"It seems funny, me being the one who's been on the longest," mused Joan Lunden. "It seems like I've always been the youngest one in the group. I started school early and skipped a grade."
Of course, it's not that she's so old. It's just that in a business where five years can be a long run, she's gone marathon distance.
Tuesday Lunden will mark her 10 anniversary as host on "Good Morning America," ABC's morning news and feature program. Jane Pauley, who had been her counterpart on NBC's "Today" show, left after some 13 years of early-rising. Bryant Gumbel has been with "Today" since January of 1982.
Lunden's career at "GMA" actually began some 15 years ago when she was a reporter and weekend anchor at WABC in New York. "The nice thing about working in New York is that network executives live here and they see you," she said.
And they liked what they saw. Lunden drew various assignments on the show and remained a visible contender whenever show assignments changed.
"I kind of worked and earned it and stuck around until finally I got that seat," she said. But getting it and being comfortable in it were two different things.
"For the next seven years or so it was kind of precarious," said Lunden. Precarious in this case means David Hartman, the cohost who dominated the show when Lunden joined him as a fixture on the set. At a time when women were asserting their place in America as never before, Lunden was becoming something of a symbol of subservience.
"You wanted to be able to grow -- we all hope that we do that -- but at the same time you don't want to seem overconfident or pushy, outside the boundaries that have been set," she said. "That's how you get fired. I walked that fine line for seven years. Then came the opportunity to become a full partner." That opportunity came in the form of a new contract.
She looks back on the Hartman years in the same way she seems to look at most things between 7 and 9 a.m.: with few if any negative emotions. At least none that get heated expression.
"There was never any question that it was David's show," she said. "He came at a time when they were trying to mount a show against 'Today.' They went out and got a big Hollywood star to take on 'Today.'"
But the inequality chafed, nonetheless. Women were writing in that they were insisting on equality in their homes and wanted it on television in the morning too. "There have been times when I've gotten frustrated with a restricted role. Some of it comes from external pressure, or critics writing and saying you're nothing but David's cuff links."
But as seems to be her nature, it's easier to remember the good times, to bask in the glow of having the top morning show in the ratings, and to be in a position to offer friendly advice to her suffering competitor, Deborah Norville.
ABC research indicated a year ago that "GMA," with its team of Lunden and Charles Gibson, would be the number one show in the morning by the first quarter of this year, Lunden recalled (and they have been, 32 straight weeks and counting). "NBC obviously had people looking at the same research," she said. The result was a series of changes that left Pauley pursuing other interests at NBC. Norville took her place, with a home-wrecker label seemingly pasted on her back.
"I have incredible sympathy for Deborah Norville," said Lunden. "She had three strikes against her going in. She didn't do this to herself. It was handled in such a way that she has to live with it.
"All she can do is go on and be herself and try to win people over." Of course, Lunden doesn't want her to win over too many people. "It's still nice to win."
Which, she feels, she, Gibson and "GMA" could do for another four years or so. "That's why I have a five-year contract," she said.
Odd as her hours are, they are ideal for Lunden. She and her husband Michael Krauss have three daughters, ages 10, 7 and 3. "This is the perfect job for me," said Lunden, who'll be 40 in September. "If you're willing to get up that early, you can get done by 10 a.m. I go home and I'm a mom until late in the afternoon." Then she's on the telephone discussing plans for the next morning's program. By 9 p.m. it's lights out.
"I'm having my cake and eating it too," said Lunden. "Where else am I going to get a job this challenging, fun, exciting, high-profile and high-paying with all the perks?"