TELEVISION • Lisa McRee
Turning around Good Morning America isn’t as easy as ABC, but she’s trying.
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JANUARY 28, 1998, 8:01 EST. Lisa McRee, co-anchor of Good Morning America, is navigating what will be the news story of the year. It is the day after the president’s State of the Union address amid the breaking Monica Lewinsky scandal and rampant impeachment talk, and the Fort Worth native is at the White House to interview a crisis-mode Hillary Rodham Clinton. McRee lobs a few polite questions before she asks if—to put it plainly—Mrs. Clinton has ever just asked her husband for the truth about his relationship with the former intern. Mrs. Clinton bristles, then replies that she never talks about her conversations with the president. With the tension now turned up several notches, McRee holds her breath and presses on.
“Have you ever talked to him about sending mixed signals?”
“No, no, because he is who he is,” the first lady says icily.
The moment the broadcast ends, Mrs. Clinton unclips her mike and walks off the set without a word. Though McRee would later cringe when talking about the interview—“I was really not happy with it,” she told me—the next day she received her first notable reviews for her gutsy style, with one critic noting that she made Today co-anchor Matt Lauer’s interview with the first lady the day before “look like a kaffeeklatsch.”
Since coming aboard the embattled GMA last September, the 36-year-old McRee has had to contend with lagging ratings, the exit of longtime co-anchor Charlie Gibson, and a much-criticized new set that Entertainment Weekly recently lambasted as “disastrous,” yet she has managed to survive her first year with her reputation intact; one reporter even called her the “best hope to succeed Barbara Walters.” The reason is that McRee is truly a different kind of morning show host. Her wit and irreverence are a refreshing change from the coiffed perkiness that has traditionally been the order of the day. No teleprompter princess, McRee comes to each interview armed with her own research and questions in addition to those prepared for her by the show’s writers. Whereas her predecessor, Joan Lunden, began as a weathercaster and nourished her healthy Q-rating with baby-food commercials, McRee started out in hard news, producing, writing, and reporting on domestic and foreign affairs. And she’s not afraid to be critical of her show. “It’s not where it should be,” she says. “It’s going through a painful transition process. The Today show has Rockefeller Center, and that’s great, because people do like to see people standing in the street. If we can’t compete with that until we move to our Times Square location a year from now, we need to make our show look and feel as great and alive as we possibly can in the meantime.”
Indeed, while McRee and her new cohost, Kevin Newman, are still experiencing growing pains (and have made a few on-air flubs), the fact is that since she arrived, the live show has taken on, lo and behold, a live feel. GMA previously stuck to a tight format—even chatty asides were scripted—but now there is a more edgy spontaneity to the program, as McRee, often with a leg casually tucked under her, endlessly ribs Newman, filches food during cooking segments (wincing when the camera catches her in the act), and freely riffs with guests. When supermodel Tyra Banks came on to promote her new beauty book and insisted that she just can’t keep weight on, McRee couldn’t resist. “Okay, can I say something?” she teased. “That doesn’t make any of us feel bad for you!”
Cut to Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth, circa 1976, when McRee and eight girlfriends would pass a beer under the bleachers one night and pile into a Chevy Impala and drive around and around in a circle in a parking lot the next. Then there was the time in the summer after high school that she downed a couple of margaritas, sneaked into her boyfriend’s pool cabana with a friend, and stole what she thought were two cartons of ice cream (one disappointingly turned out to be frozen chili). By all accounts McRee—the eldest daughter of a teacher and an insurance executive—was incorrigible. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “My mother wanted to kill me, and rightfully so. I always tell her that. I was grounded my share of times.”
Fortunately, McRee’s antics were rooted in a surplus of curiosity that led her to a precocious interest in politics. At fourteen she began spending a few hours on the weekends and after school canvassing for a Dallas mayoral candidate. “I didn’t realize how young she was until much later,” says Gerry Tyson, the political consultant who hired her. “Most of the people who were working with her were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and she was as articulate and poised and as cool as any of them. She always asked a lot of questions but at the same time was very intuitive. She absorbed knowledge. She was extraordinary.”
