There are two ways to leave a job, Ted Koppel told a roomful of people Wednesday night, many of whom had helped him flourish in his: “Too soon and too late.”
There is a third option, the Nightline anchor said, the "Goldilocks option" of leaving when it is “just right.” But that is an illusion, he said. By the time they start telling you the time is just right, it’s “too late,” he advised.
Too late or too soon, Koppel is leaving.
The occasion for cheers and a few tears was Koppel’s ABC farewell party—Nov. 22 is his last broadcast.
And if a big story had broken anywhere else but The Terrace restaurant at the Kennedy Center in Washington, ABC would have had to call in the B team. ABC brass, Nightline staffers and Washington movers and shakers turned out to say goodbye to Koppel, at least as anchor of Nightline.
Also in attendance was James Goldston, the show's new executive producer, who is heading up a multi-anchored Nightline from its new base of operations in New York starting Nov. 28. Also at the party was one of the three new anchors, Cynthia McFadden, who along with Martin Bashir will anchor from New York while Terry Moran holds down the fort in Washington.
Koppel had some words of encouragement for Goldston and his new team, including Moran and Bashir in absentia.
He prefaced them by reading from a review of the first Nightline broadcast (March 24, 1980) by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales (who was in the audience). Shales, said Koppel, had called the program “a great leap sideways” at best, and at worst “a pratfall backwards.”
After Koppel had asked Shales why he did not give the show a few more airings before taking aim, the reviewer agreed to revisit it. Ten months later, said Koppel, Shales reviewed the show again, describing it as “smart, classy, and the most successful show in ABC News history.”
“I don’t know if everyone will give you a fair amount of time,” he said to Goldston and company, “but I promise you I will.”
Surrounded by Nightline executive producers past and present for a class picture: Tom Bettag, Leroy Sievers, Bill Lord (the first EP), and Rick Kaplan, Koppel praised them all, though he got in one shot, too.
With a couple of them on the tall and beefy side, including Kaplan, Koppel joked that “there was a time when we hired executive producers by the pound,” to which Kaplan apparently retorted to the well-under-six-feet Koppel, “but not anchors by the inch.”
But Koppel’s stature in the news business was unassailable.
ABC News President David Westin reminded the crowd that Nightline was born of the late Roone Arledge’s recognition that affiliates would never give up a half hour of real estate so that he could expand the evening news to an hour. So, when Iranians grabbed the hostages, Arledge grabbed the half hour of late night, said Westin.
Westin pointed to three things that had set Koppel apart atop Nightline: 1) his interviewing skills, with Westin saying he was unique in getting the best and worst out of people; 2) his work in the field, with Westin calling Koppel’s embedded reporting from Iraq some of the “most memorable” war reporting he had ever seen, and 3) his willingness to take on stories that others avoided. Westin particularly cited four hours devoted to AIDS back in 1987.
The beef was not the only thing slightly roasted at the gathering. Barbara Walters said that Koppel still calls her and knows her name begins with a 'B.' "Hello bitch," is his greeting, she says. To which Walters says she responds: “Ted, when are you going to get on prime time?”
Walters told of a trip to India in January 1978, when Koppel was diplomatic correspondent (Koppel’s daughter is now diplomatic correspondent for CNN, she noted), Sam Donaldson was White House correspondent, and she was “still trying to recover from a disastrous start as the first woman co-anchor of the evening news."
Walters said she had interviewed the then-prime minister of India, Morarji Desai, who as an ascetic had some interesting dietary customs, including drinking his own urine (which he said ws good for cataracts).
Back in the states, ABC would not run the piece, she said, but Dan Rather did the same interview and they ran it at CBS. “True,” Rather seconded from the crowd.
Later, Walters, Donaldson, and Koppel went to a restaurant and ordered a glass of wine. Koppel did the tasting honors and proclaimed: “It’s a good urine, but not a great urine.”
Walters said Koppel had always negotiated his own contracts. “Which is why his are so good and the rest of ours are…She did not have to finish the thought. Koppel had a handy adviser, his attorney/wife Grace Anne.
Walters closed her tribute with a toast, asking everyone to raise their glasses: "It isn't a great urine...."
Westin presented Koppel with a parting memento, a globe about the size of a fortune teller’s crystal ball that Westin said rotated by atmospheric pressure. “The more pressure, the faster it goes,” he said, adding (with no apparent irony) that he thought that appropriate to Koppel. “Ted Koppel: You Gave Us the World,” was the inscription on the globe.
Greeted by thunderous applause and cheers from the crowd, which included longtime staffers bussed over from the ABC bureau as well as returning alumni who had flown in from other climes, Koppel said that many of them had been “dreading this event,” but proclaimed it a lovely evening.
Koppel graciously thanked Westin for his “generosity of spirit and his kindness” the past few months, which he said had not been easy for anybody at ABC News, referring to the death of Peter Jennings and challenge of replacing him. He thanked Jennings' widow, Kayce, for traveling from New York for the event, saying it meant a lot to him.
Koppel said he was thrilled but confused by Walter’s attendance, pointing out that he had attended a Walters farewell party a few months back, but that she was obviously “still very much a part of the ABC family” and didn’t look like she was going anywhere.
Then, turning to Westin, he added: “David, I hope you agree that creates an interesting precedent.”
Koppel also praised Westin for keeping a promise. When Koppel told the ABC News president he would be leaving after his contract expired, Westin said the show would be his until the very last day, and he was true to his word “to the last syllable,” said Koppel.
Among the other familiar faces at the gathering were Sam Donaldson, Jeff Greenfield, George Stephanopoulos, Bob Schieffer, John Donvan, Chris Bury, John Cochran, Barbara Cochran, Pat Mitchell, Ben Bradlee, and Koppel's family.
Koppel was most emotional in paying tribute to his wife, and by extension all of the families of journalists. Pointing out that he had moved 11 times in his first eight years with the network, he said that Grace Anne had always been there for him, "while I was not always there for her and my family," though Walters had earlier pointed out that Koppel had taken a year off so she could go to law school.
The party also featured a video tribute to Koppel, as well well as a poster at the entrance showing a frame from his hosting of America Held Hostage (Day 100), the show that morphed into Nightline.