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Katie Couric did it

”The Today Show” is back thanks to the anchor’s wit, charm, and serious credentials

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Head cheese. Bryant Gumbel is serving head cheese to Katherine Couric. It’s a Wednesday morning and it’s filler time, bridge time, a bit of collegial bonhomie on a day that includes stories about racism in America, the new L.A. police chief, and a man with a baboon liver in his body. And here is Gumbel, the Today show’s sure and polished anchor of 10 years, holding out a plate of crackers and — eww, what’s in it? — to his new and energetic co-anchor of 15 months.

”Try it, come on, it’s good, try it!” Gumbel urges, grinning. Couric accepts, doubting. The stuff is awful, vile beyond joking, a gelatinous specialty made from pig parts. She grimaces and scrunches her eyes, shakes her head, works her jaw — and finishes the transaction with a do-you-believe-I’m-doing-this? smile.

”Stay on Katie, stay on Katie, stay with her!” whoops Today‘s executive producer Jeff Zucker in the control room to director Bucky Gunts as the camera zooms in on her horrified face and everyone in the room laughs, exhilarated, alert. ”Run it again!” he shouts.

That Wednesday, the venerable, 40-year-old Today show, an American tradition, the mother of all morning shows, which once had a chimpanzee as a featured player, closes with a slow-motion replay of the respected 35-year-old journalist, broadcaster, and great hope for NBC’s morning ratings as she charms viewers and pays attention to timing cues and tries to get the taste of head cheese out of her teeth.

”See that? That’s what I want more of, that spontaneity,” says Zucker, waving a hand and chewing on a plastic coffee stirrer. ”Katie’s the most natural person I’ve ever seen in this role. She’s terrific. This is so new to her and she’s getting better every day. She doesn’t even realize how good she is.”

Viewers do. To them, Katie Couric is a lively letter from home, your high school best friend, a woman who can maneuver with seeming ease between the self-possessed directness required of a trustworthy journalist and the self-aware humor and spontaneity needed to warm a bleary audience of 3 1/2 million at 7 a.m. Couric comes across as a lady — a working wife, the energetic mother of a year-old girl — but also as a great gal. On a program that positions itself as the most news-oriented of the three network morning shows, she carries weight as a serious journalist with solid reporting credentials (Pentagon beat, national correspondent); she also knows how to handle furry zoo animals as needed. She can project elegance, but there’s a wink in her eye. In the right setting, she will burst into song.

”Sometimes I do things on the show and I think, I am so weird!” she says. ”And then I think, hey, I’m not an oncologist here; this isn’t about cancer. I mean, this is a soap opera guy from Days of Our Lives!”

It’s another day now, and we’re in a noisy restaurant where the waiters smile at her and Couric is still in her on-air Big Earrings and brightly simple Anchor Dress. But her on-air Vivid Lipstick has faded. And she is digging into a plate of crispy shrimp bits.

”It’s funny. When people approach me on the street, they all say, ‘Did anybody ever tell you you look like Katie Couric?’ Nobody thinks I am; they just think I’m, like, her secret twin or something. But they’re really polite and sweet.”

She says she is thin-skinned, that she takes her work ultra-seriously and that she is her own harshest critic. But what’s to be harsh about? Couric elicits sweetness. She projects a kind of irresistibly vibrant American womanhood. And ratings reflect her appeal: After trailing Good Morning America for the past two years, the Today show has been first or tied for first with GMA for the last two months. Gumbel, a cool and somewhat aloof customer even in the loosest of times, seems visibly more relaxed on-air, and morale on the set is high. ”It’s a happy place in which everyone likes each other, listens to each other, and has fun with each other,” says NBC news division president Michael Gartner with his own obvious relief. ”The place is fun to be around.”

It wasn’t so long ago that fun was in short supply. For the eight years that Jane Pauley sat in the co-anchor chair with Gumbel, the Today show sat solidly in first place among the three network morning news-and-talk-and-fruit-salad-recipe shows. But when the popular Pauley departed in December 1989 — replaced, in a bruising and ungraceful sequence of events, by former NBC News at Sunrise anchor Deborah Norville — ratings plummeted; critics cast Norville as the home-wrecking younger, blonder Other Woman, and the audience (whose morning viewing habits tend to die hard) left the Today show in droves. Fourteen months later Norville gave birth to her first child, a boy, and took maternity leave. Katherine Couric, then the show’s Washington, D.C.-based national correspondent, filled in. Two months later, in April of 1991, Norville announced her permanent leave — to be with her son, she said — and Couric, herself five months pregnant, was officially named co-anchor. She gave birth in August to Elinor (”Ellie,” named for Couric’s mother), took two months off, and returned to a program reenergized by her pomp-deflating lack of pretentiousness.