“As a girl, having that little bit of a Texas edge, a little bit of fight, served me well,” McRee says. “But as much as Texas is about wide-open spaces and making you think big, communities are tight, and it’s easy to get locked in to where other people want you to be. I was a real rebellious teenager, and I needed to run around. I wanted to see the world.”
So after brief stints at Tarrant County Junior College and North Texas State University, she enrolled at the University of California at San Diego. She studied media theory and interned at a local cable station, where she had an opportunity to interview Jehan Sadat, the widow of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. The meeting so piqued her interest in Egypt that she stud ied spoken Egyptian at UCLA during a school break and then spent two months traveling around that country. “I stayed with families and some friends I’d met and camped on the Sinai and took trains,” McRee recalls. “It was an amazing experience. I don’t know if a lot of people from Eastern Hills High School wanted to do stuff like that. I just needed to go off.”
After finally graduating in 1987, McRee worked for a California congressman and then took a job in Bakersfield as an anchor, producer, and reporter. There she remained until 1989, when she got a call from the general manager of WFAA Channel 8, the ABC station in Dallas: Would she like to anchor the noon and five o’clock news with Chip Moody? “At first it was like, ‘Wow, go home?’ It turned out to be the best three years. I reconnected with a whole bunch of old friends and worked at the best affiliate in the country with a group of terrific people.” She bought a little house on a golf course and hung out on lower McKinney, at Sfuzzi, and at Javier’s, her favorite Mexican restaurant. But it wasn’t all licking salt off glasses. “During one of the Middle East crises,” Tyson remembers, “my wife and I were watching television, and I said jokingly, ‘I bet you that Lisa has gone over there for Channel 8.’ And later, when we turned on the news, there she was. I’m sure she had told the station that she speaks Arabic. They had sent her over there without any budget or any camera, and she, all by herself, borrowed equipment, arranged uplinks, and got the job done. That’s characteristic.”
Two years later, at thirty, McRee got an offer to go to New York and co-anchor ABC’s World News Now, an overnight news program. She took it, but the hours were brutal—ten at night to nine in the morning—and she grew lonely in the city. In 1994, when she heard about an anchor job at KABC in Los Angeles, she begged her bosses to release her from a newly signed contract. “Looking back on it, I wish I had had more maturity and more faith that it would work out,” she says. “But I didn’t, and really that’s what should have happened, because I met my husband [Don Granger, an executive vice president at Paramount Pictures] when I went to California.”
In 1997 ABC again came calling, this time looking for a replacement for Lunden, who was ready to give up GMA after seventeen years as co-anchor. Again, McRee bit, though Granger stayed behind. “I had a hard adjustment period,” she says of her return to New York. “At first I was so excited to do the show; it kept my spirits up. But after a couple of months it really got to me because the weather started getting cold, I missed my husband, I missed my two dogs, I missed my house, and I missed my bike. I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘I really love this job. Yes, it’s cold. I’ll buy a warmer coat. Make it work and stop whining.’ And I haven’t been depressed since.”
Which is fortunate, because she needs her strength. On a typical morning McRee will start out by refereeing a debate between political consultants, one of whom is typically the frenetic James Carville. “I think my accent gets a little thicker talking to him—as if I get a word in edgewise,” she says with a laugh. After the broadcast, it’s off to read the West Coast newspapers, sort through mail, and attend a story meeting—all before eleven. “By two o’clock, you’re just a little punchy,” she says.
On most Friday afternoons McRee hops a plane to Los Angeles, catches a few hours of sleep in-flight, and tries to stay up for dinner with her husband. And she’s back on the air first thing Monday morning, freshly scrubbed and suited, to greet the waking nation. That leaves hardly any time to relax—and hardly any time to stop by her old stomping grounds. “I really just want to go back and eat at Javier’s once more,” she says wistfully. “The nicest thing anyone ever did for me was when the owner gave me the recipe for their magic green hot sauce. You couldn’t ask for a more fabulous gift!”