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Goodbye Joan Lunden

As the ”Good Morning America” anchor makes way for Susan Molinari, we look at the other hopefuls waiting in the wings

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Kathie Lee Gifford notwithstanding, morning television isn’t usually thought of as a hotbed of rumor, rancor, and revolving chairs. But right now, there are two simmering a.m. stories: the departure of Joan Lunden from ABC’s Good Morning America and the arrival of New York Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari to coanchor a yet-to-be-named CBS Saturday-morning news show.

It’s a tricky thing, hosting this type of show. You have to act all friendly and folksy — never aloof or, heaven forbid, opinionated — so that viewers will think of you as a warm person they want to check in on every day. Yet you also have to be able to handle the most serious of news events in a brisk, knowledgeable way: When a breaking news story explodes, it’s the morning anchor’s job to improvise, summarize, and assure the home audience that America won’t fall apart at least until the afternoon, when CNN can wipe up the mess.

You’ll notice I didn’t list journalistic experience as a necessary qualification. That’s why the current kafuffle over Molinari’s lack of same seems silly. Did we ever look to Lunden for investigative scoops? Of course not. The biggest liability politicians bring with them in switching over to TV is their politics, and Molinari’s — she’s a fiscal conservative who backs abortion rights — are muzzy enough to forestall much viewer protest.

Add to that the fact that Molinari has a public presentation that works for TV: a smile so wide that her eyes have to close to make room for it on her face. She’ll probably do her trademark plucky best to get along swimmingly with whomever her Saturday coanchor proves to be. (Personally, I’d hire Dustin Diamond — you know, Screech on Saved by the Bell. He’s Cronkite material, that guy.)

When she debuts in August, Molinari will ease into a comparatively low-profile gig, whereas Lunden’s replacement will be thrust into a blast-furnace media glare. GMA has been getting thrashed soundly by NBC’s Today Show for months now, so change was inevitable there. But ABC has forced the issue at a bad time — when people are still aware of how smoothly Today made the transition from Bryant Gumbel to Matt Lauer.

Besides, Lunden was the least of GMA‘s problems. If anyone was going to exit, coanchor Charles Gibson seemed a more likely choice. A hard-news guy, he’s often seemed bored or uncomfortable with GMA‘s fluff quotient. (And indeed, he may still vamoose; one rumor has him helping out on the expanding 20/20. Good luck getting a word in edgewise with Barbara Walters, Charlie!) Should Gibson leave, however, GMA has an ideal candidate in-house: Correspondent Kevin Newman is nimble-witted and able to balance serious reporting with breezy banter — but I’m guessing his bookish boyishness would count against him in the hunk-addled minds of TV news execs. Filling Gibson’s seat is a real stumper for ABC; the net might well have to go trolling outside the network for an early riser with comparable authority.