Bernard Shaw is the best, and the best known, of all the anchors on the Cable News Network. He coanchors three daily newscasts and CNN's election-year series "Inside Politics '88." But millions of viewers got their first long look at him recently when he moderated the second presidential debate from Los Angeles.

And not everybody liked what they saw -- or heard. True, Shaw rated an admiring mention in a Johnny Carson monologue, a true national status test. When told Carson called him a "good moderator," Shaw simply says, "Hmmm." But to many people, the opening questions Shaw put to candidates Michael Dukakis and George Bush were crude and tactless.

He asked Dukakis if his views on capital punishment would change if Kitty Dukakis were "raped and murdered." He asked Bush if he'd be worried about the country under President Dan Quayle if Bush died before inauguration day. Shaw's approach seemed more brawny than brainy.

"I've heard the questions called ghoulish and tasteless," says Shaw, 47, puffing cigarettes in a blank-walled CNN conference room. "Mrs. Dukakis said it was inappropriate and outrageous. I started working on the questions in the car out to Dulles Airport. I spent more than a day and a half working on those two questions. They were not asked with trivia in mind."

No one could ever accuse Bernard Shaw of being frivolous, even if, on this particular day, he is wearing a pink shirt. On the air, but more so in person, he is stern, serious, even grim. This guy is a walking sobriety test. But the question to Dukakis seemed not frivolous, just oddly phrased, needlessly squirm-inducing.

"I realize that in asking that kind of question, that it would arouse emotions, but I meant the question to Dukakis to be a stethoscope to find out what he was feeling on this issue. Bush had been beating Dukakis severely about the head and shoulders, charging he was soft on crime. Many voters perceive seeing and hearing Dukakis but not feeling him. I asked that question to see if there was feeling.

"In asking that question, I gave Michael Dukakis a platinum platter opportunity, and if he'd hit a tape-measure home run with that question, then, in retrospect, the question might have seemed soft."

Last night, on CNN's "Larry King Live," Dukakis said he was neither bothered nor offended by Shaw's question.

His question to Bush may have lacked clarity, Shaw concedes, but says he was handicapped by a 45-second time limit placed on the questions. "And I certainly didn't like Bush interrupting me and saying 'Bernie' because I felt it trivialized a very important question."

Don't trivialize around Bernie Shaw. He makes Dukakis look like a cutup. "He is a little somber," says Ed Turner, Shaw's boss and CNN executive vice president. "But I don't really think that's a negative."

Shaw was particularly gruff with the people in the debate audience, warning them that he would tell them "only once" to keep quiet. "I hope I didn't seem severe," he says. "But I was determined to run a tight ship. I took the job seriously."

As he takes everything, himself included.

Turner admires Shaw's "ability to stay calm under enormous pressure" and his talent for synthesizing a mess of material on the air so viewers can grasp it. "He is your staff brick. If ever I know we have a complex story, it's without reservation that I can hand it to Bernie."

But Shaw is also terrific at questioning newsmakers, his questions to Bush and Dukakis notwithstanding. He has an imposing take-charge baritone, an intimidating come-clean look in his eyes and a productive way with blunt words. He doesn't take no answer for an answer.

Bernie Shaw is cable's Koppel.

Interviewing Al Haig during last winter's primaries, Shaw asked, "Do you think Bush is a wimp?" During the Republican convention, he put the screws to Dan Quayle in the most direct way anybody put them: "Was fear of being killed in Vietnam the reason for joining the National Guard?"

On the day he finally left the Justice Department, Edwin Meese met Shaw on CNN and was asked, "Where did you go wrong as attorney general in this town?" And "Did you politicize the Justice Department?" And "George Bush and his staff are ecstatic that you're leaving -- fact?" (Answers: "I don't know that I have," "No," and "May well be".)

