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So What Do You Do, George Stephanopoulos, Anchor, This Week

The political advisor-turned-anchor talks the Bush legacy, moving to Newseum, and the county's political climate.

By Steve Krakauer - April 2, 2008
As the 2008 political season heats up, networks turn to their anchors and correspondents with experience covering political races and the political system. They inundate the airwaves with politicians and advisors who can explain the twists and turns of the presidential race. ABC News does one better -- they have an anchor with both kinds of experience.

Every Sunday morning, viewers watch George Stephanopoulos, This Week's anchor. He has been in the national spotlight ever since bursting onto the scene as a 31-year-old member of Bill Clinton's '92 presidential campaign. When he moved away from the White House and onto the airwaves in 1997, he jumped from analyst to anchor in five years. Now, as This Week gets ready to move into the Newseum, D.C.'s newest tourist attraction, the anchor prepares for the excitement of the general election.

Stephanopoulos spoke with following his March 16 broadcast of This Week about the 2008 election, the move to the "amazing home" at the Newseum, and how Michael J. Fox studied to portray him in The American President.

Name: George Stephanopoulos
Position: ABC's chief Washington correspondent, anchor, This Week with George Stephanopoulos
Resume: Senior advisor to the president for policy and strategy in the Clinton administration. Author of All Too Human, a No. 1 New York Times best-seller on President Clinton's first term and the 1992 and 1996 Clinton/Gore campaigns. Joined ABC News in 1997 as a news analyst for This Week. Began anchoring This Week in 2002 and was named chief Washington correspondent in 2005.
Birthdate: Feb. 10, 1961
Hometown: Fall River, MA
Education: Master's degree in theology at Balliol College, Oxford University, England, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in political science
Marital status: Married to Ali Wentworth with two daughters -- Elliott and Harper
First section of the Sunday Times: Travel
Favorite television show: In Treatment, Head Case
Last book read: A Matter of Justice by David Nichols
Guilty pleasure: French fries

The 2008 presidential race, specifically the Democratic race, has dominated television news. What do you think has caused this excitement from the public and this scrutiny and coverage from the press?
People get that this is a big election. It's the first time in more than 80 years now that we've had a sitting president and vice president not on the ticket. [The public knows]that there are big issues at stake, with the war and the economy. And we've got big stars in the race, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to John McCain. It has just been a fascinating journey.

You talk about the big stars, obviously the strong storylines with Clinton and Obama and their historic runs, but even before that, with Huckabee and Romney. Do you think that the star power or the story lines that are coming out is a reflection of the candidates themselves, or is it being brought on by the media?
I think it's embedded in the race. I don't think the media's doing anything to the race or changing anything in the race or finding anything in the race that's not there. I think you've seen a race where you've got record amounts of participation by the public, especially on the Democratic side, records amounts of money raised. You've had twists and turns on both sides. I mean, who would have predicted eight months ago that John McCain would come back from being flat on his back to win the nomination? Who would have thought a year ago that Barack Obama would be in the lead and that Hillary Clinton would come back from three near political death experiences? It's just been a fascinating race. No one believed that Mike Huckabee would be a factor as recently as a year ago, and he upended the race, he played a huge factor. So I just think there was a lot to grab on to.

People care about this race, and I think the coverage reflects that.

It seems like also with the media, you see before New Hampshire with the whole "death of Hillary Clinton's campaign" and then back into the rebirth, the coverage is huge with each of these twists and turns.
That's because people are paying attention. We've been doing a poll at ABC for over a year asking how people are paying attention. We saw late last spring the numbers in the high 60s, which is the kind of intensity you normally see around convention time. We dealt with that a full year and a half before Election Day. Now, by the time we got to the primaries, it was up in the high 70s and low 80s. I mean, people care about this race, and I think the coverage reflects that.

You anchored debates back in August when the field was wide open and just a few had taken place at that point. It was just announced that you will co-moderate a debate coming up next month. Are you surprised that after dozens of debates there is very little debate fatigue and the ratings are consistently through the roof?
When you've got a high intensity, high stakes, and a race with high-wattage candidates, you get numbers. I mean there's just no question about it. And I don't think anyone expected, really, the race to go on this long or that we'd be having a debate in late April, mid-April, that could be decisive, but we are. And the debates have been good television. I think there's important substance there. I think people have learned a lot in these debates.

Later this month [on April 20], you will begin broadcasting This Week from the Newseum, just opening up. I was thinking about an analogy -- that it will essentially be like broadcasting a baseball game every week from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
[Laughs] Exactly.

Are you excited to have This Week originate from what will be the preeminent news museum?
I just can't wait. It's such an amazing home for This Week, and I think it's going to be one of the top destinations in Washington. It's got so much history about the media, about the news business, packed into a single building. And for us, it offers so much. We'll be broadcasting from a studio that overlooks the Capitol. We have the ability to go to a theater that can hold town meetings and other forums and debates. There are so many different venues that we're going to be able to use to punctuate our stories and our interviews. I think it's going to be terrific.

It's an honor for me to be able to do my work in the shadow of the Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You mentioned Washington, D.C. as this tourist destination with all the memorials, all the monuments there. What does the Newseum add to the landscape, and how does it reflect the city?
Well it's the first museum dedicated to the news business and to journalism, and I think it just rounds out all of the other keystones of Washington, D.C. You know they call journalism the fourth estate. You've got the homes of the three branches of government, the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and also now a museum dedicated to the fourth estate. So I think it adds something important, something vital, that is just essential to our democracy.

