WASHINGTON — Ted Koppel is modest. Ted Koppel is smart. Ted Koppel is fair and nice and warm all the way through a two-hour receiving line. Ted Koppel is, it seems, perfect.
"Always treated fairly," Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said Wednesday night at the party celebrating Koppel and the fifth birthday of ABC's "Nightline." "Never even cut off in mid-sentence. Never misquoted, either."
Not everyone at the Watergate on Wednesday night achieved such admirable succinctness, but then gushing over Koppel has become something of a national pastime. Roughly 7 1/2 million people watch him every night. New York magazine called him "the smartest man on TV," Time magazine described him as one of the "five who dominate TV news," and the show just completed a widely praised week of live broadcasts from South Africa.
So when ABC threw Koppel a party, was it surprising that the food was lavish, the Scotch gave all the signs of Chivas and the more than 400 guests were prime?
"It's inevitable that anyone who squeezes bathroom tissue on television is going to become a celebrity," Koppel said. "It's inevitable. Just ask Mr. Whipple."
And all the glowing words wafting through the air?
"They're all drunk."
Koppel had just shaken hands that belonged to Weinberger, White House Press Secretary James Brady, White House Counsel Fred Fielding, columnist George Will, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick, former U.N. ambassador and newly hatched Republican Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former CIA directors William Colby, Richard Helms and Stansfield Turner, and lots and lots of big-time journalists.
And a certain colonel who had a more than casual interest in "Nightline."
"I joked with him the first time I met him and said, 'People tell me we helped you get your job,' " said Col. Lee Holland, one of half a dozen former Iranian hostages who came to the party. "I don't know if that went over well with him, but I thought it was funny."
"Nightline" grew out of "America Held Hostage," ABC's late-night report on the day's developments in the Iranian hostage crisis. Holland knew nothing about the show until he returned home in January, 1981, but is now a fan and was especially interested in the broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"I was a little bit enthralled with it," he said of Koppel's interview with one of the student leaders of the takeover. The student, now an Iranian official, had gone to school in the United States but wanted to speak through an interpreter. "Koppel shamed him into speaking English," Holland said. "The Iranian met his master. He backed him into a corner. I particularly liked that."
Amid comments like that of "McLaughlin Group" host John McLaughlin that "everyone watches 'Nightline,' " there were some voices of moderation. Conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, who has appeared on "Nightline" often, said it's certainly a popular show, but he gets more comments from people who have seen him when he appears on "Donahue."
"Donahue's in a class by himself," he said. "The world watches Donahue."
And there are a few people in the world who somehow miss "Nightline." Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, for example. "I go to bed too soon--10, 10:30," he said. "I go to bed early and get up early."
Kirkpatrick had just come from one reception in honor of her new Republican status, and was headed to a dinner, but took time out to talk to Koppel and ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge for a while and then hold court.
"I would have changed parties earlier," she said to several reporters, "but all you guys had all that nonsense about me looking for another job. You would have said, 'She's just changing parties--it's a last desperate move to find a new job.' Now, I could make a point. In leaving the Administration, I was joining the team in a new sense."
ABC was well represented, from Barbara Walters to ABC Inc. President Frederick Pierce.
They, needless to say, really love Koppel.
"He's the best," Walters said. "He's just a terrific man. Let me tell you my favorite Ted Koppel story. Ted and Sam Donaldson and I were on assignment in India, and the three of us went shopping. Ted was looking for antiques. I wanted an Indian painting. At one store, I saw a miniature that I liked. Ted said, 'You have to bargain with them. Leave it to me.'
"I left it to him. He offered half. The man walked out. I never got the picture. I never brought it up again. That's the kind of faith I have in Ted Koppel. He is a superb interviewer and a lousy shopper."