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09.13.09

George Catches Up

The supremely well-connected ABC newsman George Stephanopoulos on closing the Sunday ratings gap, his Clinton ties, the health-care battle—and whether he really does have a daily conference call with Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and James Carville.

After seven years at the helm of ABC’s Sunday show, the host of This Week With George Stephanopoulos is within striking distance of NBC’s Meet the Press. For much of the past year—especially since the untimely death of MTP moderator Tim Russert and the inauguration of President Barack Obama—Stephanopoulos has been closing the ratings gap with Russert’s replacement, David Gregory.

The 48-year-old former Democratic Party operative—who became one of Bill Clinton’s top aides after serving as House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt’s floor manager—reinvented himself as a television journalist in the late 1990s, after writing All Too Human, a bestselling tell-all about his Clinton White House adventures. The Clintons and their loyalists were enraged by the book and by Stephanopoulos’ less than supportive Monica Lewinsky commentary on ABC. The aide and his ex-bosses have since made amends, but some of the loyalists cling to the sour nickname “George Step-on-top-of-us.”

“I talk to Carville, I talk to Rahm, I talk to Paul, but we never have been on a conference call once in our lives. Ever.”

Today Stephanopoulos, who also is ABC’s chief Washington correspondent, is supremely well-connected in the Obama White House. One of his closest friends is Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a comrade in arms from the Clinton days. Stephanopoulos dished to The Daily Beast about his reporting advantage over lifelong journalists, his tumultuous relationship with Bill and Hill, the future of the GOP, and reports that he participates in a daily phone call with Emanuel, Paul Begala, and James Carville.

So you now have been in the journalism business for what, a dozen years?

I started in 1997.

You obviously have removed any and all skepticism about whether a partisan political operative such as yourself can become a sterling journalist.

Well, it was an evolution, not a revolution. I wasn’t certain what I was going to do when I left the White House. In fact, when I left I was deliberately doing a lot of different things. In addition to coming to ABC as a commentator, I was teaching at Columbia, working on my book, doing writing for Newsweek, because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. A couple years in, I did really decide that I wanted to plunge full-time into another and different career, which was journalism at ABC, which is something I’m incredibly grateful for. It really gave me the opportunity to learn the craft.

Your relationship with the Clintons has been through many different phases, and it was no secret that they weren’t happy about your book. How is it now?

Very good. Actually I flew back from Cairo with Secretary of State Clinton. I did an interview with her there [in June, when President Obama delivered his speech to the Muslim world]. I haven’t spoken to President Clinton in a while, but I’m hoping to have him on the show soon.

There’s been some talk, recently denied, that the State Department is getting old for Hillary and she’s considering perhaps running for Senate again, and there are also New York governor rumors in the mix. What do you think the likelihood of that is?

Who knows? It doesn’t seem likely to me, and it seems she’s pretty engaged as secretary of State. That’s certainly been my impression covering her and when I’ve spoken with her, so I’d be surprised. But we’ll see.

When you worked in the Clinton White House, you suffered from bouts of depression, you broke out in hives, you had some very tough moments. Is journalism more fun?

I did write about that, that’s true, but that’s only one part of the experience. You know, working in the White House is an incredible privilege and something I wouldn’t trade for a second. But journalism is incredibly meaningful to me, and I think it’s part of making a difference as well. I don’t know if it’s fun. What I like about journalism is I get to work on the same issues and engage them the same—just from a different perspective—and clearly I have a lot more independence. There are times when working in the White House was more fun; there are times when journalism is more fun. I guess that’s not the only measure I apply to work.

You went on The O’Reilly Factor and you didn’t flinch and you didn’t correct him when he said, “I’m an independent and you’re a Democrat.”

I don’t self-identify. I didn’t think it was worth getting into. I’m not like some journalists who don’t vote at all, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think I’ve proven that I can separate my personal opinion, my personal feelings, from my professional work. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to take on that fight at that moment, on live television.

I guess you learn how to pick your shots. Speaking of which, how do you think the Obama White House has been doing compared to the White House you’re most familiar with? Arguably you made some rookie mistakes in the Clinton White House. Have they avoided some of those?

I think they went to school on some of the mistakes that we made early on. That’s no secret.

Indeed, some of the people in the Obama White House, like Rahm Emanuel, were involved in the Clinton White House mistakes.

Right. Arguably on the health-care battle, I think the president really repositioned the debate on Wednesday night. I think you can even argue that they might have gone too far, been too distant from the legislative battle early on. But there’s no question they did [learn from the Clinton experience]. It’s also a very, very different time, and they have very different challenges. Fighting two wars in your first six months of office, and trying to help your country recover from a financial collapse—that’s very different from the situation we faced in 1993. There are clearly similarities in the health-care fight, but the context is very different.

