Friday, November 21, 2003

Why George Stephanopoulos will Fail at ABC

Not since Attilla the Hun's aggressive campaign against the Roman Empire has anyone been so audacious and bold as George Stephaopoulos' very public transformation from the creepy giggling elf behind James Carville's Cajun strategist routine in The War Room into a respected network news correspondent, or, as they say in the biz a "Wise Man." Imagine the thumos involved (George would appreciate the Greek philosophical reference) to think that you can go from the "the mouthpiece that turned" of the Clinton Years to Cronkite or Eric Sevareid, if you will, without paying the requisite dues. One wonders whether the appropriate response is to applaud or to be appalled at the cheek displayed.

ABC TV was driven by a felt need to make a sexier broadcast -- they just were; they saw their line up of Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts -- a conservative tea party with no breaking scoops and little eye candy -- and thought, this is the formula for perpetual third place.

ABC needed to bring a bull into the proverbial China Shop. In third place there is little room for failure. So: here comes velvety voiced squeaky clean metrosexual George Stephanopoulos, a yummy treat for the 20 and 30something Manolo Blahnik set, but, like Phil Donahue, not very popular with men.

But Young Stephanopoulos is smart and certainly charming in a Conte Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier kind of way, not unlike Daniel Patrick Moynihan and H. Carl McCall a generation or two previous -- smart attractive men with a bold future ahead, and all that. Soon Cokie and Sam were exiting stage center, George Will's air time was curtailed, and that creepy looking reptilian Fareed Zakaria was given a short segment as counterpoint to Young Stephanopoulos.

So George is alone in an ideal situation with utmost control on Sunday Morning. Yet he is still in third. George Stephanopoulos is behing Bob Schieffer, and, to be frank here, to get your ass kicked by Bob Schieffer is quite a feat. Why is this thus?

The answer is so simple it is plainly in the face of the suits, but because of their training they can not and will not see it. The answer is idealistic rather than the pragmatic and bottom line orientation of the typical ABC News suit: George Steph can not be accepted as a "Wise Man," at least not for a while, because he is too protean, too untrustworty, too "European" in character. Stephanopoulos may indeed be Conte Baldassare Castiglione's ideal courtier, able to charm Clinton and Taki Theodocrapolos as well as the buxom Bebe Newirth, but the American viewer will not tune in to a Wise Man lacking in gravitas and solid character.

If we were an ancient culture like, say, France, George Stephanopoulos would be accepted as an eminent talking head and intellectual, he might even be President. France is a pragmatic and ancient culture: they go in for the realities of ambition and Machiavelli; we, however, are different: America is a young nation of idealists. Naked ambition on a Stephanopoulan scale is messy, and counteractive to building public trust, i.e. ratings.

We are America, not France, and, not to sound too much like Chris Matthews, a man who has his finger on the pulse of America, we like straightforward and natural people with the gravitas of conviction and loyalty. George Stephanopoulos has exhibited little or none of that in his adult life.

George Stephanopoulos may one day pay his dues and become a man of gravitas like Tim Russert (think: Moynihan, Buffallo, NY rustic principles, family man, Roman Catholic, "working class") or Chris Matthews (Peace Corps in Africa, behind the scenes opeator for Tip O'Neill, practicing Catholic, "working class", centrist, appalled by Clinton's moral failings, family man). But to paraphrase Rose Tremain's glorious refrain in Restoration for her mercurial character Sir Merivel, "(George Stephaopoulos) is not yet the man he will become." And, whe he finally does complete that process, what an interesting person -- in politics and as a world commentator -- will be the man in full George Stephanopoulos.

Until then we get to see George in a spiffy new studio (why do network suits always construct elaborate new studios when a show is tanking? What is that about? Remember Bryant Gumbell's new studio? And Dianne Sawyer's at the beginning of her GMA run?) pressing buttoons and getting no public trust.

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