Gumbel has a spare dark suit and tie hanging in his office in case the news is tragic and the suit he's wearing is too light for the occasion. He brings six golf shirts on a three-day golf trip just to make sure he looks perfect. Gumbel never loosens his tie or takes off his jacket, even in summer.
"Bryant is a perfectionist squared," says Today writer-producer Paul Brubaker. The reason is simple. If he knows that he "will never see someone as good" as his father, he knows that includes himself. Guilty as charged.
"In his best year, my dad didn't make what I do in a month," says Gumbel. "There's something profoundly wrong with that. My father did what he did better than I do what I do. What my father did required a lot more intelligence than what I do. He was smarter. He was more important to society. He had more worth." It is a constant process, Gumbel has said, "measuring myself against my father and always coming up short."
And so, to alleviate the guilt, to prove his worth, Gumbel works obsessively. He didn't become a lawyer as his father had hoped, so he'll be 10 times as good in television. His goal is to go into every interview unsurprisable. No answer can shock him because he knows all the answers. Gumbel sometimes stays over at his Manhattan town house, but when he sleeps at home in Westchester, he's up at 3:45 a.m., catches the limo at 4:30, arrives at Rockefeller Plaza at 5:30, studies notes for the day's show in his office until 6:15, goes to the studio to do his "sunrise tease" for Today, does the show until 9:00, tapes interviews and Olympic voice-overs or studies research on forthcoming guests until about noon, almost never breaks for lunch, studies and goes to meetings until about 4:00, reads research material for the show in the limousine on the way home, eats a quick dinner, then heads back to the den to finish studying from 7:30 to 11:00 and goes to bed by midnight. Gumbel might know more about Dan Quayle than Dan Quayle does. Are you watching, Dad?
Take the Olympics. He went on a coach-hopping tour, meeting with Olympic coaches from coast to coast. He personally edited scripts for more than 50 Olympic features and did the voice-overs himself. He took six weeks off to absorb eight network-prepared Olympic guides, each thicker than the Dallas Cowboys' playbook.
The remarkable thing is that he retains it all. He has a mind that would turn an IBM mainframe green. Without notice, Gumbel can tick off, to the day, how long he has been married, who started in 1963 on both sides of the line for the Chicago Bears, and the last five Speakers of the House.
It borders on the supernatural. Once, Gumbel was doing highlights on NFL '81 when he was handed the news that the New York Yankees had just fired Gene Michael. He broke the story and then proceeded to reel off the last seven managers fired before Michael, with the year of each pink slip. "You will hear people say he's a son of a bitch," says Today writer/producer Allison Davis, "but you won't hear anybody say he's not a smart son of a bitch."
The only problem with perfection is that when you get there, there's nobody to talk to. "I have high expectations of people," he says. "When they achieve something, I say, 'So what?' "
People aren't good enough.
One morning, a presidential speech at the U.N. ended five minutes early. Connie Chung, the NBC newswoman, was anchoring the network desk with Gumbel. Producer Steve Friedman asked her off the air to remain on camera and help Gumbel kill time. She refused, saying she wasn't prepared. Gumbel killed the time himself, but he hasn't spoken to Chung since. "She acted in an unprofessional manner, so I disassociated myself from her," Gumbel says. "If it was an isolated incident, I'd forget about it. But it's not." Chung says she doesn't want to talk about it.