NEW YORK — George Stephanopoulos once occupied one of the most powerful posts in the White House. As a trusted adviser to President Bill Clinton, the political whiz kid worked right next to the Oval Office and was a key figure in every major policy discussion.
Starting this morning, the 48-year-old will take on a very different assignment. Seated next to co-host Robin Roberts, Stephanopoulos will work behind the anchor desk at ABC's "Good Morning America," charged with delivering both the serious-minded news and frothier fare that make up the morning television mix.
It's an unexpected trajectory for a Rhodes scholar who studied political theology at Oxford — one that even he says he couldn't have predicted. Stephanopoulos' decision to leave his Sunday talk show, "This Week," where he interviews presidents and foreign leaders, for the less erudite environs of morning television puzzles some of his longtime colleagues. But the move shows that Stephanopoulos has a firm grasp of the realpolitik of network television: that dollars rule.
"GMA" may lag behind NBC's powerhouse "Today" (which marks its 14th year in first place Friday), but the show is still the top revenue generator for the news division. And when network executives ask you to take over for a superstar like Diane Sawyer, it's difficult to turn them down — especially if you're as driven as Stephanopoulos, who colleagues say is savvy about diversifying his experience in order to enhance his broadcasting skills.
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"I don't think I would have guessed this, but I don't think anybody who worked with him would have been surprised by anything he put his mind to," said former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a longtime friend. "George was always going to be big."
It remains to be seen whether the boyish political aide who was a media star during the Clinton years will be embraced by "GMA's" audience — and whether he'll take to the work as keenly as he did moderating a weekly political round table.
Stephanopoulos acknowledged he had some ambivalence about the post, though he said it was not as serious as was reported in the lead-up to his appointment. "I did have some questions, and part of it was to make sure that the fit was right, that it was something I could do and succeed at and it was something where my strengths would help the program," he said an interview Thursday.
Stephanopoulos was reassured, he said, after ABC News President David Westin described his desire to see the show take on a newsier edge.
Westin said he began having conversations with the show's team about pursing a new focus months ago. That framework shaped his search for a new anchor. The news president added that he's confident that Stephanopoulos will be deft enough to handle the program's lighter features, which include celebrity interviews and cooking segments.
"I know who George is, I know how warm he is, I know how versatile he is, I know how wide his range is," Westin said.
"But I also want to move this program gently in a more substantive direction."