In 1868, Benjamin Disraeli, upon achieving the office of British Prime Minister, at the age of 63 and thirty-one years after first winning election to the House of Commons, said: “I have reached the top of the greasy pole.”
Disraeli was much admired by Richard Nixon for his determination and persistence, and I have the feeling that somewhere RN is giving the thumbs-up to Diane Sawyer, his former assistant and collaborator on his memoirs (and also Ron Ziegler’s assistant at the Nixon White House press office), who – a few weeks after turning 64, and thirty-one years after entering the field of broadcast news at CBS – will replace Charles Gibson as the host of ABC World News, starting next January.
It’s been a long time coming. Back in 1993 when Connie Chung briefly co-anchored with Dan Rather at CBS, network insiders wondered if Sawyer, who had joined ABC in 1989, might one day replace Peter Jennings. But following Jennings’s death in 2005, ABC instead named Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as co-anchors. Within a matter of weeks, Woodruff was gravely injured by a roadside bomb while covering the Iraq war, and for several months afterwards, Vargas alternately co-anchored with Charles Gibson and Sawyer, the co-hosts of Good Morning America. At the end of May 2006, Vargas resigned, and Gibson replaced her, with Sawyer staying on as host of GMA.
At the time, there were reports that Gibson would retire at the end of 2007 and Sawyer would replace him. But as the 2008 presidential campaign picked up steam, Gibson elected to stay for at least another year – and then for a year longer, to cover the start of the Obama Administration. This was not completely to the liking of ABC News’s top brass; after leading the ratings in 2006 and 2007, Gibson was overtaken by Brian Williams at NBC. But now, at the age of sixty-six, the retirement of the ABC anchor has been announced by the network.
How long Sawyer will remain in the anchor’s chair is hard to guess. Traditionally, evening network news anchors, no matter how successful, have retired on reaching or approaching the age of sixty-five; Dan Rather, who lasted at CBS Evening News until he was seventy-three, and Gibson are the only exceptions. Sawyer’s sixty-fifth birthday will come in December 2010, less than a year into her stint as anchorperson. But if she can improve on ABC’s declining ratings and bring them somewhere close to the level of NBC’s, she probably can stay on longer, and perhaps can outlast Katie Couric, who’s struggling at CBS.