By Margo Howard
November 05, 1984 12:00 PM

After 17 years as America’s best-loved indictment machine, 60 Minutes has added a fifth correspondent: a 5’9″ blue-eyed blonde. Lest those who avoid cathode rays conclude that the first woman to join the show was picked for her sunny good looks, let the record show that Diane Sawyer got to the top with a formidable blend of smarts, drive and earnestness. She is extremely desirable for television because her manner is both authoritative and appealing. A thinking man’s Angie Dickinson.

There is another component to Sawyer’s rise, and that has to do with her aura of refinement. She is one of those highly visible women who communicate the old-fashioned, ladylike values from which we have “progressed.” Along with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Shelley Long, Diane Sawyer is one of the Ladies of the ’80s. They have all gained star status with a cultivated style that offers a connection to a gentler time. One wonders if it is just coincidence that the new Miss America resembles Diane Sawyer. God knows, they needed a lady this time, and that’s what a lady looks like.

Getting to Sawyer’s office involves taking a right turn at the intersection of the Captain Kangaroo and Cronkite units. Once there, two posters catch your eye. One is a classical drawing celebrating the St. Louis Art Museum, the other an illustration of a lush Lana Turner advertising a movie with “Diane” in the title. The commingling of these display ads is apt, for Diane Sawyer is herself a combination of classical and commercial, serious stuff and showbiz. She is a wood nymph with a microphone.

Some viewers, at least in Louisville, Ky., have long been on to the fact that Sawyer is a poetic soul with one foot planted firmly in the clouds. From the time she started in television in 1967 as a weathergirl (there were not yet weatherpersons), she was comfortable offering a line or two of poetry with the highs and lows. A little Emily Dickinson, a little Baudelaire. Whoever was handy. “The weather was extraordinarily boring,” she explains, “so I’d have a quote every now and then.” The era of weathergirlhood embarrasses her. “I was so bad at it,” she shrugs.

If childhood is prophecy, Sawyer’s success was ordained. Raised in Louisville, Diane and an older sister were the children of doting parents. Father was an elected county judge; mother took Diane to “every imaginable lesson on earth.” Seemingly no part of her went undeveloped: There were piano lessons, voice, ballet, tap, horseback riding, fencing, classical guitar and children’s theater. Any inference that her mother was of the stage variety is incorrect, she says. “The lessons were about her never having gotten to do those things. She was not steering me in any direction.”

Her sister, Linda Sawyer Frankel, now a wife and mother with a career in marketing, was always the one Diane looked up to. “It never occurs to me that anyone thinks I’m ladylike,” she says. “My sister is elegant. I was a kind of parody of elegance. I was always the one to fall down the stairs.” At charm school, yet.

The sister, however, had only been first runner-up in America’s Junior Miss contest, whereas Diane won it in 1963 at the age of 17. What she got with her title was a trip around the country, along with instructions to wear her sash and crown at all times—even on airplanes. When she went on to Wellesley College, being known as a Junior Miss did not have the same cachet as, say, a 780 on the college boards. Her peers were not impressed; she was self-conscious. The little teenage title gave the game away: This was not a sophisticated girl. In truth, that was not a label to which she aspired. “When the other girls were getting packages of Krön chocolates, I was sent turnips and tomatoes from home—beautifully wrapped.” An aptitude test suggested she would make a fine farmer.

It was after graduation from Wellesley in 1967 that she put in the three years in Louisville as a so-so weather-girl and a somewhat better news reporter. She also attended one semester of law school at night. “It’s not gracious to think of law school as an amusement,” Sawyer remarks, “but it was a perfect antidote to what I was doing during the day. I did find the cases fascinating…like soap opera with a consequence.”

It was after this that she segued to what is generally referred to as “the Nixon thing.” She wound up working for the Nixon White House in Ron Ziegler’s press office. Displaying what has variously been called class, blind loyalty and bad judgment, Sawyer spent the first four years of Nixon’s exile with him in San Clemente, assisting with his memoirs. Frank Gannon, who worked with her (and was a beau), has said he surmised that she, like himself, stayed on to be a close-up witness to a unique moment in history. Sawyer says it was a matter of honor. “I stayed,” she explains, “from a sense of duty and obligation and concern for a human being who was in a crisis.”

It is disputed whether or not she felt more indebted to Nixon than she needed to. She does not, however, feel tainted by Watergate. “That was something I watched him go through…and watched the country go through. We didn’t know what he knew. It wasn’t like a trip to the Soviet Union or the opening of China.” She sighs, “What a considerable Presidency it would have been without Watergate. But when it became clear what had happened, it was too late to be mad. It was over. His world had collapsed.”

The years in San Clemente proved not to be career suicide. Sawyer returned to television—this time to CBS. She was then at the self-proclaimed “wizened, geriatric age of 32.” They made her a general assignment reporter in Washington, and later she covered the State Department. Some heavy hitters at CBS, among them Dan Rather and Robert Pierpoint, were initially vocal about not wanting a partisan in their ranks. In time they were won over. Ironically, her contacts with old Nixon people (not to mention old Nixon) proved invaluable. RMN gave her a rare on-air interview, and his former staffers—many of whom are in the Reagan Administration—take her calls straightaway.

It was in the course of this early period in Washington that Sawyer became known for her stamina. During the Iranian hostage crisis she once spent a week—around the clock—at the State Department, sleeping for an hour, when she could, on two chairs.