When Shaw and CNN's Charles Bierbauer got their own presidential interview in the White House a year ago, Shaw asked his presummit question of Ronald Reagan: "You and Gorbachev have been eye-to-eye before. Would you trust him with your wallet?" He planned to ask the same thing of Mikhail Gorbachev if CNN got the Gorby interview it requested, but the Soviets delivered their leader unto NBC and Tom Brokaw instead.

"He asks tough questions -- some would say brutal -- and they cut through a lot of palaver," says Turner, who sent a Redskins football helmet in a fruit basket to Shaw's hotel room before the debate, with a note that said, "Good luck from E.T."

Sometimes the politicians wince at Shaw's questions, and the Bob Dole campaign reportedly complained after a particularly rough dust-up with Shaw during the primaries. But Shaw has more respecters than detractors. One of his fans is Nancy Reagan, who has twice invited Shaw and his wife Linda to the White House, once for a state dinner and once for a private screening of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Shaw admits that he has little patience with politicians who think they can waltz their way around a question instead of answering it.

"I hate that from any newsmaker. Joe Louis used to say that in the ring, you can run but you can't hide. And in this medium, that camera doesn't lie. And I can't for the life of me permit a person I'm interviewing to insult the intelligence of the viewer. I just cannot. Nor can I allow anyone to come on CNN to use us without being willing to stand in the dock and be held accountable for what he or she is alleging. I wouldn't be doing my job as a reporter."

So it's all right to say, "Cut the crap, Senator" if need be? Shaw very nearly smiles and says, "I think you can say that. I think you can say that. When it's blatantly obvious that it's crap, you can say that."

Associates say Bernard Shaw is not humorless. And you can see keen traces of wit come through on the air -- though never enough so that Shaw loses his granite composure. Shaw anchored coverage of the return of the shuttle Discovery, and in the final moments, as cameras showed Bush smiling and waving and glad-handing everyone within reach, Shaw described the scene to viewers: "George Bush, congratulating the crew for the umpteenth time. Now he has the picture he wanted."

Shaw has been a boon to CNN's credibility and visibility. Every time CNN gets added recognition, it seems that Shaw is there. It was a real breakthrough for CNN when Shaw was included in a group interview with President Reagan last December. Shaw sat next to Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.

Symbolically, CNN had reached parity with the old established networks, even though its audience is much, much smaller. And so are the salaries it pays its people. CNN anchors are believed to make between $80,000 and $150,000; network anchors can make 10 or even 20 times that. Shaw's salary, industry sources think, is probably more than $200,000, the bottom end of the scale for correspondents at ABC, CBS and NBC.

Atlanta media magnate Ted Turner, who founded and owns CNN (and is not related to Ed) reportedly pays talk show host Larry King $800,000 a year for his nightly hour, and right-wing commentator Patrick Buchanan may get $500,000, sources say. Shaw says he does not know what these people make and that there is no resentment at the lower levels of CNN over such uncharacteristic largesse.

"Everybody wants to make more money," he says. Including him? "Absolutely. Absolutely."

CNN wants its army of on-air talent to be mostly bland and interchangeable. But by standing out dramatically, Shaw has helped bring new legitimacy and renown to CNN. Shaw himself is defensive about the organization whose own employees long ago dubbed it Chicken Noodle News.

"This is a hard-working team. It's a mature team, very mature," Shaw says. "The stereotype of inexperienced college kids in pivotal roles making decisions and editorial judgments doesn't exist any more at this network." But it did once? "There were younger people in positions that were higher than they would have been at the other two networks, but they did not have life or death ability over people or over process. That stereotype is dead."

CNN is more global in scope, and in reach, than any of the three commercial networks. When Shaw travels abroad, he sometimes attracts more attention than he does in this country. He's a celebrity because the CNN signal now beams into Europe, Japan and other parts of the world.

Shaw has been with CNN since it started in 1980. When he got the call to join up, he was a correspondent for ABC News. "Some people really questioned my sanity leaving ABC. Like some people questioned my sanity when I left CBS to go to ABC." At CBS News he had attracted the attention and encouragement of Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, among others.

