Being “yourself” on television is hard for all sorts of reasons, and the Today show makes the task particularly difficult, because it is a program about the home, produced for the homebound, but anchored, perforce, by a group of driven Manhattan professionals who have elected to spend very few of their waking hours at home. Furthermore, they bring to the job some level of journalistic experience—or at least of newsroom savvy—that they must lock away in a secret place when they are interviewing, straight-faced, some “expert” on back-to-school shopping or family scrapbooking. Among the men who have held the job over the past two decades, no one has been better than Matt Lauer, who confines his considerable wit—which is fast and often barbed—to his hosting banter, never applying it to noncelebrities, whom he treats generously and with the same sense of slowly dawning wonder that marked Bill Moyers’s conversations with Joseph Campbell. (“So, I guess what you’re saying, Emily—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that sometimes it’s better for kids to have a little bit of chocolate milk at lunchtime, if the alternative is … no milk at all?”) And among the women, no one has been, or probably ever will be, as precisely suited as Katie Couric.
She arrived just as the Today show family had briefly and disastrously revealed its true self: not a family at all, but a group of careerists who pretended to be fond of one another the way that Robin Williams pretended to be Mork. Bryant Gumbel, who was then co-hosting with Jane, had written a memo—leaked to the press—deriding Willard Scott’s buffoonery and Gene Shalit’s mediocrity. Then he, and the show’s management, became smitten with a toothsome glamazon named Deborah Norville, who began chewing through Today show cast members like salted peanuts. First, John Palmer was sent packing, and then she took a fancy to the seat next to Bryant’s: the next thing you knew,Jane Pauley, with her sensible turtlenecks, plaid jumpers, and slept-on hairdos, was out on the street. A significant portion of the once-loyal audience, including yours truly, jumped ship. (My Good Morning America interlude with Joan Lunden—not so bad, really.) Live by the sword, die by the sword. Deborah was pushed out more rudely than Jane had been, and we began to trickle back, to take a look at the person they’d hired to make things right: Katherine (“I still can’t decide whether I’m Katherine or Katie!” she said 10 seconds into her first broadcast) Couric.
What an odd little creature Katie was, considering the high expectations placed upon her: plain, chirpy, and not only pregnant but sporting a Dorothy Hamill wedge, the tonsorial equivalent of a vow of chastity. She was capable and upbeat, but apparently no more than that, and Bryant underestimated her. He tossed her the lightweight stories on parenting and homemaking, evidently unaware that he was allowing her to forge a link with the show’s core demographic. And Katie was playing a terrific hand: she was much smarter—and much tougher—than she looked. She consistently over-delivered on interviews with newsmakers and, immersed as she was in the intensity of new motherhood and the demands of a skyrocketing career, she saw firsthand the stirrings of what would be the biggest lifestyle story of her generation: work-life balance.