My week with Jake Tapper

This Week, ABC network’s political TV programme, missed the boat when they chose a new anchor – an anchor who isn’t Jake Tapper

ABC News’ front man George Stephanopoulos eludes me.

He’s moved from This Week with George Stephanopoulos to host Good Morning America, but that’s not what I mean. George Stephanopoulos eludes me in a different sense: no disrespect to himself (or his fans!), but I cannot join in heaping plaudits on him, because I just don’t ‘get’ his show.

This Week screens in New Zealand on TVNZ7, Monday nights, leading into the news at eight. I watch it for my sins, and self-improvement; fare is sparse in this programming desert. I hope for osmosis, and a light bulb moment. But it doesn’t come and, meantime, I wonder if the ‘roundtable’ segment of This Week could be the most boring show on television, certainly the most abstruse.

George Stephanopoulos, eponymous host and round table facilitator, is telegenic, soft-spoken, benign. But something about the roundtable sucks the air out of the room. This is political minutiae: partisan talking heads drone on and on about health care, government bail outs, financial regulation, drowning me in a flotsam of inside knowledge. I need US politics 101, or some sort of hook at least, but this is not entry level stuff. It is onanism, for Washington DC insiders.

It irks me; over a period of months and years, it makes me very pissed off, and I blame this, unfairly, on George.

There are, in fact, two Georges. George II is George Will, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, founding contributor to This Week, conservative foil to George I. Every week, George II sits at the host’s right hand, and spends a lot of time talking gravely down into his chin. I add him to my mental hit list.

Then, George I resigns! He delivers such a sweetly-articulated prepared statement, I at once feel mean and perversely sorry. And, as more weeks pass, and George I is replaced by a rotating chair, I realise things could have been, and might become, so much worse on This Week.

Barbara Walters interviews Scott Brown (they have a ‘shared history’, having featured in the same Cosmopolitan in 1982, though Walters’ clothes stayed on), and someone at TVNZ7 unerringly splices the most emetic bits into a promo, where it keeps repeating, like a dodgy curry. And yet, it proves my point, because nothing else on This Week to date has been half as titillating.

I do not much notice Jake Tapper at first, until he’s been on the show a few weeks. Then he wryly extracts himself one night from a small contretemps with George II, and I prick up my ears: such a thing would have been unheard of with the departed, deferential George. And there’s more subversive fringe entertainment in following weeks. Tapper plays a snippet from The Colbert Report, of no value whatsoever, other than it features himself; afterwards, the camera cuts to George II, whose frank disbelief is not quite quickly enough concealed.

Meanwhile, at the roundtable, there’s a gasp of life: the cross-talk seems incrementally less rehearsed, fractionally less polite. Tapper interviews the two Clintons in consecutive weeks, asks them some of the same questions, gets different answers, and light glimmers in the distance. He introduces fact checking (former Agenda viewers might recall a pale NZ shadow of this, a student political studies project, pre-2008 election). I figure he’s the new host, and decide I would like to find out: who is this man?

Jake Tapper is ABC News’ senior White House correspondent.

Jake Tapper inspires online hate mail, for miscellaneous reasons: he asks the Obama White House hard questions; he was rude to Robert Gibbs and might have dissed the President; he sticks up for rival network Fox News; he is an alleged ‘misogynist’, and worse — a friend of Tucker Carlson’s.

Now, it is true that, in the exchange with Robert Gibbs, Tapper’s fuse burned a tad short. Which might in part be explained by the other Obama link, above: cue indulgent Presidential diversionary tactics.

Tapper dated Monica Lewinsky. He did this because he “figured that behind her initial aggressiveness lurked an easy … bit of no-frills hookup”. Quite so. She wrote her invitation to him pretty plain. What she did not ask for, as Tapper concedes, is to then be laid out bare by him, there on the front page of the Washington City Paper, giving himself a leg-up into career journalism.

“I’ve had my share of dates with Really Important DC Career Women, and I’ve found it’s easy to get the skinny on anything that ever happened to a woman from meiosis ‘til the leak she took before dessert,” he writes. Writing about new technology — caller ID, pagers, email — changing the rules of romance, he offers a prayer for something that might explain some of the women he has dated. Covering the Miss America pageant, he observes that Miss Alabama “moves her body like a girl who hasn’t yet had sex”.

Ick. I emerge from all this feeling somewhat in need of a shower. But good stories all, no doubt about it, if more information than I wanted. And misogyny? Not so much. More like machismo. “I don’t think ambition precisely describes what’s going on with him… ” comments an acquaintance, and people can’t pigeon hole him politically, either. Jake Tapper is a square peg.

The man sure has an ego, Mount Rushmore size. He’s also elusive, brainy, charismatic, complicated, above all interesting. I could compile as long a list of unflattering adjectives, some of which would have been supplied by Tapper himself. But The Colbert Report turns out to have been a nugget of comic gold, not gratuitous puffery. And these two profile pieces make me smile: I can’t help liking Jake Tapper, because he might be a kindred spirit, just a little bit.

Late in my researches, I find I’m not alone in championing Tapper’s cause. And, therefore, I could probably also have found out earlier that I have company in my This Week moan — but I wasn’t keen enough to bother before, and again, that proves my point. Some times, like right now, Jake Tapper turns into the story, instead of just telling it, because he is a live wire. It’s that combustible element that would light a fire under people, get them talking, arguing, keep them watching Every Week.

But Tapper is not the new host; he is only chair-warming until August. Anchor Christiane Amanpour’s brief will be to lift This Week above partisan insider politics, broaden the horizon of the show. I should be happy: the show’s producers are fixing my problem. But I wanted a light bulb moment, this week Jake Tapper was my Edison, and I am missing him already.