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Parting with the past

Since beginning his second life as a journalist, he has been derided as a "liberal shill" a "Democratic hatchet man" and "a proud member of (President Clinton's) bimbo-battling brigade."

But ask newly named ABC This Week host George Stephanopoulos if the name-calling ever gets to him, and he'll flash his trademark boyish smile and let you in on a little secret.

"Sure, there's been a little dust-up . . . (and) maybe I have a thick skin from my former life, but it's been a little more tempered than I expected," said the former Clinton aide, who became an analyst for ABC News in 1997. "In part, perhaps, because the path I've taken is so well traveled."

Stephanopoulos faced reporters here last week in a long line of political aides-turned-political journalists, including NBC's Tim Russert (New York Democratic governor Mario Cuomo), ABC's Diane Sawyer (President Richard Nixon), MSNBC's Chris Matthews (President Jimmy Carter), Fox's Tony Snow (the first President Bush) and U.S. News and World Report's David Gergen (presidents Reagan, Nixon, Ford and Clinton).

On Sept. 15, he'll complete a long evolution from partisan political figure to professional news hound, taking over as anchor of This Week, network TV's No. 2 Sunday morning political show, replacing Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts in a well-publicized changing of the guard.

And he stands accused of what may be the darkest sin in modern-day broadcasting: acting like a liberal.

Conservatives such as Snow (who often fills in for Rush Limbaugh on his talk show) may flaunt their political views on-screen, but that didn't stop right-wing activists from protesting loudly when news leaked earlier this year that ABC was positioning Stephanopoulos to take over their political show.

"Some analysts still completely miss why Republicans see Stephanopoulos as a very recent, and very virulent, partisan enemy," conservative columnist L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center wrote in May. "Doesn't anybody remember the standard Clinton White House analysis, with Dick Morris representing Opportunistic Centrism while Stephanopoulos held the fort for Ted Kennedy Liberalism?"

For his part, Stephanopoulos maintains he has studiously avoided partisanship since becoming a full-time reporter for ABC a few years ago. During a news conference, he refused to discuss his current political views _ saying they will never surface in his new role as anchor of This Week.

"Well, it's not my job to express my opinions," Stephanopoulos said . "I obviously have my private views and will continue to have them. But I don't think you'll ever know what they are on air. . . . I'm committed to that."

But, beyond the questions about his objectivity, Stephanopoulos' coy attempts to appear objective raise another issue: Is this what conservatives wanted all along?

Certainly, it seems like an effective strategy for them: Pile up so much criticism on Stephanopoulos that the pressure to appear fair and objective keeps him from articulating any opinions. Even as you complain about his partisanship, you wind up limiting it.

Citing Meet the Press host Tim Russert as a former politico who worked hard to shed his partisan image, Stephanopoulos maintained he would police himself tougher than any conservative watchdogs might.

"Do I have to . . . be scrupulous about being fair (and) being equally challenging to the other side, making sure there is an equal distribution of guests and that every side is being heard?" he asked. "Sure. I think it's fair for partisans of whatever side to keep a close watch on me. But in the end, I have to make sure I'm doing it right for myself."

For a clue to the shape of the post-Stephanopoulos This Week, one need only have watched him filling in for Donaldson in June. Then, producers diversified the show's pool of round-table discussion panelists by adding guests such as controversial author Michael Eric Dyson, Columbia University Law School professor Patricia Williams and syndicated columnist newspaper Cynthia Tucker.

Although the additions helped the show's ideological and ethnic diversity _ Dyson, Williams and Tucker are African-Americans _ the panelists had trouble matching the debating skills of conservative regular George Will, who has 20 years' experience on the show and a regular commentary spot (Williams, in particular, looked like a deer caught in very large headlights).

ABC executives said they expected to maintain that diversity once Stephanopoulos takes over This Week, keeping one of their four round-table seats open for a rotating series of panelists.

"With different view points . . . more diversity . . . it will just be a richer, stronger program," said ABC News president David Westin, shrugging off any criticism of his new anchor's partisan past. "The great thing about this business is, it's very democratic. People will turn on the TV set and they will judge for themselves."

Still, the question remains: What's so bad about being a liberal on a political talk show?

MSNBC host Phil Donahue has an idea why there are so few unabashedly liberal voices in mainstream political talk show circles.

It's about the money, stupid.

"Conservatives criticize government, and liberals criticize business," said the 66-year-old broadcaster, whose new talk show debuted July 15 on MSNBC. In his days as a supporter of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, he and Nader accused corporate America of neutering the country's political parties, hijacking the presidential process and buying the approval of regulatory agencies.

Those ideas weren't exactly advertiser friendly.

"When you criticize business, you make them very nervous," he added. "(That's) a nervousness that doesn't (pertain) to conservative commentators."

Perhaps that explains why Donahue's new show, which has started out as a confusing mishmash of politically oriented verbal fistfights and shout-it-out political commentary, didn't do much to counter the traditional news/talk focus.

Instead, Donahue seemed to be trying to beat Fox News Channel at its own game _ turning a three-way debate on war with Iraq into a shouting match so intense viewers could barely understand anyone.

Later, he shouted at conservative commentator (and onetime Nixon aide) Pat Buchanan during an amped-up, simplified argument over removing the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. The exchange doubled as a handy plug for Buchanan's new midday show on MSNBC (who says liberals can't play the corporate game?)

Hemmed in by his new show's lack of an audience and close-quarters studio, Donahue almost seemed to be bursting out of his skin on-screen _ itching to make points against war with Iraq and for religious tolerance, but hard-pressed to squeeze those complex ideas into the bite-size, incendiary nuggets that conservative commentators so easily provide.

This, said Stephanopoulos, is a hazard liberals can face in trying to bring their views to a medium as excitement-dependent as television.

"There's something to the idea that liberals by their nature _ and James Carville is a good exception _ tend to be a little more moderate thinking, a little less black and white," he said. "It's something, in my old life, we talked about a lot."

Perhaps. But it seems more likely that corporate and political pressures have combined to moderate the liberal voice in political talk, leaving those who thirst for aggressively left-wing political debate still searching for an outlet.