All anyone ever wants to talk to George Stephanopoulos about is his schedule. At dinners. At parties. In elevator rides up to the top of One World Trade Center, still under construction, for a segment in a recent broadcast. “That is the one definite truth I can conclude from doing this two and a half years,” he says later.
“This” is Good Morning America, which last month scored a historic ratings victory when it ended Today’s sixteen-year, 852-week streak. For co-anchor Stephanopoulos, the win came with an asterisk: Maybe it happened because Matt Lauer was on vacation; maybe it was a fluke. But then, two weeks later, GMA came out on top again. “I’ve gotta say, for me personally, the second week was much more gratifying. It made it real.”
The latest triumphant numbers had just come in when, in a bit of symbolism that was as inescapable as it was unintended, Stephanopoulos and I rode two hoist elevators, then climbed four ladders up to the top of the city’s most conspicuous tower, a few hours before the steel beams were raised that would make it the tallest building in New York City (he left me on the 90th floor). “It is so worth it once you get up here,” he told GMA viewers. “Just beautiful.” The only thing missing was a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner.
Almost more unimaginable than a morning-show polarity shift is the role played in it by Stephanopoulos—a buttoned-down Rhodes scholar, a Greek Orthodox priest’s son who also considered the priesthood, a former presidential counselor burned into cultural memory as the soft-spoken boy wonder in The War Room. His father had wanted him to be a lawyer, only giving up on the idea with Bill Clinton’s election: “I think winning a presidential campaign, going to the White House, that counts.”
When Stephanopoulos first went into television, it was strictly in the realm of politics and policy, as ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent and, later, host of This Week. Giving up that show in late 2009 for GMA, where the mix can include landscaping tips and interviews with Desperate Housewives, was something altogether different. Could he have foreseen this career turn? “What do you think?” He laughs. “No, no. Definitely not.
“I’ve had to stretch in some ways, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes not,” says the now-51-year-old broadcaster. Used to preparing for everything he does, he has had to work on his spontaneity. “Just reacting as a human being to whatever is presented to you, that is the most important thing you can do.”
“I enjoy the variety,” he says. Still, he tends to do GMA’s more serious stuff—after One World Trade, it was back to the studio to interview Dan Rather, while “lifestyle anchor” Lara Spencer handled The Avengers. And GMA is only part of what he calls “my whole portfolio at ABC”: He remains chief political correspondent, is backup anchor on World News Tonight, anchors special reports, and interviews world figures of varying significance (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bono). Since December, he’s been back hosting This Week and spends half his time on it. Thus his crazy schedule.
Last night, he co-anchored Obama’s speech in Afghanistan and went to bed at 9:40 p.m. Today, he woke up at 2:24 a.m., and arrived at the studio by 3:45. To safeguard his slumber, he sleeps witha white-noise machine. He does twenty minutes of meditation when he wakes up—“It actually works … it’s like extra sleep”—and again in the middle of the day. He also goes through a pot of coffee every morning but has cut back his afternoon intake to a single small espresso.
How did his wife, the comic actress Alexandra Wentworth, with whom he has two young daughters, react when he told her he wanted to return to working Sundays? “She was very encouraging,” he says, “because she knows I love it.” On his 49th birthday, she surprised him on-camera, in-studio, with a burlesque-y crawl; he grinned uncomfortably. She’s also an unabashed, no-ten-second-delay font of tweets. “You probably know more about them than I do,” Stephanopoulos says. “The truth is, I don’t read my wife’s tweets. But there’s no question I’ll find out about them.”
One recent disclosure outed her husband’s thing for beauty products. “What can I possibly say to that?” Stephanopoulos asks, shaking his head semi-faux-beleagueredly. “I do like a good body scrub, it’s true.” On the day of GMA’s first ratings victory, @AliEWentworth had this to share: “Me to husband. ‘No! don’t have PMS!!... but we’re having steak dipped in chocolate for dinner’!”