"And to our top story this morning, which is Katie," said Matt Lauer, on Katie Couric’s last day of waking up America for NBC. On behalf of the Today show staff, let Tuned In just say how glad we all are that no one blew up the White House this morning. Boy, would it have been awkward putting that in the number two slot!
Fortunately, it was a slow news day, which allowed Today to give over almost all of its three hours to the longest office goodbye party in American history, minus the Mumm’s champagne in paper cups–NBC sprung for real glass–but including the unintentionally funny co-worker speeches. (My favorites were the double-edged compliments from Today’s army of producers. "She’s the kid in class who borrows your notes and does better on the test than you," said one. Another: "She likes to share. If you’re wearing a scarf that she likes, she wants to wear that outside." OK, so she likes to share–your stuff.)
"It was once said that feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it," Katie told Lauer, reading tearfully from the TelePrompTer. Well, NBC gave that present today–and gave it and gave it and gave it. The tear-jerking tribute will go down as one of the most prodigious assemblages of clips ever–months in preparation, staggering in its breadth, drawing on Katie moments from the George H. W. Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina, and verklempt-making ballads from The Way We Were to Five for Fighting’s 100 Years. Massive, emotionally dominating, overwhelming, it was the D-Day invasion of TV clips specials.
More than anything, it was a reminder of what a really, really weird job being Today host is. Here is Katie interviewing presidential candidates Bob Dole and Ross Perot. And here is Katie flying through the air dressed as Peter Pan. Here is Katie badgering Kofi Annan. And here is Katie skating with Michelle Kwan. (Can Meredith Vieira possibly match Katie’s extension?) Here is Katie touring Ground Zero in a stars-and-stripes construction hat. And here is Katie kissing a chimpanzee.
You would think, if NBC wanted to protect the Nightly News against her move to CBS in the fall, it would have played up the chimp-kissing more. But evidently loyalty–and maybe the desire to burnish Today’s news reputation as Katie leaves–outweighed the temptation to to kneecap the soon-to-be competition. (Though, of course, the send-off managed to avoid mentioning just what job Katie was leaving Today for.)
So Couric got a classy send-off, emphasizing her hard-news coverage, albeit the (literally) touchy-feely news that Today specializes in. "You’ve held America’s hands through a lot of very difficult times," newsreader Ann Curry unctuously told Katie. And she has. But more than that, she held America’s heads. Katie’s laying hands on her subjects was a big motif: caressing the dent in the head of L.A. riot victim Reginald Denny, stroking the scalp of Trisha Meili, a.k.a. the Central Park jogger.
If there was a theme, after all, to the Couric era, it is survivorhood, the great theme of daytime TV and one that Couric has lived herself. More than any news anchor, Katie shared her personal life with the audience, and she reminisced about it, from starting her job while five months pregnant, with morning sickness–the irony, I’m guessing, was not lost on Elizabeth Vargas if she was watching–to losing her husband Jay Monahan at age 42 to colon cancer. To her credit, though, she defused some of the more uncomfortably maudlin tributes. "You made me love you," Curry gushed at one point. "Don’t be a stranger. Or I’ll come calling."
"You’re starting to creep me out, Ann," Couric replied, speaking for millions of us.
But being the pro that she is, Katie delivered the waterworks when she had to. Maybe the most touching, yet most bizarre moments came when six of her past subjectsâ€”Meili and five other survivors of tragedies from Littleton to the World Trade Centerâ€”came to Rockefeller Plaza to thank Katie for "helping [them] to heal," and she in turn thanked them by introducing Trisha Yearwood and Idina Menzel, dueting on "For Good," from the musical Wicked.
Six tragedy victims and a TV star, commemorating 15 years of pain, redemption and celebrity, to the tune of a Broadway power ballad–this is the Today show in a nutshell. Damned if I didn’t reach for the Kleenex. Shut up.