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As someone who never watched a full episode of the Today show or really any network newscast after leaving home for college, I can say with confidence that Katie Couric meant absolutely nothing to me when I picked up her new memoir. As such, you might think I’d be the last person in America to be won over by it. But resistance to this book, appropriately titled Going There, appears futile. By the time I hit page 50, she’d already finagled me into her corner. Reading it was a two-day crash course in the American infatuation with Couric’s wholesome smile and cap of tousled brunette hair, spiced by her late-life regrets over how she once handled everything from race and gender to homelessness. The book satisfies the appetite for two types of voyeurism: the desire to peek into the lives of the rich and famous, and the wish to see them do penance for the sins they committed along the way.
Going There arrives accompanied by a long, tortuous profile in New York magazine by Rebecca Traister, a piece that wrestles with both the insane privilege Couric enjoyed at the summit of her success—she accepted a salary of $15 million to anchor the CBS evening news in 2006—and the floridly misogynistic media industry in which she won it. What a difference a decade or two makes. Couric’s partner at Today was Matt Lauer, with whom she enjoyed a particular on-screen chemistry, “the perception that we were like brother and sister.” She maintains that while she heard “whispers” of Lauer’s affairs and found them “gross,” she had no idea of the allegations of sexual harassment that would cost Lauer his job in 2017. But all this happened, she clarifies, in a workplace that sounds like the ad agency in Mad Men, rife with rumored liaisons between male higher ups and young female staffers, and with no policy in place to prevent them. “At one point,” she writes, “even the head of HR was screwing a low-level producer.”
Publicly, gossip tabloids drummed up the rivalry among top female broadcasters like Couric and Diane Sawyer into headline-grabbing “catfights.” The competition was real, partly because the slots available to women were so few, and partly because it always is for such jobs. But “I find it puzzling that turf wars involving ruthlessly competitive men barely register,” Couric deadpans. She confesses that once she’d made it, she happily mentored younger women in jobs that posed no threat to her own but was “way less welcoming” to up-and-coming female correspondents like Ashleigh Banfield. This fall, one of the tabloids that used to revel in pitting these women against each other, the New York Post, rather hilariously used excerpts from Going There to accuse Couric of having “never been an ally to other women.” (The real reason conservative tabloids have it in for Couric is twofold: She wrested an admission of support for Roe v. Wade out of Laura Bush on the eve of her pro-life husband’s inauguration in 2001, and, above all, she conducted an infamous give-her-enough-rope interview with Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign.)
Going There is full of reckonings of the type widely demanded these days, although Couric’s are exceptionally candid. She has two daughters, aged 25 and 30, the younger of whom dug up evidence that Couric’s beloved late husband’s enthusiasm for Civil War reenactments extended to a disturbing fondness for the iconography of the Lost Cause. He once boasted to the United Daughters of the Confederacy that Couric was descended from a “member of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry,” Forrest being the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Couric’s daughters surely spurred her to confront such unsavory facts, and she writes that she wants to believe that their father (who died of colon cancer in 1998, at the age of 42), had he lived, would have been open to “listen and learn from what this keenly sensitized, incredibly well-informed generation had to say.”
The tales of glory, the mea culpas, and even the dish proved less fascinating to me, however, than Couric’s command of the art of being likable. (In fact, the tales, the confessions, and the astutely deployed gossip are all part of that art.) This is a skill often derided but disastrously beyond the reach of figures ranging from politicians to fictional characters. Going There is a master class in likability, the careful balance of self-deprecation, identifiable yearnings, and chipper indomitability. When Couric describes having a C-section under local anesthetic and hearing “the squishing sound of the surgeon pushing my bladder and intestines aside so he could get to the baby,” the effect is one of startling intimacy, as if the reader were in the operating room with her. She really seems to be fulfilling the promise in her prologue of delivering, in this book, “the whole me.”
In fact, Couric’s body, especially her GI tract, has supplied her with an impressive amount of content over the years. In one of her most famous Today segments, she had a colonoscopy on national television to encourage more people to get the screenings that might have saved her husband’s life. And many of the funny stories she relates in Going There involve her vomiting, whether from morning sickness or taking a spin in a F-16 fighter jet. (She emerged from the plane and announced, “Look, everyone! A two-bagger!”) She admits to suffering from an eating disorder in her youth and rock-hard fibrocystic breasts in later life. Under the influence of such frankness, it becomes easier to forget that $15 million paycheck, especially when your audience is other women, for whom the female body tends to feel like a universal leveler.
For 500-plus pages, Going There dishes out anecdotes, funny or chilling, that resemble scenes from Lifetime movies. The seemingly perfect nanny who became obsessed with Couric. The co-op board that refused to renew her sublease when her husband was dying. The time the head of NBC told her to buy a Chanel suit in Paris on the network’s dime. The day her daughter ate too many churros at Disneyland and got diarrhea in the car. The dashing boyfriend who came on strong then turned cold. Even when the underlying circumstances set these stories well out of the sphere of the ordinary (as a Today host, Couric could afford her own Chanel suit and that boyfriend owned the San Diego Padres), Couric expertly casts them as the delights and travails of an average middle-class woman. She made a point, she explains, of buying her on-air clothes from Ann Taylor and similar retailers patronized by such women. That last item may be the most telling revelation in Going There. The book absolutely convinced me that it was delivering the real Katie Couric, unvarnished and unpretentious, someone I could well imagine befriending. Whether that’s just another outfit that Couric can shed at will is something I’ll never know.