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Geraldo's Last Laugh

Just when Geraldo Rivera scored a $36 million NBC contract and a shot at network legitimacy, he came out as Bill Clinton's passionate prime-time defender, driving his already scornful brethren mad. Does broadcasting's outlaw really want to join the establishment, or is he having too much fun being himself?

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Late last summer, as the titans of New York's insular media world were sharpening their knives for NBC's newest golden boy, Geraldo Rivera threw a party. As the sun set over Buzzard's Bay in Marion, Massachusetts, just off Cape Cod, about a hundred guests gathered on the immaculate green lawn of Seagate, Rivera's postcard-perfect waterfront summer estate. Sipping gin-and-tonics and mingling quietly, the well-heeled men and women, edging toward retirement age, were uniformly fair-haired, deeply tanned, and clad in bright-lime-green-and-pink plaids. Blue-blazered NBC president Bob Wright, who flew in from Nantucket by helicopter and landed on the back lawn, blended right in. The only incongruities in the genteel Wasp setting were a mammoth margarita machine, a live band blaring music from the disco era, and the host himself, the mustachioed Rivera, sporting orange wraparound Ray-Bans and crammed into a pair of conspicuously tight pants.

Rivera and his ebullient, red-headed wife, C.C., ("my Wasp wife," he calls her), had opened their home to raise funds for a $125 million redevelopment project in nearby New Bedford, a depressed port city with a substantial Portuguese population. Later that evening, as we took in the party from the roof of his well-appointed house, Geraldo surveyed the choppy bay to the east and, to the west, a lush, exclusive golf course just across the gravel road. "I'd play," he complained sadly, "if only they'd let me into the club."

It was a typical performance: melodramatic, laced with indignation, a bit comic, and almost poignant, until it became clear that Geraldo had never really considered joining the club at all. Although he has a golf tournament named after him in New Jersey -- where he lives in affluent Rumson with C.C. and their two young daughters -- hitting little white balls bores him stiff. When the pumped-up 55-year-old is not sailing, boxing, or lifting weights, he plays tennis at another club in town. Which raises the question that could just as well apply to his much-speculated-upon career ambitions at NBC News: Does Geraldo Rivera, described by Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg as "one of the very best talk-show impresarios on the planet," really want in? Or does he prize his outsider status as image-defining shtick? Not even Geraldo seems to know for sure.

On one level, the man who virtually invented tabloid television a decade ago with his trashy syndicated Geraldo show seems to be waging a calculated campaign to shed his reputation as "the Rodney Dangerfield of broadcast journalism," in the words of his senior producer, Steve North, and win the acceptance of his pious peers and sneering critics. Donning horn-rimmed glasses and scrutinizing court documents with his "depo-cam" as the host of CNBC's Rivera Live during the O. J. Simpson trial, Rivera showed viewers that he is both a sharp lawyer and a first-rate journalist, scoring exclusives with the Brown and Goldman families and breaking the contents of O.J.'s civil deposition. With its combination of sex, violence, race, and thorny legal issues, the story seemed tailor-made for Rivera. Rivera Live soon became CNBC's top-rated prime-time show, and as the anchor of its prime-time lineup, the show helped bring the once-troubled cable network to wide distribution and huge profits (Rivera Live alone brings in about $10 million a year).

A year later, during the all-Monica-all-the-time cable-ratings wars, Rivera Live has outpaced any offering on CNBC or its sister cable network, MSNBC, including the evening newscast with Brian Williams, the presumptive heir to Tom Brokaw's anchor seat. For well over a million viewers addicted to the finer legal and political points of the Lewinsky scandal, Rivera's nightly dissection of Ken Starr's sex-and-lies inquiry has been appointment television -- the best-produced, newsiest, and most probing talk show on the air. His niche as President Clinton's sole stalwart defender in prime time has distinguished him from the pack. Time and again, Rivera's journalistic instincts -- from seriously pursuing the "right-wing conspiracy" to pointing out the political implications of the racial divide on the scandal -- have proved prescient. In a media sea of scolds and hysterics, Geraldo Rivera has emerged as the voice of reason.


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