”I didn’t want to turn my life upside down, and I didn’t really want to turn Deborah’s life upside down, either,” says Couric of the awkward transition. In fact, there had been backstage talk of replacing Norville with Couric the spring before, but executives decided further upheaval would look even worse at the time. ”I heard the same (backstage talk),” Couric says. ”But I took it at face value that I was just substituting. And, to be honest with you, I didn’t want to know.”

The job means a commuting marriage with her husband of three years, Jay Monahan, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, and distance from her close-knit family in Arlington, Va. ”Being apart is really tough and definitely not what I had in mind when I got married and decided to have a family. I don’t think it’s healthy; I don’t think it’s good for Ellie. I think there’s going to be a point when Jay will be up here and possibly take some time off, so we can be together.” As it stands now, Couric lives with Ellie and a nanny in New York during the week and Monahan comes to visit; on weekends she and baby and nanny fly south to D.C. or to the couple’s farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley. (This summer, Couric is attempting a daily commute from a New Jersey beach house rented when her husband took on a local case.) She would, she says, like to have a second child in the not-too-distant future.

Still, Couric took the job — how could she resist? Her father, John, a former newspaperman, had steered his daughter, the youngest of four children, into broadcasting. Following graduation from the University of Virginia in 1979, Couric worked her way up from desk assistant at ABC News in Washington, D.C., to CNN in Atlanta, to Miami’s WTVJ, and NBC’s Washington station, WRC, before joining NBC’s network news as No. 2 Pentagon reporter in 1989.

On-air anchoring work was her weak spot. ”I had never anchored a show!” she says. ”I was always a field reporter, which was great; I really liked covering a story. All this stuff with the fingers and the countdown and the earpiece — 30 seconds, station break, ‘This is Today‘ — BLEAGGH! It was all very new to me and tough at first and I would get very uptight.”

Not that you’d know. ”Katie has buoyed a lot of people,” says Jeff Zucker, who was once her field producer in Washington, D.C. He was brought to Today by Pauley and assumed the top slot eight months ago, at the age of 27, backed by Gumbel and Couric. ”She’s a breath of fresh air,” says Zucker.

And she makes Gumbel smell sweeter, too.”We just have fun together,” says Couric of her sometimes prickly co-anchor. ”Yes, he can be intimidating, if you let him be. If he senses weakness, I think he sort of chews you up and spits you out — and I say this all in a flattering way. He makes me crazy sometimes, and I think I probably make him crazy. But — it works. I sometimes wish somebody…I think people take him for granted. He’s really excellent at what he does.”

Gumbel on Couric: ”I try to say things or do things that I know will trip her trigger in a certain direction.”

Couric on Gumbel: ”The way to get along with Bryant is, do your homework, don’t let him drown and he won’t let you drown. He’s still the captain of the ship in terms of guiding it. But I do feel like an equal partner with him in terms of the division of labor. That was one of the important conditions of my taking this job — I wasn’t going to do all the Martha Stewart segments or lead- ins. I’ve been in television journalism for 11 years and I didn’t want to be this sidekick who sort of giggled and did the features. And furthermore, I don’t think the American people at this point in time, mercifully, would tolerate that.”

As the Today show solidifies its strengths — Zucker urges more flexibility and a stronger second hour; Gumbel says he’d be happier with ”a little more depth of writing staff” — there are some who say Couric is more and more crucial to the ship, that viewers are more excited about Katie than they are about Bryant. Clearly her new five-year contract (reportedly at more than $1 million a year) and her four-week stint reporting from the Olympics at Barcelona attest to her audience-building popularity. Meanwhile, Couric professes to shrug all this off. ”Look, I’m the new kid on the block,” she says, ”and I came after a very bad experience for the show.” Zucker simply points to having ”pieces of the puzzle” that all work well now.

And Gumbel talks coolly. ”If I say it’s totally Katie, I offend everyone else. If I try to minimize her, it’s downplaying it. You know, people attach too much importance…they say when Deborah was here, (the show was bad) because Deborah was awful; now (the show is good) because Katie is wonderful. I think that’s oversimplification. It’s all the elements. One strengthens the other. For the record, I’m not jealous.”

For the record, lunch is finished and we’re in Couric’s cozy office, which is filled with girlfriends — staffers, actually, including Betty Brady, her assistant, and Trish Peters, Bryant’s assistant, as well as a guy bringing her fancy dresses to try on for a wedding she’ll be attending in a few weeks. The respected journalist who bagged the first interview with General Norman Schwarzkopf at the end of the Gulf War wriggles out of her Anchor Dress and zips into a pile of chiffon and satin and silk. She mugs, she poses, she giggles, she vamps for her pals, and at one point she breaks into a bad-nightclub-act of a song. In her oversized tote bag, for later reading, is a wire story about a recent Supreme Court ruling.

The women laugh. The co-anchor grins. Fortunately for her thin skin, she hasn’t heard the worst thing Bryant Gumbel has said about Katie Couric: ”She’s not half as good a singer as she thinks she is.”