Jess Cagle
November 08, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Earlier today, she worked the phones in her office at PrimeTime Live. Later, she taped an installment of Turning Point and filled in for Peter Jennings on World News Tonight. At midnight, she can be found in her Manhattan apartment, preparing for an early morning flight to war-torn Afghanistan, where she’ll investigate a hospital crisis. Diane Sawyer is tired.

”I think,” she says, staring at her suitcase, ”I need to reexamine my scheduling capacity.”

Don’t let her fool you. She’s already reexamining. With her ABC contract up for renegotiation in February, the most wanted woman in broadcasting is about to begin a three-month courtship with other suitors, and the outcome could change the face of network news. Sawyer has been down this road before, of course. In 1994 she incited a frenzied bidding war among rival networks, but it came as no surprise that she chose to re-devote herself to PrimeTime Live, the ugly duckling that she and Sam Donaldson nurtured into a ratings beauty since its disastrous ’89 debut. The money wasn’t bad either — insiders now place her yearly salary in the $10 million range, among the highest in the industry.

This time, sources close to Sawyer — who turned 50 last year — say she’s ready to make a change. With Dan Rather having just turned 65, speculation is rampant that Sawyer will return to CBS and replace him as anchor of the CBS Evening News — the first woman in history to man an evening-news desk solo.

But Sawyer is still undecided, and neither her husband, director Mike Nichols (The Birdcage), nor her boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge, can make a firm guess about where Sawyer will be in five years. ”She could be off writing poetry,” says Arledge. ”She has dimensions most people in television don’t have.”

With her highly anticipated Sarah Ferguson interview airing Nov. 13, Sawyer — who hasn’t subjected herself to an in-depth interview in nearly five years — agreed to break her silence. Here she talks about herself, her future, Fergie, and two subjects on which she has, for the most part, kept mum: her controversial interview with Michael Jackson, and her relationship with Richard Nixon, for whom she worked before, during, and after Watergate.

Spend time with Sawyer and you notice a striking dichotomy between the public and the private woman. ”I’m really grateful that I’ve gotten to know her when she’s not in network swan mode,” says close friend Candice Bergen. ”You get a glimpse of the girl who was infinitely smarter and taller than most other kids, a girl of tremendous curiosity and a great sense of adventure.”

”Welcome to my hovel,” says Sawyer. The hovel is, in fact, a comfortable, terraced duplex apartment topping a fancy Manhattan hotel. Diane at home seems most like the Diane who makes an engaging occasional guest on Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. (She once surprised Regis Philbin by kissing him full on the mouth.) Nichols, who married Sawyer in 1988, says she impressed him with ”her utter lack of vanity. She’ll get up in the morning and she’s out of the house in five minutes in my jacket.”

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