulos was widely known as a fierce partisan who helped Clinton sidestep and finesse many a landmine.
He was also widely known. Along with consultant James Carville, Stephanopoulos was featured heavily in the documentary The War Room, about the 1992 campaign's efforts to handle the media. After Clinton entered the White House, Stephanopoulos started to date celebrities. (Married since November, he and comic actor Alexandra Wentworth had their first child on Monday.) Michael J. Fox portrayed a character sketched closely on the young politico in the Aaron Sorkin film The American President, while a plot line on NBC's Friends had the female characters spy on him in one episode.
A former aide to Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Stephanopoulos was known as the liberal conscience of the administration on policy matters, and a bulldog on tactical issues, such as the all-consuming question of how to handle a prickly press.
He walked away from the administration at the close of Clinton's first term, however, wrote a memoir that alienated the Clintons, and found a home at ABC News over more than five years as a commentator, correspondent and now anchor. In his new role, Stephanopoulos is charged with piercing the spin of Washington politicos who work in the same hallways he once patrolled as a complete partisan. In 1998, Stephanopoulos was one of the first commentators to say Clinton could be impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"I think that most people in both parties have seen what George has done over the past six years," says Jon Banner, executive producer for the new version of the show. "As we go forward, we've been asking people to give him a chance and see how fair he is."
The two men are also charged with improving the program's anemic ratings. Over the past year, Meet the Press has drawn 4.4 million viewers each week, while This Week attracts 3 million, and CBS' Face the Nation pulls in 2.9 million.
The new version of the show sheds its dual hosts, longtime correspondents Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, but it retains conservative commentator George F. Will. In addition, Stephanopoulos said ABC's Michel Martin will join as a recurrent panelist for discussion after the lead interviews. A new set has been designed, along with a reworked theme song.
The key stories of the past year - terrorism at home and conflict abroad - will still be dominant subjects of the hourlong program, Banner and Stephanopoulos say. But they say they will strive to reach out to voices from beyond the Beltway to ensure that parochial interests of lobbyists and party regulars do not overshadow issues that affect millions of Americans.
This Week's Will, himself a former Republican Senate staffer, calls Stephanopoulos intelligent, industrious and quick. The most crucial issue, Will argues, is how quickly the program proves consistently able to draw major guests. "We have had trouble with booking [guests]," Will says. "That's a function of ratings. The rich get richer in television."
Indeed, before his daughter's birth, Stephanopoulos spent much of last week on the phone with government officials to line up possible guests. But he doesn't sound too worried.
"This is a difficult role, and I still have a learning curve," Stephanopoulos says, but adds: "None of my competitors has the breadth of Washington experience that I have. I've worked on Capitol Hill and covered it. I've worked on presidential campaigns and covered them. I've worked at the White House and covered it."
"People have a lot of opportunities throughout the week to get debate, real mud fights, entertaining partisan wrestling matches," he says. (CNN's Crossfire comes to mind, on which his former Clinton administration peers Paul Begala and James Carville are the resident liberals.) On This Week, Stephanopoulos says, "We hope that it's always civil, always well-informed."
This Week with George Stephanopoulos makes its debut locally on WMAR (Channel 2) at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.