Have you been over to the space much? What can you say about how it will impact the show? How will the look change?
The main studio is going to be overlooking the Capitol, so people will know where we're situated every Sunday morning. And it's an honor for me to be able to do my work in the shadow of the Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue, right between the White House and the Capitol. The first day I came to D.C., I was a junior in college and I was interning with a congresswoman, and I'll never forget the sight of that Capitol dome up against the sky on an early summer day. Not only what it looked like, but what it meant. It was the tenor of our democracy. And to be able to do my show each week in sight of that, and to be able to show our viewers in a very tangible way where we are and what we're about I think is a great gift.

You've interviewed many key members of the Bush administration, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Condi Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld. In this last year of the Bush administration now, how do you think they will be remembered and what do you think of the media's coverage during the eight years?
That's a great question. The administration is going to be defined, I think, by the events of Sept. 11 and its aftermath and of course the war in Iraq. President Bush and his team believe that in the long run history will bear them out, that the sacrifices we made will turn out to be worth it. Right now that looks like a difficult case to make, but they have seen progress in the last year. I think that's going to be the defining event of the Bush administration, for good or bad. Some will depend on what happens with the economy in the last year, but lots of presidents face ups and down in the economy.

You've been a guest on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, and a lot has been made recently with Saturday Night Live as changing the tenor of the media coverage. What effect do you think these shows have on the media?
You know one of the reasons we started doing "The Sunday Funnies" on This Week several years ago now was because we realized how much news, how much information voters, especially young voters, were getting from these comedy shows. I mean the figures for 18- to 30-year-olds [show] a good 25 percent get their news from these shows. They're an important outlet, and obviously politicians have figured that out. It's now a ritual of political life for candidates to go on all these shows. They have to do those shows the same way they do This Week or Face the Nation or Meet the Press. That's something that's just a fact of life right now, and I think that by giving our viewers on Sunday morning a look into how the comedians have been covering the political news all week, we add to their knowledge.

There's a great race going on in the Democratic race, but there is a ratings race between NBC and ABC when it comes to the evening news or the Sunday morning shows. Do you think about it? Does it inform any decisions you make with the program?
How can you not think about it? Obviously you have to think about it. They don't dictate our content in any way, but we're aware of them and we always try to figure out what we can learn from them, and of course we want to do as well as we can.

Now one of those decisions that may be a ratings thing, or maybe not since it didn't actually help the ratings, was that ABC chose to go with five hours of coverage on Super Tuesday -- far more than the other networks, with two hours for CBS and one hour for NBC. Tell me about that choice, and for you, was it exciting to have those five hours to really go in depth?
I was proud that our bosses would dedicate that kind of time to the coverage, and thrilled to have the chance to be a part of it, no question about it. And I do think it was a huge civic event, but it turned out not to be a decisive night, as we've seen. I think it was the right thing for Disney and ABC to do, to dedicate that kind of time to election coverage that night, and I think we were able to give our viewers a real sense of the moment, and the importance of what was at stake.

To do our job well, that means we have to stand apart from the decision-makers, and ask questions that are on people's minds.

One of those reasons that NBC may have chosen to go with the one hour was because they had the cable outlet. Do you think it hurts ABC News not to have a 24-hour cable outlet? I know there's the Web that changes that a little bit, but do you think it would help to have a 24-hour station like that?
It may. It's hard for me to know; I don't understand the business well enough. I know personally there are days when I'm glad we don't have it, being, you know, tethered to a camera all day, and there are days I'm pining for it. If nothing big is happening, then we can get the time on the network. I don't know the costs and benefits either way.

I was watching This Week this morning, and I know it was brought up that you have experience both in politics and covering it. Do you see the roles as working in opposition or in conjunction with each other?
Well there's always a tension there. What I think we're in the business of doing is trying to inform viewers and educate them and get them all the tools they need to make a decision that will affect politics and government. So we're a part of the broader civic and political process, no question about it. To do our job well, that means we have to stand apart from the decision-makers, and ask questions that are on people's minds so we can get the answers that people need to have.

What do you and ABC News do to handle that separation and get the news to the people, while having the relationship with the politicians?
I think what we try to do throughout this election, and what we always try to convey, is what's at stake for our viewers. We try to provide the best analysis we can to give people a reason to come to ABC and that's our insight, and our reporting and our ability to put the issues in context and let people make up their own minds.

Without reading too much into it, which character do you prefer: Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild in The American President or Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn in The West Wing?
I thought you were going to say Brad Whitford!

See, I was reading up on it a little bit, and that's what I got. I got Lewis Rothschild and Sam Seaborn as the characters [that were based on you].
No, my job was a little bit more of the part that Brad played. [Pause, laughs] Excellent question.

Should we leave it there?
I'll be a politician here; I am flattered by both portrayals, and I hope that Brad and Michael weren't embarrassed to have to portray my character. Actually, I remember that Michael J. Fox, back when I was in the White House, came by and spent a couple of hours there, and he really absorbed an awful lot in a short period of time. My mom said, "Boy, he got your walk down."

Steve Krakauer is associate editor at TVNewser.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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