12/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
Katie Couric has done such wondrous things for the Today show that President Bush was probably hoping for a little of the perky co-anchor's magic to rub off when he ambushed her during a preelection White House interview Couric was conducting with his wife, Barbara. Of the unplanned encounter, Couric says, "It was like schmooze or lose." She won, giving Bush a 19-minute off-the-cuff grilling—until the First Lady dragged the President away. "I think it was one of the great moments in the recent history of our show," says wunderkind executive producer Jeff Zucker, 27.
Ross Perot, too, could appreciate Couric's magnetism. "Can you imagine if I had Katie as a running mate?" he joked last June. "Talk about going up to 80 percent in the polls." He was less infatuated three months later, accusing Couric of "trying to prove her manhood" after she pressed him to clarify his positions on the issues. The fearless Couric also cut presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan down to size when he stayed in the race beyond voters' welcome. "Are you trying to drive the President crazy, or are you just on a big ego trip?" she asked.
It was only last year that Couric, 35, eased into Jane Pauley's shoes as America's Designated Sweetheart, and by this year she was kicking butt—nicely. With her pixie hair, offhand style and disarming grin masking a set of sharp teeth, she is a wolf in sheepish clothing. And Couric's sugarcoated bite has been the main ingredient in Today's return to the top of the morning show Nielsens. "The bottom line," says weatherman Willard Scott, "is that the good Lord sent Katie Couric to the Today show. This bright, upbeat lady appears, and voilà, we're No. 1."
Even Bryant Gumbel, whose aloofness toward Couric's immediate predecessor, Deborah Norville, was positively arctic, seems sunnier since teaming with Katie. Notes Scott: "She will rib him without looking like she's trying to get at his throat, and he seems to like it." For her part, says Couric, "I just think we respect each other, and I think we have fun together. We know each other and know each other's ugly mood swings."
So, is this really the girl next door? "If the girl next door is a million-dollar TV star," says Zucker, slightly hedging, "then, yeah, she's the girl next door." But Couric does revel in her homey image. "I think I've been successful for the very reason that I'm not the typical anchor type," she says. "I like me. I'm a decent person. I'm emotionally healthy."
The commuting co-anchor is herself anchored by her family—husband Jay Monahan, 36, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who spends as much time as he can with Couric in their Manhattan duplex, and their 17-month-old daughter, Ellie. It is part of Katie's appeal that, after going head-to-head with a President, she can switch into mommy mode.
"I lead a pretty normal life," she says, with a shrug. "My social circle hasn't changed. The idea of dumping my friends for fancier friends is soooo gross! Who would want to do that? I'm not into flamboyant socializing. I'd rather be with my husband. Besides, I'm too tired. Damn, you're thinking I'm not intriguing at all!"