Are they also lucky in their opponents? Luckier than you guys were in your opponents?

That could be. Even though the numbers are the same or similar in the House and Senate, I think that they’re benefiting from also having Democrats in Congress who know what it’s like not to be in the majority, and I think that’s a force for cohesiveness. I think they have a more organized grassroots kind of progressive movement behind them than we had in the early ’90s.

Back then, the Republicans also seemed to have a cohesive strategy that was planned and executed by Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour, and people like that.

I think that was part of it, but also now the Republican Party is recovering, is trying to rebuild itself, coming out of the last couple of elections. The polls show they’re at a historic low in party I.D. I think they’ve in some ways found their voice on health care, but then things happen like what happened Wednesday night and they get defined by their most extreme voices.

The Joe Wilson moment?

Right.

So do you think there’s a slight possibility, a strong possibility, or a medium possibility that the Republicans could get back the majority in the House or the Senate next year?

[Political analyst] Charlie Cooke last week predicted the possibility of a wave election. I think it’s too early. You have to know where the economy is going to be next year, you have to see what happens with both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. There are too many X-factors to know a year and two months out.

You’ve had some pretty rare and privileged experiences both in the legislative and executive branches. How much of an advantage is that for you?

My experience in Congress, in the House, in presidential campaigns, in the White House, I hope it’s one of the things that sets me apart on Sunday morning and in my day-to-day work—that people know that I’ve been there, that I understand the issues, that I understand the politics, that I’ve lived it. Not just talked about it.

And, at the moment I think you’re the only person that I can think of in a major television news organization who has that kind of experience in front of the camera.

Diane Sawyer worked in the White House.

She was a junior press aide and went with Richard Nixon to San Clemente after he resigned. Tim Russert had the most parallel kind of experience, but he stopped at Governor Cuomo. I think you’re the guy particularly now that Tim is gone. Obviously that gives you a special insight into the goings on behind the scenes—the fact that you’re close friends with Rahm and have known him of years, and you presumably still have your daily conference call?

The conference call is a myth! It’s a total myth. It’s a myth! It’s not true.

So you don’t talk to James Carville, Paul Begala, and Rahm every day?

I talk to Carville, I talk to Rahm, I talk to Paul, but we never have been on a conference call once in our lives. Ever.

So do you talk to Rahm every day?

It would be malpractice of me as the chief Washington correspondent of ABC News not to try to talk to the White House chief of staff as much as possible. I’m also friends with him.

You mentioned Diane. How is the impending changing of the guard affecting the atmosphere over at ABC News, and how do you think that’ll affect things in the future, when Diane takes over as anchor from Charlie Gibson in January?

We’ll see. Charlie seems very at peace with his decision, and he’s among the most generous colleagues, if not the most generous person, I’ve ever worked with professionally, and he’s definitely going to be missed. But Diane is made for this job. She’s going to do an incredible job and we’ve already talked about how it’s all going to work going forward. And we’ve worked so closely and so well together for so many years as well, so from my perspective, I think it’s going to be very smooth transition.

I was watching Good Morning America, and I saw Barbara Walters was on to tout her interview with LaToya Jackson, and she started out by congratulating Diane and saying, “It’s been such a loo-oo-ong wait!”

[Sustained laughter.] Diane has had such a stellar career, but I think she’s relishing the opportunity to try something new. My guess is it’s going to be pretty seamless.

You’ve beat Meet the Press twice that I know of. The first time was when you had Obama on the Sunday before he was inaugurated and the second time, in August, was powered by TV stars Michelle Malkin and Alan Greenspan.

The dynamic duo [Laughs]. There were a couple of other times when we beat them maybe in the demo [25- to 54-year-olds], but the important thing, what we’re focused on, is that every week this year, we’ve closed the gap.

It’s been, what, 27 weeks straight of gap-closing?

There may have been one where we didn’t and missed it by a little bit, but it’s what has gratified me the most, and we’re going to keep trying to do that. Meet the Press is a strong brand, still the longest continuous show on television. So we know what we’re up against.

How intense are the booking wars?

It’s constant, you know, you never stop working it. That’s the simple answer. Now it’s also true that the administration tends to work in a rotation. A big part of the job is getting the right people at the right time, and I think for the week-to-week it’s really a matter of timing and getting the people who mattered that week. They’re in this kind of fractured, fragmented media universe. There are a lot of different outlets for politicians and policymakers. What we have to do is make sure we take the interviews to a higher and deeper level. We have the luxury of more time, and because there’s so many different outlets, there’s very few “gets” that are game changers. The president is one of them.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.