In 1981 she was elevated to the CBS Morning News, partnered first with Charles Kuralt, then with Bill Kurtis. That program is a famously troubled area in an otherwise successful news operation. There have been 17 anchors in 30 years. (Potential Trivial Pursuit information: Sawyer shared responsibilities 50-50 with Kurtis. The ladies of the morning at ABC and NBC do not have coequal status.) Sawyer acquitted herself well, though she was not able to pull the show out of the tank. So far as she and Kurtis were concerned, there was regrettable buzz that they were not the best of friends. Not true, they say. She: “I like him very much. There was lots of laughter during the commercials.” He: “We liked each other as well as any anchors can. I enjoyed it.”

There are polarities to Diane Sawyer. She is undeniably ethereal, and yet it is hard to call someone ethereal who phones up three guys at night to see if she can get them to disagree about a report on Three Mile Island. Also, her ebullience on the tube is not the characteristic trait with which she moves through life. In reality, she is reserved, a listener. This makes her…what? A shy exhibitionist? She is aware of this. “People assume you can’t be shy and be on television,” she observes.

Sawyer often gets things the way she wants them, without leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. She plows through, whatever the issue, and yet there is still something delicate about her—as though she were an ocean-going ship made of spun sugar. The proof of this is her reputation. Almost nobody doesn’t like her…at least nobody who’s easily found.

It is a particular hallmark of television that what crew people think of a performer is generally the measure of that person. It is interesting, therefore, that Sawyer is shown genuine affection by lower-level workers. And in an unusual display of something approaching unanimous regard, Diane Sawyer was one of only three reporters, among 83 proposed, who were acceptable to both sides in the first presidential debate in Louisville. It was not a totally welcome compliment. She would not participate again “unless the process were altered. I felt uncomfortable and awkward once I found out about the selection procedure.”

Sawyer got to be the first woman on 60 Minutes because Don Hewitt, the show’s Big Daddy, wanted her. (He had made the offer only once before—to Barbara Walters, about three years ago.) Since salary figures are not Nielsen numbers, there is no official stat sheet telling who makes what. It is estimated by someone in the news division that Sawyer is pulling down $1 million a year. She is not primarily motivated by money, however, nor does she relate to being first. “The real source of excitement is to be part of that team,” she says. “This sounds clichéd, I know, but it’s an honor to be among those four intrepid souls.”

Of her new colleagues, Ed Bradley is the one she has known the longest, having met him when both were Washington correspondents. From the beginning he seemed like someone who would be a friend. “And he is,” she smiles, “a true friend, and sensitive.” The feeling is mutual. Bradley says, “I admire her because she went against the odds. In the beginning she went where she was not wanted and she won people over. She was that good and that sincere.”

A former associate from the White House remarked, “She will never be at rest in terms of preparedness.” Does the striving diminish the contentedness? It has been suggested that she’s a workaholic. Sawyer doesn’t think so. “I have as wholesome an attitude toward work as anyone you know. When I leave it, I leave it. I’m blue jeans, glasses, no makeup, and I just laze around the house on weekends. I feel healthy. There is a fear, though, that work will take over your life—not from workaholism, but because it’s so stimulating…and addictive. You learn something new every day.”

Certainly she learns something new every day because reading is high on her list of what to do with spare time. When she tosses off a snippet of poetry or a literary allusion, not a large number of viewers will know the reference, but most of them will know that it’s classy…and that she didn’t make it up. It is perhaps a comment on Sawyer’s looks and gender that, even with her George Will-like erudition, she does not come across as pedantic.

Sawyer is a sought-after guest at mover-shaker parties, sometimes on the same circuit as Bill Paley, mogul emeritus of her network. But she doesn’t casually leave people behind. She has hung on to friends from Washington. Her oldest chum is Susan Flack, an attorney there; they met when they were 4 years old.

It may be that, inadvertently, Sawyer has devised an acid test for friendship: Take a job that requires getting up at one in the morning and going to bed at 5:30 in the afternoon. During her three years with the Morning News, her friends were heroic. “They contorted their schedules to be there when I was awake,” she says—hence, candlelit lunches and midafternoon galas. The probable reason for the loyalty of Sawyer’s band of buddies is that she herself is known as a wonderful friend. And she is generous with both time and mementos. Sawyer says gifts are her only extravagance—one such pricey present, for a gentleman friend, being a signed Edna St. Vincent Millay first edition.

A litany of her kindnesses could make her sound like Black Rock’s Mother Teresa if you didn’t know that she gossips, giggles and samples the grape. She is not a Goody Two Shoes, she is just…nice. And as happens to all nice girls who are 38 and single, the question swirls around as to whether she’ll marry. Her career, both in terms of time and travel, is tough on a love life. Granted, her position of high visibility prevents her from feeling ignored. Admiring men phone up CBS, and Warren Beatty has taken her to dinner and the movies. “He is,” she says, “an intelligent and nice person, a friend…and I hope he does an interview on 60 Minutes.”

Her long-standing and current relationship is with Dick Holbrooke, 43, formerly of the State Department, now a senior adviser to Shearson Lehman/American Express. (When she mentions him, she beams. “He’s soooo intelligent.”) “I still believe in lightning striking,” she says, “and in instant recognition. Who was it that described it as ‘an ether that invades your pores, saying now is the time to marry?’ ” [I guessed Elizabeth Taylor.]

Sawyer predicts: “I’ll probably wake up one morning and say, ‘This is the day. This is the day to get married.’ ” One reason for that would be to have children. “You know,” she says, “to have a baby, you need to be married.”

And there you have it, the quintessential Diane Sawyer: an old-fashioned girl in a newfangled age. She’s an intriguing combination of fairy princess, tough dame, workhorse and scholar. In other words, she is a star. 60 Minutes is lucky to have her.