8:41 am Oct. 21, 2010
Her reading was at seven, but Hoda Kotb, host of the fourth hour of "Today" and now, with the release to bookstores of her book Hoda, a memoirist, was running into the front entrance of the White Plains Barnes and Noble at 6:15 p.m. last night. She was whisked inside by two employees, far from the crowd already assembled in folding chairs in the music section.
Several of Kotb's fans were clutching their open books, though other attendees seemed less familiar. "Do you watch her and Kathie Gifford?" asked a woman in the second row.
"Yeah, occasionally," said a third-row denizen.
"I think she makes fun of her."
In the front row, a family of four took pictures of the banner spread out behind the podium. Behind them, a pair of professional-looking young ladies took pictures of one another. The bookstore's Director of Community Relations asked the assembled whether they’d heard about the event on "Today" or on Twitter, Facebook, or Linked In. One man asked if "from my girlfriend" counted as a source.
Suddenly, Kotb strode in, carrying a black leather bag with the zipper part of a Ziploc bag sticking out of the top. "Hell-oh!" she cried, to a crowd that burst into applause. Kotb let Community Relations run the show during introductory remarks, with that Ed McMahonish impression of attentiveness coupled with a soupcon of show-stealing: a stage-whispered "yeahhh..." at a mention of Kathie Lee Gifford, a cocked eyebrow at the descriptor "serious journalist," applied to herself. At the end of a litany of her awards, the crowd applauded again, but for the only time in the evening, Kotb stopped posing. Her lower jaw had receded a bit and she may have been staring at the flower display on the signing table, some artificial-looking 'mums with a straw scarecrow sticking out.
But Kotb is a pro—she read in Westbury on Sunday and Huntington on Tuesday, and is off to Atlantic City tonight—and perhaps she was just thinking through her routine. "How’s everyone?" she began, capably adjusting her mic while pulling the stand behind the podium without assistance. Her introduction began with the news that Hoda made next week’s New York Times bestseller list, and she briefly noted her own accomplishment—she’d gotten a call on the car ride over!—before launching into a story about how she’d tricked Gifford into thinking the derogatory reference in Hoda’s subtitle, "How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee," was Kathie Lee Gifford's own idea. (The plan was hatched over "our third glass of … lunch.") "So none of you tell her!" Kotb said, as though this crowd were one that saw Gifford socially on a somewhat regular basis.
Kotb moved on to tales of her early career—she had been rejected from positions at various affiliates throughout the American South. Kotb's gift for making the trite believable is common among on-air talent but she is a paragon. At each rejection, the audience groaned in sympathy, even though Kotb had made it clear she lacked the broadcasting talent or experience back then. Each audience member was struck by the story’s universality—the man with the girlfriend later stood up to ask about how Kotb dealt with rejection, pleasing his plus-one—as well as its specificity. Kotb seemed to believe this part of her story most deeply. Once unhireable anywhere, Kotb has become the embodiment of perfect mutability, hireable everywhere in the spectrum of television news.
Kotb's portion of the speech about her cancer diagnosis was most memorable for its claim that only cancer gave Kotb the gumption to ask for a chance to host "Today's" fourth hour. She’s become, post-cancer, post-divorce (touched on only slightly, when she declared, "I’m divorced. And you’d be, too, if you were with him") a sort of Howard Beale figure, telling a specific sort of truth.
Kotb is studiously apolitical—she noted that she didn’t like the political polarization of broadcast news, and strives to avoid it in her own work—but there’s no question that she’s feeling liberated. Her story has that touch of Eat Pray Love-style wisdom (a sage seatmate on a transatlantic flight played a large role in her reading and, surely, does so in Hoda), but, judging by the evident and near universal rapture of her audience, it worked. Someone in my row borrowed a pen to take notes on a folded sheet of paper; halfway through, she was laughing along and wasn’t writing, having stopped at: "Hoda Kotb: Journalist. Iraq."
Kotb credits Gifford, her unlikely co-host on "Today," with some of her reinvention, telling one of her perfectly sculpted stories about a time when Gifford told her, on the air, to throw away her cards. She did! "It might be dead air, it might cut to black... but I was always so worried about doing it right, and when you do it right, things can be boring."
But she was definitely doing it right. So right that she knew how to appear to dismantle her newswoman image for her audience, without sacrificing any of her authority. In fact, magnifying it. Of "Dateline NBC," for which she still reports, Kotb said, "I watch all the 'Dateline's, not just mine. And they’re popcorn-poppers. You watch 'til the end. But usually the wife did it. Even though they seemed like the perfect couple."
When a questioner asked whether Meredith Vieira is leaving "Today," Kotb was diplomatic (I hope the family stays together!); when the questioner pressed on, telling Kotb she’d be perfect as lead anchor, she grinned: "From your lips to God’s ears." Oh, Hoda, we're all behind you!
The one thing she can’t be budged on is Gifford, whom Kotb was asked about several times and about whom she is nothing but kind. "So politically correct, she is," sneered a woman near me. "Mmm, she's a Scorpio," said the woman next to me, who came 15 minutes late—she snuck out of work at the nearby Macy’s to be here, she told me.
So she has her platform. Is Kotb living the life she imagined for herself, in the early days? Hard to say, as in her initial story about searching for work in the South, she mainly noted the cute guys at her prospective employers. That search continues, and toward the end of the question-and-answer session she said that she’d found a date at each of her book signings thus far, and had high hopes for this night. The crowd, almost entirely middle-aged women, laughed heartily. As they queued up for the signing, Kotb pushed her Ipod earbuds into the mic, and pressed play; "Come and Get Your Love" played quietly. For once, she was in a situation beyond her control, as the audience tried to puzzle out the tune. "Redbone! Download it when you get home!" Kotb announced, before Community Relations could get to the speakers to turn up the volume. "You been holding out on me!" Kotb yelled, breaking into a grin. She was ready to autograph now.