On 'Today,' Laura Bush Hits a Gusher

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

If Laura Bush had a real, honest-to-goodness day job, she would be well advised to keep it. The first lady, taking time out from whatever she would normally be doing, made her debut yesterday as the anchor of a network morning show, co-hosting the third hour of "Today" on NBC. For a president's wife, she was okay, but it's unlikely she'll be a candidate to take over for Oprah should Winfrey ever retire.

Daughter Jenna, on the other hand, showed a striking poise during her moments on camera, seemingly more enthusiastic about being there than either her mother or her twin sister, Barbara, who was a more passive presence. (It could hardly be a coincidence that they appeared on the day that Laura and Jenna Bush's new book, "Read All About It!," arrived in stores.)

The regular "Today" anchors had the bad manners to talk over Mrs. Bush on occasion, when she tried to comment on such lightweight topics as cooking, children's books and the Bushes' "eco-friendly" house in Crawford, Tex. Not a trained broadcaster, Laura Bush doesn't bellow things the way so-called professionals do, and was sometimes the victim of audio upstaging.

Unseen but heard as the 9 o'clock hour began, speaking from off-screen while theme music played, the first lady greeted viewers with: "And welcome back to another hour of 'Today.' . . . I'm Laura Bush and I'll be your guest host today -- Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008."

"Now there's something you don't hear every day," marveled awestruck "Today" host Matt Lauer. Turning to Mrs. Bush, co-anchor Ann Curry gushed, "You did that so well, it's obvious that we are overpaid." That's usually obvious, anyway.

The first lady, in fact, was treated more like a guest audience than a guest host, having few responsibilities and instead fielding questions from Lauer, Curry and weatherman Al Roker, all of whom joined her on camera for the opening shot. The 26-year-old Bush twins could be glimpsed as they sat watching from another part of the studio. "What do you think, girls?" Lauer asked them.

The first lady seemed to be part of a brief Bush blitz, perhaps to seize the airwaves away, at least momentarily, from Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. President Bush turned up via videotape Monday night on the NBC prime-time game show "Deal or No Deal," wishing good luck to Capt. Joseph Kobes, who's had three tours of duty in Iraq (two of them voluntary, he said). Repeatedly hailed as a great American hero by host Howie Mandel, the soldier nevertheless went away, like so many "Deal" contestants, with his dreams of a quick fortune crushed, ultimately leaving with $78,000 instead of the $3 million he could have won. The president had said he was happy to be on hand to wish the young man luck and in fact was "happy to be anyplace with high ratings."

For good measure, former president George H.W. Bush was seen on the "Today" show, if only in a still photograph. It showed him proudly displaying a 135-pound fish he caught over the weekend -- and then threw back into the water, it was pointed out. "He was so thrilled," the first lady said.

During the tour of the Bush house in Texas, the first lady revealed that she has strolled twice among Washington's cherry blossoms, incognito and mostly unrecognized. Roker asked Mrs. Bush what was on her iPod, and she said it was nothing "surprising," just some rock, some Motown and such. Asked how the president proposed to her, she said he did nothing fancy or elaborate: "He just asked me. He said, 'Do you want to get married?' "

The first lady participated in -- and won -- a sandwich-making contest during a segment on New Orleans cooking. The guest chef, standing next to her, put an arm around her as if she were an old pal, making Mrs. Bush look briefly uncomfortable. But then during another segment, Curry propped a pillow on her shoulder and leaned against her as if taking a nap, a bit of joshing that fell flat.

Curry and Lauer both seemed to be on hyperdrive -- as opposed to Mrs. Bush, who was calm and collected and didn't shout. After the first lady's victory on the cooking segment, Curry chimed, "Well done!" When a psychologist offered suggestions during a segment on raising twins, Curry declared, "That was great advice." And after Mrs. Bush's anecdote about cherry blossoms, Curry gushed, "It's so beautiful!"

"It's been great," the first lady said of her hosting experience, limited though it was. If anything, she was more hampered than helped by all the ersatz assistance that the regular "Today" stars kept forcing on her.

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