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By George

Clinton survivor George Stephanopoulos, the former Boy Wonder with the great hair, is now a Legitimate News Guy (with great hair). And he may be ABC's next big star.

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Disney character: ABC News plush toy Stephanopoulos  

Many people of my acquaintance have claimed to know -- on, as far as I can tell, no factual basis at all -- that George Stephanopoulos is gay.

Of course, he was, until he got married late last year, a good-looking fortyish single man in Manhattan. He's a soft-spoken non-alpha male. He has really great hair. Obviously, too, his relationship with the president was intense -- but then they broke up and now no longer speak. He wrote a political memoir that is unique in the genre, because fundamentally it's about his own emotional response to being as close as he was to the center of power (which has a lot to do with why he fell out of love with the president).

And then there's the way he looks at you: He listens in a manner that most self-absorbed A-list famous people never do (most non-A-list people don't listen like this, either) -- it can seem like he's coming on to you (of course, women likely think this, too).

But most of all, I think the gay thing is used to explain why he doesn't act like we might assume he should. He's on his best behavior -- it is exquisitely good behavior -- because he may not want us to see who he really is.

After all, he isn't just your average A-lister and rising star at ABC News -- a new and animated face among the deadwood there. He's a leading media savant of the time. Can we begin to fathom what force pulls him toward the limelight -- and with what equal force, and determined deftness, he holds the light? This is no ordinary talent for self-promotion. He was, behind only Bill and Hillary (and perhaps Monica), the face of the Clinton administration. The West Wing is about nothing as much as it is about George Stephanopoulos (Rob Lowe is the alter ego, but really every staff member is a version of George). His is the only successful memoir (so far) of the Clinton White House. He is the hero, or the model for the hero, of the other big book about Clinton, the novel Primary Colors.

And yet, and almost everyone makes the observation, he is . . . nice. Decorous. Reasonable, amusing, intelligent, modest, deferential. Perfect. (One day when we were scheduled to have lunch, I inadvertently stood him up, and he spent the time waiting for me -- I never showed -- helping the hat check hang up coats.) It's like a science-fiction tale. The celebrity without vanity. Many media people were not just confounded but even a little annoyed when he got married to actress (and author of The WASP Cookbook) Alexandra Wentworth. If he's not gay, then there has to be another secret to explain George.

He could, of course, just be in heavy-compensation mode -- instead of compensating for his sexuality, he could be compensating for his celebrity. His conceit is to be an ordinary fellow. (Not just ordinary -- sensitive.)

He's something like the heir to a great fortune who has decided to make it on his own. My thesis, which I present to George in his not-very-impressive, standard-issue office at ABC (there are boxes everywhere), is that he's the only presidential assistant in modern history who appears to have built a successful, separate post-White House career, to have done more than just live off a depreciating reputation, to have a bona fide second act.

He says that can't be true and mentally rummages through a 40-year roster of presidential assistants (in addition to the boxes, presidential memoirs and histories are strewn around his office).

He offers Pierre Salinger as the example of a close presidential aide who has had a post-White House career (and confides that Salinger lobbied him to be ambassador to France), but I argue that Salinger was hardly successful (both his television career and political career petered out) and always in the Kennedy shadow. Ultimately, we settle on William Safire as the most successful presidential staffer, with a nod to Bill Moyers too. But it isn't really the same. They were lesser lights.

And George has not just parlayed well. In some sense, he's begun again, remade himself -- learned something new. He's rebranded.

"He was willing to start as a cub reporter," says David Westin, the president of ABC News. Now, that is only partly true. You don't actually start as a cub reporter with a network position. (He's a talking head on the roundtable This Week, he regularly appears on Good Morning America, and he's a correspondent for World News Tonight.)

And yet there was something weirdly naked about George when he began reporting for ABC. It was almost a George Plimpton routine of a guy doing a job he had the heart to do but no qualifications for. He was a curiosity. There was even the sense that ABC was trying to make him into a mascot (and perhaps it has). There is something of a bashful, doe-eyed Disney character about him.

But now, several years into this gig, he may be the most intriguing person on network news. The contrast between Sam and Cokie and young George can be riveting. Sam and Cokie do the mannequin thing, the Queen Elizabeth-Prince Philip act (almost every network newsperson has that royal affectation), while George is huffing and puffing and dishing information and radiating intensity and being clearly all work and no play. George knows: "The game on television as well as in the White House," he says as we sit in his office, "is to reduce that emotional distance." (When he talks about the White House, he makes it seem like just another doing-well, upwardly mobile place to work.)

