A wealthy businessman has sent a bottle of champagne over to the table where Phyllis George, all 10 million kilowatts of her, is having lunch at the Four Seasons. With the champagne there is a note that says, "The Big Apple toasts the new queen of TV."
That makes the new queen of TV smile a beauty-queenly smile. "Don't tell Barbara about this," she whispers, then chuckles, though so far, Barbara Walters probably isn't losing any sleep over Phyllis George. Now in her seventh week as cohost of "The CBS Morning News," George has not been quite the twinkling comet CBS hoped she would be. Lifting her champagne glass, George cheerfully toasts, "To good ratings!" So far, they haven't been. The show still straggles a distant third behind ABC's powerhouse "Good Morning, America" and NBC's venerable institution, the "Today" show.
Give her time, though. Give her time. The 35-year-old former Miss America (1971), former first lady of Kentucky, former captivating presence on the CBS "NFL Today" show, the gal with the million-dollar smile (for which CBS is paying, literally, $500,000 per cheekbone per annum), does not lack for determination, does not lack for support at CBS, and does not lack for sunny countenance. Zounds. In person, she is even prettier, even more dazzling, than she is on television, and she exudes charm the way Mount St. Helens exudes molten lava. You can't escape it unless you're dead.
Even the competition expresses some admiration. "I think Phyllis George could make it," says Steve Friedman, the savvy and canny "Today" show executive producer. "She needs a lot of work. It takes a long time to figure out what to do with someone like her. The thing that Phyllis George has is star quality. She lights up and fills up the screen."
America wants a return to simpler times? Phyllis is it. She's simpler times incarnate, the anchor as cheerleader. "Phyllis is one of the great old girls of the South," says an admiring female media colleague. "Talking to her is like going to a slumber party and putting cold cream all over your face." Some would say that George would make a better National Hostess than anchorwoman, and that if she succeeds, it will be a decisive new triumph of glittery surface over solid substance. Ultimate telebabble.
But "some" should meet her. Watch her trill her way through lunch, sampling from the plates of others at the table; scolding herself for having a wine spritzer and a chocolate mousse ("I've been a bad girl today!") after having laboriously slimmed down to do the "Morning News"; playfully socking her portly executive producer, Jon Katz -- sent along to the lunch by CBS News executives as protection for Phyllis -- when he makes jokes at her expense; politely refusing to total up the value of the outfit and the jewelry she has on at the moment; even artfully buttering up her interviewer with fluttery compliments. What a performance! What a gal! What a star!
"You know I think everybody up here and in Washington and the big cities talks about oh, the battle of hard news and soft news and this and that," George says, "but the people Out There in America -- 'cause television goes all the way across America -- those people out there aren't as sophisticated as you [to reporter] or as journalistically virtuous as you to Katz ; they want to have information, they want to be in a pleasant mood when they go off. There's sometimes a lot of very bad news on the air. We can tell them that, but that doesn't mean we have to send them off to work in Nebraska in a bad mood!"
The level of bubbly cheerfulness on the "Morning News" may be excessive but, says George, it isn't faked, at least not on her part. "You know, if you knew me for longer than this lunch you would see that a lot of that is my personality. I mean, you're talking to Miss Congeniality! I mean, this is not a forced thing for goodness' sakes! You're talking to Miss Congeniality!"
And who could doubt it for a second? But congeniality is one thing, and knowing what you are doing is another, and so far, George has not been doing very good interviews on the show. She looks unprepared. She clings to notes. She stumbles and bumbles. Says one top CBS insider, "Either she isn't doing her homework, or the homework doesn't take."
"Sincerity," says George. "That's what I hope I project. And in fact my husband just told me that somebody said that to him. Somebody said I project sincerity."
Yes, yes, but a lot of times those questions she asks so sincerely have been written for her by others and just handed to her, right?
"That's what I'm getting ready to tell you," she says curtly. "They hand me questions, and Jon and I will look them over, and I'll say, 'Jon, I'm not comfortable with that, I want to go a different way with this.' "
"She does not read word-for-word the question," Katz interjects. "She is given research. She does not sit there and read somebody else's questions." Often, though, it looks that way. Katz says in the past couple of weeks Phyllis has become more "comfortable" and is relying more on her own instincts, less on the omnipresent notes.
She looked comfortable enough with Billy Crystal, the engaging comic actor of "Saturday Night Live," until the subject of Crystal's Fernando Lamas-like character ("mahviliss!") came up and Phyllis asked Billy if Fernando had ever written or called him about it. And Billy said, er, well, gee, I think he died a few years ago.
"Fernando? You wanna bring up Fernando?" George exclaims. "That is so minor in the big picture of life, that I cannot believe -- Jeeminy Christmas! Pull my hair out! It became the major topic of conversation! You know, he's been doing this for years, and Fernando Lamas just died two years ago; it wasn't an unheard of thing to say, 'Well, did he call you?' I mean, I did say 'did he call you?' Fernando Lamas is not somebody who gets in the headlines every day. It could have been Ricardo Montalban!"
