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Saturday Morning Live With Susan Molinari

Goodbye Newt, Hello CBS

Although a Republican rising star, Congresswoman Susan Molinari would rather be Katie Couric

By Ginia Bellafante

Molinari

(TIME, June 9) -- She has been shot by celebrity photographer Nigel Parry for a profile in Harper's Bazaar. Two years ago, she and her husband, Congressman Bill Paxon, were named by PEOPLE as one of America's 10 most romantic couples, right alongside John Tesh and Connie Selleca. Still, it came as a shock when Republican Congresswoman Susan Molinari, 39, seemingly a rising star in her party since her selection as keynote speaker for the G.O.P. convention in San Diego last year, announced that she will abandon her House seat in August to co-host a Saturday-morning soft-news show on CBS. "Television," she explains, "has always been a dream of mine."

It seems to be the dream of a growing number of politicos. Onetime Clinton spin doctor George Stephanopoulos is now an ABC news analyst, and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley is about to begin a job as a commentator for CBS News. Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich have jousted on a PBS talk show in Boston. Yet Molinari's move is something of a breakthrough. Unlike others who have used their political credentials to become TV commentators, the New York Congresswoman is trying to leave politics behind and reinvent herself as an anchorwoman.

Some Beltway insiders aren't surprised. "Susan has long wanted to be Jane Pauley," says a staff member in the Republican leadership. Others speculate that Molinari is stepping down to allow Paxon, an influential member of the National Republican Congressional Committee, to become the family's top Washington banana. Or it may be that Molinari has simply hit a glass ceiling in the Republican Party. "She found herself all dressed up and nowhere to go," suggests Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University. "It is the Christine Todd Whitman effect: Where does a liberal Republican woman from the Northeast go in the Republican Party today?"

While the deteriorating barrier between politics and journalism unsettles many media analysts, Molinari's move is especially troubling because she has not ruled out the possibility of a return to elected office. "You should get only one trip across the line," argues Edward Fouhy, head of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. "You make more than one trip, and things get very confusing. It ultimately widens the credibility gap between journalists and their audience."

Molinari insists she will be hypercautious about letting her political biases influence her reporting. "Who better to talk about what a balanced budget means?" she says. "I think my experience is a tremendous asset." In truth, on the new CBS competitor to NBC's successful weekend Today show, Molinari will probably spend more time covering azaleas than the Supreme Court. "She is exactly the target viewer we want to attract," says CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who first approached the Staten Island mom and jogger about a possible career switch at the convention last summer. "She's right in the bull's-eye for Saturday morning, a time when you may be thinking about the world around you, but you're also thinking about your home and errands and how you're going to spend your day."

How Molinari will fare in her new career is uncertain. Critics lambasted her overly ingratiating, uber-perky manner at the Republican Convention. On the other hand, now she's going into TV, where Kathie Lee Gifford is a star.

-- With reporting by Sally B.Donnelly/Washington





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