Sundays With George

It appears likely that George Stephanopoulos will be the new host—or co-host—of ABC's Sunday morning Washington show, now called This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. The press is full of blind-sourced stories, and if you've watched the show lately, it's been hard to miss Stephanopoulos in the on-deck circle, swinging away. Two weeks ago, it was effectively This Week Without Sam and Cokie, as the former Clinton aide hosted solo, in a test drive.

For most people, the ascension of George, if it happens, will not be a major development. To regular humans, the Sunday shows are a mysterious, apparently pointless ritual, conducted in a code known only to insiders and armchair policy junkies for whom C-SPAN is a guilty pleasure. Last Sunday, Cokie Roberts asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: "There's an article in today's Los Angeles Times saying that the decisions about what the United States does in the Middle East have reached quote, 'Nose-bleed levels,' quoting a—a senior State Department official about what to do next, that it cannot be gradual confidence-building and then a political process, it has to be security and political process all at once. How do you do that?" Powell not only understood, but answered in the same exotic argot.

There's a limited audience for this stuff. Which is why, although they draw larger audiences than the cable chat shows, the Sunday shows are not exactly a fixture in most American households. While This Week pulls in about 3 million viewers, NBC's fictional take on Stephanopoulos's previous career—The West Wing—has been known to top 20 million.

Ponder these numbers for a second, and you can come up with a dark reason why ABC would turn to Stephanopoulos for its Sunday show, which is consistently trampled in the ratings by Tim Russert's Meet the Press on NBC. George is a virtual movie star, so maybe if we give the show to him, a movie star-size audience will start showing up, and we'll leave Russert in the dust.

To cynics, this is exactly what's wrong with Stephanopoulos moving up at This Week. They'll say that in making this novice journalist, this fixture of the gossip columns, the host of David Brinkley's venerable old show, ABC is writing another chapter in journalism's surrender to celebrity and entertainment.

But this ignores the real significance, and value, of Stephanopoulos taking over This Week. There are a lot of reasons why people who care about the quality of our political media should be happy at the prospect of Stephanopoulos hosting one of the leading Sunday shows:

1. It's An Awful Show. This Week used to be a sharp, vital program, but in the last few years it's lost its way. There was a time when the regulars' strange mix of personas—Sam the Braying Clod, George (Will) the Contemptuous Snoot, Cokie the Den Mother—had an eccentric dynamism. No more. The show's chemistry is gone, and it's downright painful to watch.

2. He's Not Bill O'Reilly. An obvious way out for ABC, which is having trouble across its programming, would have been to emulate Fox, the rising star among networks. Name a big conservative pundit, a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O'Reilly, as the new host of This Week, and watch the ideologically faithful show up in droves, and the controversy draw headlines. There's a place for ideology on TV, but to bring it to This Week would be to destroy the spirit of the Sunday shows, which are inherently centrist. Lefties and righties love ridiculing the old Washington establishment, but it's still there, holding the system together, and it lives on in these shows. Stephanopoulos is nothing if not a young establishmentarian, and perfect for this gig.

3. He's Honest. By Washington standards, anyway. Some say that the Stephanopoulos memoir, with its scorching take on Bill Clinton, was mere careerism, and its author just another rat jumping ship on his boss. But think of how much easier it would have been for him to excuse or defend Clinton, and to reap the considerable rewards of such loyalty, as most Clinton aides have done. The political media are full of team-playing hacks, but thoughtful doubters are rare.

4. He's Nice. Manners, a certain old-fashioned decorum, are what set the Sunday shows apart from the scream-fests. In today's brutish media world, it makes them kind of radical. Stephanopolous is famously nice, his TV mien so gentle it's compelling. In a priceless New York magazine piece in February, Michael Wolff wrote that once, when he inadvertently stood up Stephanopoulos for lunch, Stephanopoulos spent the time helping the restaurant's hatcheck hang coats.

5. He's Tim Russert. The best thing in political television today is a former aide to a centrist Democratic politician, the product of a very particular kind of ethnic-religious childhood, who later joined the media and went on to host a Sunday show: Russert. Switch the politician (Moynihan to Clinton) and the ethnic background (Irish Catholic to Greek Orthodox), and you've got Stephanopoulos. If one Tim Russert is this good, why not two?

6. He's Not Tim Russert. The brilliance of Meet the Press is Russert's prosecutorial interview style, which combines on-screen textual evidence (often the words of the guests, thrown back at them) with fierce, tightly focused questioning. Stephanopoulos's long suit is not confrontation, but subtle analysis of complex political landscapes. If his show is built around his personality, as Russert's is, Stephanopoulos would preside over a starkly different program. Imagine the jockeying for guests. Imagine the ratings war: Tim against George, raging bull versus warm puppy. Imagine the fun.