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A BATTLE ROYAL FOR BREAKFAST HEARTS AND MINDS

Her first words were: "Hey. I'm Diane Sawyer from Louisville, Ky., and I'm the new kid on the block." Hey to you, too, Diane, even if you're not exactly a "new kid."

On her right was Charlie Gibson, back at his old morning latte stand. In chorus, they wished us, "Good Morning America."

That's the urban renewal block upon which Diane will be the "new kid" for a while -- ABC's "Good Morning America."

Forget the street. Try a watery metaphor: The network's honchos put them both there hoping to patch up enough leaks with equal parts star glitter and familiarity to keep the show afloat for a few months until a new team sails it out against Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on the USS "Today."

I laughed out loud. Behind Charlie and Diane was the (unintentionally) funniest set I've ever seen. You can bet it's still there, too. A pseudo-Jasper Johns painting of an American flag sat over the mantel; underneath it there was a blazing fire in the fireplace. It was like a crazy visual fugue of "America, the Beautiful" and "Home Sweet Home" sung simultaneously.

It was a semiotician's dream, I tell you. All over America, there are pop-cult grad students giddily deconstructing that dramatic set for fun (and for grades) and marveling at TV's truly stunning ability to court audiences in the most shameless way.

Meanwhile, over at the "Today" show on Day 1 of "Diane and Charlie Save the World," Katie, Matt and company were, as usual, mixing gingerly with the excitable, sign-toting throngs outside the studio. In one of her reports, Couric heard a spiel from a psychologist about what middle-aged women could expect if they have to compete on the job for the first time. (You don't suppose the producers were having their say about Diane's sudden appearance across the dial, do you?)

It seems to me Charlie Gibson may have almost as big a problem as Couric. Charlie, who looks and sometimes sounds like the vice president of a bottling plant, seemed just a wee bit overwhelmed by all that raging Diane-ness at his left -- the patrician beauty, the low, sexy, aging-debutante bassoon voice, the jolly Brahmin sarcasm.

Not only do I like Diane Sawyer, I may be one of only six men in America who feel sorry for her. I have no idea where it came from, but it can't be easy carrying all that gangly Wellesley hauteur with her everywhere she goes. I have no doubt that somewhere very deep in her heart, she still thinks of herself as just a very lucky weather girl from Louisville.

Not only doesn't she quite have the common touch, she can, unintentionally, be fall-down funny when she tries to find it.

If you've followed this particular entry in the mythology of TV mega-hype, you know that a good part of the selling of "Diane and Charlie to the Rescue" has been the banner headline story: Diane Sawyer is going to be getting up at 4 a.m.!

This reached hilarious heights on Tuesday when, after questioning former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, Sawyer thanked him -- at 7:20 a.m. -- for getting up so early to talk to her. Panetta has, no doubt, been getting up at ungodly hours for decades. He's used to waking up the whippoorwills. In his racket, there's no such thing as beauty sleep.

Not only that, he knows that in the political spin business, a network morning show berth is worth its weight in Carvilles and that, to get one, you haul yourself out of the sack whenever you have to.

Panetta's response, when Sawyer suddenly thanked him for his early rise, was a smirk of experienced and indulgent disbelief. And on her first show, there was that police chief who was telling her about the tornadoes that have decimated his area. Just as he was, in somewhat awestruck tones, thanking her for her concern, she was talking over his gratitude in a rush to get to the next commercial.

For all that, she's great in the morning.

She doesn't mean to come off as the Empress Theodora on a medieval Italian mosaic, she just can't help it. The minute she suits up, puts her gleaming blond hair together and gets her morning war paint on, she can't help being your queen and giving you the idea that, if you're nice and patient and the palace guard lets you through the door, you may get a chance to kiss the ring.

Now, I have no doubt that when Mike Nichols gives her a husbandly nudge at 2 a.m., she's a warm puddle of cold cream and myopia underneath a rat's nest of hair.

We're never going to see that Diane Sawyer, though. The only one we're ever going to see is the Arctic Goddess From the Heartland, the Gawky Blond Swan of the Info-Babes.

What's so weird about Sawyer is that there's something extremely endearing about all this. All that aura of privilege should be terminally off-putting. It isn't. She has somehow managed to parlay it all into almost as much raw likability as comes from Couric's go-get-'em spunk. Let those in the TV-info trade resent it who will (and TV journalism without colleague resentment would be like a pretzel without salt).

Poor Charlie Gibson could do the show in his sleep, but next to her he can't help but come off like Tom Ewell having a morning muffin with Grace Kelly. Or maybe Eddie Bracken taking in a polo match next to Jackie Onassis.

Sam Donaldson has, by now, learned the fine art of on-set Diane Management. Whenever they're in the same room, he does his Sam the Scamp act, the loud, twinkly-eyed, mischief-making preacher's kid on the prowl for whatever blond braid he can dunk in the nearest inkwell. He's a sort of a grown-up Huck Finn with a big paycheck and a bad toupee.

When Sawyer and Barbara Walters are on the same set, they're like the Queen and the Queen Mother.

Even without Charlie Gibson wearing cap and bells, though, "Diane and Charlie Save the World" is a heck of an act.

Catch it sometime. Watch a big-money TV franchise in the middle of a dramatic rescue. And then switch over to Katie the Incomparable.

Most TV battles are oversold, mindless bologna. This is one for the books.

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