His style is to demystify and deconstruct (for at least twenty minutes after the Supreme Court decision on the Florida election, George was the only person on television who had any idea what the decision meant) instead of the usual television thing, which is to inflate, hype, harrumph. He's not stentorian; he can't do the television tone.

The bashfulness works. He's trustworthy -- in a plush-toy sort of way.

With a little critical interpretation, you can see in him, even, a Cronkite thing. He is unexpectedly very basic. Very . . . straight. Uncle George. Well, Cousin George.

There were a few people (although, I should note, not too many) who, when George took the job at ABC, found it disturbing that a political professional could become a journalist (Diane Sawyer, also at ABC, was a lower-level Nixon flack). But these are questionable assumptions: Was George ever all that dedicated to politics (indeed, was George, only in his early thirties at the White House, ever all that professional?), and are network talking heads journalists?

George is, perhaps as much as anyone has ever been, a mediaist. What politicians do is work the media; what media people do is work the media. Same process. Possibly even the same goals. "Among the things that the White House does," George points out, "is produce a daily television show, manage a news cycle."

The move from politics into media has a certain similarity to the move, in another era, from politics into law firms. Ted Sorenson goes to Paul, Weiss; Nixon goes to Mudge, Rose; George Stephanopoulos, because he has a canny appreciation of the nuances of power as well as great teeth, goes to ABC. "But the people who go to law firms now also go on television," he says, just a little defensively.

Of course, George is also a careerist. (He was a Rhodes scholar who went to work for Dukakis and Gephardt before managing the Clinton campaign and then, at 31, became White House press secretary -- a job he was fired from -- and after that, senior adviser to the president; then he taught at Columbia University, wrote his memoir, and joined ABC). He realized what many people seem to have forgotten in these deeply partisan times: that the White House is not just about political fratricide but can also be about career enhancement. (I suggest to my ambitious, soon-to-go-to-college daughter that she could do worse than to study George's book, which offers all kinds of canny career tips.)

This could be the shameful secret he has carried: He's more yuppie than politico. "I had to work after the White House. I had to keep going. I had to be in an office. I had to be part of something. I had to do something other than, or in addition to, making a boatload of money. I had to keep going," he explains.

He's a cipher in that respect. He is able to start over without too much baggage.

Now, this could be, anti-George people (there must be some) might argue, because he doesn't entirely engage. George, for all his intensity, is also an observer; there's something positively disassociated about him, it sometimes seems. Or it could be because he engages too much -- he's one of those overcommitted, 24/7, nineties types, who, having burned out (he went into therapy and onto Zoloft when he was working at the White House), has to cut his emotional ties and start all over again.

He's ultraidentified with the Clinton administration and yet -- partly because he has the ability to look at Bill with a cold eye, and perhaps partly because of his own well-expressed woundedness (he's still in therapy) -- comes out clean, smelling like a rose, in fact. Nobody else -- Carville et al. -- has been able to escape the Clinton odor entirely.

And not only is George clean, but he's risen to Objective Journalist and almost statesmanly status, complete with his premature Cronkitean vibe.

It's nice work if you can get it.

One day soon, most everyone in the network-news business who has a big-time reputation (a reputation that comes from being on the air when there were only three networks and everybody in the country saw you) is going to retire or drop dead.

George, who admits he still doesn't really know how to read a TelePrompTer -- he stumbles and he's shifty-eyed -- may be one of the few guys left in TV news with some kind of major, high-recognition, national reputation.

He works like crazy, too. (TV people seem surprised that he makes phone calls, cultivates sources, finds out stuff.) Like every overachiever, he's worried, I'll bet, about being exposed as a fraud. He's always "insanely prepared," in one colleague's description, no doubt because he's afraid of someone noticing he's not a real journalist (which is, as it happens, the operative fear of almost every television journalist).

Plus there's his modesty shtick -- which seems to fit not only a confusing world but the diminished power of network news.

When you ask them at ABC "How big can George get?" you can practically hear hearts flutter. Getting George may be one of the smarter things that's been done at ABC. It often seems, in fact, that ABC, more and more the also-ran network, may be holding George back -- ABC has no cable news outlet, and George is obviously a guy made for getting less sleep and working multiple channels.

No matter. George's career will continue to unfold in some kind of canny, self-doubting, darling fashion. And he'll get very big. And we'll all love him still.

Even if he isn't gay.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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