In 2010, Matt Lauer played gin rummy on-air with Kim Kardashian; chit-chatted with the Howard Beale of the sky, Steven Slater; and listened to Angelina Jolie talk about how she gets better as she gets older.
But he also sparred with George W. Bush over his claim that being called a racist by Kanye West was the worst moment of his presidency; watched Kanye himself exit the Today show set in a huff; and had the following exchange with Carl Paladino, who’d told a group of Brooklyn Hasidim that he didn’t want schoolchildren to be “brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option”:
LAUER: If it’s not equally valid or successful, is it a stupid option? Is it a deviant option? What is it?
PALADINO: It’s a very, very, very difficult thing. The discrimination against homosexuals is horrible …
LAUER: Don’t comments like this create that kind of discrimination … ?
PALADINO: You know, Matt, when I talk about issues such as this, I talk from my heart …
LAUER: You weren’t talking from your heart. You were talking from a prepared text … Some of the content of what you read was actually written by … the very same group of people you were going to talk to.
Lauer has come a long way from the guy who had to take deep breaths and steel his voice when asking Hillary Clinton about Monica Lewinsky back in 1998. Watching him neatly dispatch troublesome interviewees from Tom Cruise to Karl Rove has become one of the great pleasures of morning TV—rare sparks of real tension in an otherwise tepid stew of cooking segments and personal-finance tips.
“The times where you get more aggressive are when someone is refusing to answer a pretty straightforward question or telling you something you know to be untrue,” says Lauer. Simply put, he’s been doing this too long to abide b.s. To avoid dicey exchanges, many interview subjects “are so drilled and trained to have a pat response,” he adds. “And they expect me to just listen to it. There are times you just can’t. And you say, ‘No, that’s not an acceptable answer.’”