Conservatives are predictably outraged. Liberals feel that he long ago betrayed them. And his Washington friends, though supportive, seem baffled by his decision to take a job that doesn’t seem like a natural fit.
Reaction to ABC’s selection of George Stephanopoulos to succeed Diane Sawyer in one of network television’s most coveted positions as co-anchor of “Good Morning America” reflects the fact that as a close and highly visible aide to President Bill Clinton, Stephanopoulos was one of the most successful and identifiable figures of his generation before he ever aspired to television news.
For many of these friends and critics, Stephanopoulos, 48, is still the boyish and tousle-haired aide perpetually spinning Clinton out of his latest brush with trouble. Yet the reality is that few public figures in recent years have so successfully reinvented themselves – and worked so hard to do it.
Depending on how you count them, this is at least the fifth career transformation Stephanopoulos has carefully engineered. Starting out in Washington as an idealistic congressional aide, he joined Clinton’s 1992 campaign and quickly became one of his closest advisers, adept at strategy and immortalized as the quick-response specialist in “The War Room.” After the 1992 campaign, he followed Clinton to the White House to become the president’s most visible advocate before cutting his ties with a best-selling tell-all that reportedly enraged his former patron.
Joining ABC, Stephanopoulos diligently acquired television skills, eventually becoming the host of “This Week,” the Sunday talk show that seemed to best display his knowledge of Washington and politics. Now he moves onto New York, and the cozy world of morning television, better known for producing affable and bantering hosts from Dave Garroway to Matt Lauer.
James Carville spoke for many of Stephanopoulos’ friends Wednesday when he said that going to “GMA” is “not exactly the way I would have thought he’d end up,” though he added that he’s “been surprised by things other than this in his life.”
While Carville doesn’t doubt Stephanopoulos will be successful on “GMA,” he noted that his friend had “a good life on Sunday morning” and will be letting go of a strong political journalism franchise in Washington.
“I teased him, ‘You might be getting Jay Leno’d here,” Carville recalled. “You’re doing fine and then someone comes up with this brilliant idea.”
Stephanopoulos didn’t petition for the job when it was announced in September that Sawyer was heading to the evening “World News” anchor desk, and the network game of musical chairs began. While “This Week” has more cachet within the Beltway, “GMA”—which brings in far more advertising dollars five days a week—is of greater value to the network.
Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, who covered the Clinton White House for the New York Times, said that the move fits in the “universe of network logic.”
“But it’s somewhat shocking to many people in Washington,” Purdum continued. “His skill set is so suited to doing the Sunday show and he’s made it into a race [against ‘Meet the Press’].”
“The system says that ‘GMA’ is a ‘better assignment,’ Purdum added, “but I thought he had a great assignment already.”
While Stephanopoulos isn’t the first former White House aide working on morning television, he’s certainly the most visible. Purdum pointed out that Sawyer worked as an aide in the Nixon White House before entering journalism, but she never had a public persona back then. Stephanopoulos, on the other hand, was a bona fide star in the Clinton administration – and for conservatives generally suspicious of network bias, his promotion to a main-line news show only confirms their suspicions.
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, said that Stephanopoulos hasn’t “proven himself as a straight shooter” in the journalism world. His group has a page on its website with dozens of quotes from Stephanopoulos in his ABC role that they consider pro-Democratic, including several over the past couple years discussing Obama.
Whether Chris Matthews or Joe Scarborough, it’s not unheard of for cable TV hosts to come from Capitol Hill or the White House. And the cable punditocracy, from Karl Rove to Paul Begala, is filled with those who have worn out the carpet in the West Wing. But the usual trajectory is typically towards opinion and commentary, not news—a notable exception being Tim Russert, who worked for New York Democrats Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
But Graham made the distinction that Russert “was not a public person when he worked for Moynihan or Cuomo,” whereas Stephanopoulos is “strongly remembered” from his time in the Clinton administration. Also, Graham said there’s a distinction in that Stephanopoulos’ “job was to spin” the media, on among other things, his boss’s marital indiscretions.
The left has its own grievances with Stephanopoulos, often described at the time as the most liberal aide in the Clinton White House. In their view, he has spent his time at ABC overcompensating for his personal views, and given too much leeway to conservatives on his Sunday show.
His role as a co-moderator in a debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign still rankles many liberals, who were furious at him for spending time on what they regarded as trivial issues, such as former Weather Underground member William Ayers and the wearing of flag pins.
Making matters worse, Stephanopoulos had appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show shortly before the debate, where Hannity had strongly suggested that he should ask about Ayers. Stephanopoulos responded that he was “taking notes.”
The day after the debate, Stephanopoulos defended his performance, telling POLITICO that the moderators “asked tough but appropriate questions.”
But that didn’t appease the 40-plus journalists, liberal bloggers and academics who signed an open letter to ABC, calling the debate “a revolting descent into tabloid journalism.” Critics included writers from the American Prospect, Mother Jones and the Nation—one of whom was an old friend, Eric Alterman.
In “What Liberal Media?”, his 2003 book, Alterman wrote that Stephanopoulos joined ABC as the most liberal commentator on a broadcast network, with the exception of Bill Moyers on PBS. But, Alterman wrote about his first time hosting “This Week” in 2002, “not a single liberal syllable was spoken.”
Alterman, when reached by email Wednesday, said that “hosting GMA is the perfect position for someone like George.” He declined to elaborate.
While Stephanopoulos has described Moyers as a role model in the past, he clearly took a different path in his post-White House television career than the unabashedly liberal PBS host. Despite being more liberal than Clinton, and differing with him on issues like the death penalty, welfare reform, and trade, Stephanopoulos worked to erase any evidence of ideology, and to be seen as a fair arbiter of the partisan sparring on the show’s roundtable discussions every Sunday.
“He knew what he wanted to do when he left the White House. He aspired to be a newsperson,” Carville said. “He didn’t aspire to be Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann.”
Still, Graham is not convinced, saying that one call with Hannity is not the same on being “on the phone with Rahm Emanuel every day” a reference to a POLITICO story describing the daily round-robin calls between Stephanopoulos, Carville, Begala and Emanuel.
While Stephanopoulos has remained mum the past few months while his name was floated for the “GMA” job it’s very likely that he weighed all the pros and cons of not only a move to New York, but leaving the Washington political world that made him a star.
“There’s one thing that no one has to worry about—that George didn’t think about this,” Carville said. “He’s not a man given to impulsive decisions. I don’t know if it’s the right or wrong thing for him, but I can guarantee the world that it’s sufficiently been thought about.”
And while Stephanopoulos’ formidable academic achievements – summa cum laude graduate of Columbia and Rhodes Scholar – suggest the kind of self-discipline and work ethic that would lead to success in any field of his choosing, another explanation for his move can be found in his book, “All Too Human.”
Writing about his early appearance on TV as a Clinton spokesman and the profiles of him that began appearing in newspapers and magazines, he wrote that he “enjoyed the attention, encouraged it, loved it.”
In one of those profiles, in the New Yorker, in 1996, David Remnick noticed that love of the limelight. “One can be grateful that Stephanopoulos doesn’t take the tack of poor-mouthing his plight and weeping about his celebrity,” Remnick wrote, noting that it already made him famous, “and will soon make him rich, no matter what he does next.”