George thinks she has been picked on by the press. There's been a lot of fuss about how frothy she is, and when she makes a mistake, people leap on that. One wire service sent out a story one morning saying George had cut off Linus Pauling in the middle of an interview. That gets done all the time in morning television. Besides, she says, Pauling's earpiece wasn't working and he couldn't hear her. And she ran out of time.
"I mean, I realize I was under the gun," she says of her opening weeks. "There were no people out there saying 'Oh, give her a chance!' They were just ready to pounce. But on the other hand, you have to expect that. You know, all the money that I was touted to be getting, and all the this's and the that's, it became more important than what my job was. And this is a serious job to me! I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think I could handle it, for God's sake! And then all the superfluous things -- Fernando Lamas, Linus Pauling -- it became almost a joke. We just started laughing about it. I couldn't worry about it. I had to get through the next day's show."
Does the criticism tick her off? Whoa boy.
"What would you think? Of course it does! Of course! If somebody was to come in and say, 'Uggghhh, oh, Phyllis!' I say, 'Don't, don't tell me, I don't want to read it.' I'm fine. I'm comfortable with who I am and what I'm doing and I've got a lot to learn, and I'm the first to admit it, and I'll grow doing it, but when they start getting nitpicky, it hurts."
"The sniping was astonishing," volunteers Katz. "It was like a nest of bees swarming around."
"But you know, why is that?" asks George ingenuously. "Shouldn't people be proud, or look favorably toward, people who grew up, became an adult, grew up and made something of their lives? I mean, why is there jealousy? Why is there jealousy out there? If Bryant Gumbel did that with Linus Pauling, or David Hartman did that, do you think they would have put out a wire story on it?
"Am I the kind of person people want to go after? I don't think I am. I never have been. I'm the least controversial person I know, to become so controversial. Someone once said, 'Why do you want to become famous, because then people start picking on you?' I think that's a decision you make long ago. If you want to go on in life and work and take risks, you've got to be prepared for that."
Oh Phyllis. Shut up and kiss me.
One of George's cuter, perhaps more revealing, goofs was the morning she referred to Andrew Lloyd Webber as the composer of "Jesus Christ Superstore." You do get the feeling that George's favorite form of exercise is shopping. She really seems to think she is a more or less typical working wife, that she can really relate to mom and pop out there in television land. Indeed, she bristles at the notion that breathing all that rarefied air might have put her just a trifle out of touch.
"Wait a minute!" she says. "I am from Denton, Texas, and I will never let you, or anybody at this table, forget that! I am a small-town girl from a small town and a small-town family. Can I be real shmaltzy?"
"Oh, stop! See what I have to put up with all day? I have to remain REAL!" She continues, "If I hadn't come from Denton, I wouldn't be sitting here right now with this great job and my great husband and my two beautiful children. The values that mom and dad -- who are still alive, and I love 'em, I love 'em to death -- taught me then, are with me now. I mean, I still say 'please' and 'thank you.' I'm a nice person. I still go to church.
"Also I've grown and grown and grown and grown. I didn't stay that little girl. I grew. I learned how to do my hair and put a little highlight in it. And I learned how to do makeup. You know, I learned that."
The spiritual journey of Phyllis George! Kahlil Gibran, eat your heart out!
"Yes, I know famous people. Yes, I'm married to a very successful and wealthy man. But he started out selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners in a very small town. Life is what you make it. This is what I lecture on around the country. Because if it can happen to me, it can happen to you and you and you. It's just how much you want it. And the opportunities are there, and my old expression is, 'If you snooze, you lose, if you snore you lose more.' So these people who are getting off on all of this, they're the ones who are having problems in general just relating to life.
"I mean, I do it perfectly well."
We'll get back to the philosophy of Phyllis George in a moment.
But first, Round 442 of the "Today" show versus "The CBS Morning News." Both are contenders for second place in the morning network ratings wars; ABC's "Good Morning, America" has been number one for an eternity -- which, in television, is three years. Katz and George automatically assume that anything bad said about their show was said by "Today" executive producer Friedman. They are not always right. But these things have a way of escalating. This is in some ways the most competitive time period in television.
Katz insists "Morning News" is doing better since George came aboard. "We have 750,000 more viewers than we had a month ago," he says. "I don't think there's any way this broadcast will not gain viewers. It's just not possible, not conceivable that it won't do better than it used to."
But Friedman says the ratings, which went up a tiny bit during the first two weeks of Phyllis, have gone back down again. "They're doing worse than when Charles Kuralt was in there," says Friedman. "That is an embarrassment. You can read the phone book and get a 15 share," which is what CBS is now getting. Friedman says the failure is additionally shocking when one considers that CBS is number one in the "Evening News" race, number one in prime-time entertainment, and number one in daytime as well.
"I hope they continue doing as well as they are doing now," Friedman scoffs. "The fact of the matter is that people are just not watching the 'CBS Morning News.' "
Katz counters by calling the "Today" show "stupefyingly boring" and too stuffy. "The 'Today' show is the greatest boon to Cabinet secretaries and ambassadors since the medium was invented," says Katz. "In terms of ratings, they have clearly lost the momentum they were establishing. They started to threaten 'GMA,' and then they had a precipitous and dramatic decline. The fact is, Phyllis stopped them cold."