"But I was committed when I came in, and it had the challenge of breaking new ground, of working and building something from the bottom up, and taking on the big guys. That appealed to me. That really appealed to me. And 'all for one, one for all' -- it was that mindset.

"And I've never looked back. I've never once regretted coming to CNN."

Shaw, who in his career has reported from Nicaragua, Panama and the site of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, first charged into journalism at an all-news radio station in Chicago in 1964. Much earlier, at the age of 13, he contemplated the august figure of Edward R. Murrow and declared, "I want to be like him. He's my idol!"

As much of a CNN booster as Shaw is, he concedes that on its first appearance, it was much ignored. He thinks a turning point came during CNN's continuing coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. The value of a round-the-clock, all-news operation became dramatically evident then.

"I think that was the beginning," says Shaw, who was on the air when news of the shooting came in. "But then, clearly, going into campaign '84, that was a major breakthrough." And Shaw could tell things were changing, because newsmakers were suddenly saying yes when asked for interviews. "The change was very marked. As we increased our viewership and as people in Washington proper -- in the power corridors -- started getting us, people became much more amenable to being on CNN."

Ted Turner's occasional fits of buffoonishness have not caused him any chagrin, says Shaw, who doesn't find Turner buffoonish. "No, he doesn't embarrass me. He's chairman of the board and he heads the network. And my attitude is, his private life is his private life. Ted is Ted. He's been that way ever since I've known him. He's a fine boss."

But is he a serious enough man to own a news operation? "I think he's a very serious man. He's my friend. I regard him as a friend. I think he's a very serious man. Serious enough to know that there was a need for this kind of network. Serious enough to commit blood, sweat, money and some tears to the idea. And serious enough to face the questioning ridicule of some people, to pursue what he believes in."

Turner's political ideas -- his one-worldism and antinuclear stances, his partnership with the Soviets on the Goodwill Games -- do not filter down to the news operation, Shaw insists. "No, no, nothing. During the coverage of Gorbachev here, and in Moscow, nothing. Domestic issues, no. Political issues, no."

He sees Turner about six times a year, Shaw says. "He's very self-conscious when he comes into the bureau. He comes in and says, 'How's it going?' His presence is brief, and he comes in to cheer you up."

Shaw was glad when the Oct. 13 debate was over. He didn't like feeling part of a news story. When coanchor Mary Alice Williams debriefed him on the air afterward, he squirmed. "And the first thing I said to her -- she asked me a question I completely ignored -- I said, 'Free! I'm free!' And she was puzzled. But that is what I felt, because I had stepped out of that news story on that stage, and now I was talking to her.

"And the executive producer said after I talked with Mary Alice, 'You're not comfortable in that setting, are you?' I am not comfortable being interviewed or expressing my personal views. Simply because I think my personal views ought not mean a damn to viewers, and have no place in my work as a reporter."

Shaw says he thinks it's confusing to viewers when a reporter suddenly assumes a commentator role, and he won't do it. He won't go on CNN's combative "Crossfire," for instance, and express his own opinions on the news. So Sam Donaldson, who does just that on "This Week With David Brinkley," is way out of line? Shaw says, very diplomatically, "My tendency is to concentrate on what Bernie Shaw says."

Come on Bernie, cut the crap! Oh, never mind.

In August, Shaw was named by the International Platform Association as this year's recipient of its Lowell Thomas Award. Eric Sevareid, Edward P. Morgan and Ed Bradley were there, along with Shaw's wife and their two children Anil and Amar (they live in Takoma Park).

Shaw traced his career, recalled meeting Martin Luther King Jr., remembered working with Cronkite and Sevareid, and said of his role as principal Washington anchor at CNN, "The best job I've ever had! The hardest I've ever worked!"

Maybe he is a little pompous (another thing he has in common with Ted Koppel) and maybe he does tend to talk in position papers. But he is making his mark, and a big one. "All a reporter has is integrity," he says. "I like to think I'm a fair person."

CNN owes a lot to Bernie Shaw, and so do its viewers.