The Today show didn’t remind me of my own home, but it was about “home,” and that was almost as good—in some respects, even better. Morning after morning, in the studio that seemed to me like a cheery New York apartment, with its living-room furniture and kitchen, and following a format (news, weather, segment, segment, repeat) as inflexible and calming as a morning in elementary school, Jane and Tom learned how to cook things, how to budget for a family of four, how to choose a vacuum cleaner. They sipped mugs of coffee, they complained in a good-natured way about the early hour, and ever so rarely they—Jane more than Tom—let slip something about their personal lives. They evinced a fondness for each other that was too unalloyed to be marital, too sexless to be romantic, and too intimate to be purely professional. Steadfast, uncomplicated in their allegiances, they were foursquare on the side of the American experience as it revealed itself in corn-husking competitions and Fourth of July parades and Thanksgiving preparations. They were educated without being intellectual, possessed a narrow range of well-modulated emotions, and day by day transmitted—through the mystery of telecommunications—a secret message intended just for me: defy your parents and major in education instead of English. They understood and were not ashamed of the part of me that embarrassed my parents: my squareness.
In return, I watched them faithfully—although watch, I realize, is the wrong verb where this phenomenally successful program is concerned; anyone who fails to grasp this fact will never understand why the Today show will survive the death of nightly news, the death of the newspaper, and even the collapse of television as a major player in the media world. The Today show, like life itself, unfolds while you’re doing other things. If my adult life were to be presented as one long series of mornings, you would see me growing older in a series of vignettes: puttering around the dorm room with Dorothy, tugging on panty hose for my first real job, making breakfast for an overnight guest, gazing out the windows of a hundred hotel rooms, bouncing a cranky baby on my hip, sitting on the edge of the bed and reading over the eulogy I would deliver at my mother’s funeral, handing lunch boxes to waiting children, fielding telephone calls about overdue page proofs and missing permission slips—and always, always, off to the side, there would be a television, and on it, keeping me company, distracting me from myself, making me feel that my somewhat disorganized private life was taking place within the reassuring structure of something larger and better, would be the Today show.
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.