Phyllis, the go girl, the glow girl, the stop-em-cold kid. She's the absolute new darling of CBS News. They have no doubts about her. She charms those tweedy executives right out of their bow ties. So what if she looks unprepared on the air, flubs lines, clings to her notes? She's the pizazziest thing they have ever seen. They're slack-jawed schoolboys panting after Scarlett O'Hara. If the show continues to fail, Phyllis will never be blamed. Indeed, people are already blaming coanchor Bill Kurtis, who came out of a happy berth on the CBS Chicago affiliate three years ago to be part of the new "Morning News" team that then included Diane Sawyer, now on "60 Minutes."
Kurtis, insiders say, absolutely hates Phyllis George, and it is beginning to show on the air. It also began to show in interviews Kurtis gave print journalists and trade publications, complaining about the way Phyllis was hired and suggesting it was getting awfully lonely for a Serious Journalist on that show. Kurtis's contract is up later this year. There is no discernible enthusiasm at CBS News for coaxing him to stay. At NBC, he is derisively referred to as "Bill 'Open Ticket' Kurtis," a reference to his supposedly imminent return to the Windy City. Around CBS he has been given a nickname previously lavished on former NBC News president William Small, similarly beset by ill fortune: "Mister Bill."
George says rumors that she spent a weekend reading Kurtis the riot act for giving those gabby interviews are untrue. "I read the riot act? No, I was at the ballet and the Ice Capades. I would have had a hard time doing that.
"I confronted him, though," she concedes. "Yeah, but that's my nature. I am not one of those that kind of goes and slams the door and hides. I mean, I confronted him. And we had a very lovely conversation about it, and I think he feels he was very misquoted and everything was taken out of context and he feels very badly about it."
Misquoted? Taken out of context? This was in, like, three different interviews.
"Oh. He must like to talk." She giggles. "I guess I'll have to go in and confront him again! And tell him to stop talking! We really get along very well. And he came in the other day and said, 'Phyllis, I'm all for you, 100 percent, I think it's great, my mail's never been so good.' "
George's mail is good, too, she says. A lot of it concerns her clothes. Her favorite color is red. All through the lunch-time conversation, and later in a limousine ride across town, George maintains an unflaggingly cheerful demeanor. Only once does the face fall. She is asked what she would do if her husband became a figure in the news being reported on the show. The ex-governor of Kentucky, who became a multimillionaire when he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire many years ago, last year underwent triple bypass surgery and withdrew from a Senate race because of his health. John Y. Brown is known for his flamboyant gambling. He once admitted dropping $1 million at a single sitting in Las Vegas.
"In what way could he be in the news?" George asks, not smiling. Katz leaps in. "I think she'd handle it right according to CBS News guidelines, and not be involved in the story," he says. It seems wise to drop the subject. Who wants to see Phyllis George glum? It's like watching Fred Astaire motionless in a chair.
"The marriage is intact," she says. "The marriage is just fine. You know, John's comment was, 'She came with me for five years, now it's my turn.' I was commuting all that time, and now he's commuting. We're survivors. You've got to have a lot of love and trust to make it work." Brown once said, "In all honesty, I don't think I could have gotten elected without Phyllis." Not hard to believe, no, not at all. Phyllis George is the woman that about a jillion men have given up all hope of finding. Journalist shmournalist.
"Joan Lunden once told me the definition of a journalist is, anyone who ever picked up a pen and wrote anything. And if that's the case, I've done a lot of that, a lot of that," George says. She is asked how far she wants to go at CBS, like maybe to anchoring the "Evening News" someday (don't laugh). "I've experienced most of the stuff that journalists write about," she says. "I've been out there experiencing life like maybe nobody else my age in the country. First Lady, Miss America -- you know, I've been lecturing around the country for 12 years. I've constantly been out there. I've been in touch with the people. I'm not some somebody that sits there and reads the news. I think I've become a real person!"
At one point in the conversation she says, like a besieged movie star, or a confused heiress in a screwball comedy, "I'm not really sure who I -- who am I?" Katz: "Phyllis George." George: "Thank you."
Sitting in the back seat of the limo that is always at her disposal (as is a hairdresser), rumbling past the Trump Plaza, where she and her family have a vast 31st-floor apartment, a breathtaking view that encompasses Central Park and such neighbors as baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and TV producer Dick Clark, George chatters on about her everyday problems: lack of closet space, acclimating the kids' nanny to New York, keeping her marriage and family functioning, getting up at 3 a.m., and the way her hair got messed up at this year's inaugural coverage by a fan aimed at a fogged-over window.
And then, with a sigh, she pauses and begins to declare aloud, as if it were a Buddhist chant, "I am a real person! I am a real person!" She's half-kidding, yes, but if you're Phyllis George, you probably do have to say that to yourself every now and then.