By Jane Hall
August 18, 1986 12:00 PM

When Joan Lunden joined Good Morning America in 1980, she knew her place: several steps behind David Hartman. A former California weather girl, Lunden seemed eager to play willing helpmeet to Hartman, the folksy, unchallenged regent of early morning TV. She practically brought him his slippers after a hard day’s work on GMA ‘s coffee-klatch set. It was all very ’50s. While he interviewed heads of state, she was likely to be chatting up heads of lettuce—or the equivalent—in some cooking spot. He did all the on-air promos and introduced the show. She sat silently beside him, a cheery blond and blue-eyed vision who seemed able to go mano a mano with Debbie Boone in looks and upbeat philosophy.

Behind the scenes, though, Lunden was beginning to question her role. “There were first half-hours [when newsmakers are interviewed] when I felt I might as well have phoned it in,” she says. “I’d look at the rundown of stories and see that I was doing Dog Hero of the Month. If I asked to do a piece on, say, deficit financing, the producers would say, ‘David already knows all about it.’ Sometimes it really got me down.” But as a pragmatic optimist, Lunden kept smiling. “It hurt to be called GMA’s ‘floor lamp’ and to have women’s libbers say, ‘How could you?’ ” she admits. “But this is one of the biggest jobs in television. I just decided to do those little stories that sparkled.”

Finally, Joan Lunden is demanding equality—and she’s winning. In her just completed contract negotiations, Lunden, 35, has been named co-host, the first woman on the show to hold that position. Network executives hesitated to grant her the title—which gives Lunden equal ranking with Today’s co-anchor, Jane Pauley—until they were up against the signing deadline. Lunden says, “I told them, ‘This is an unmakable deal without the co-host title.’ ”

One source says that in addition to a substantial raise (she currently makes an estimated $700,000 to Hartman’s $2 million), Lunden will get more equal sharing of on-air duties, meatier assignments and the freedom to develop programs of her own. “I’m satisfied that this means a full-fledged equal partnership,” says Lunden.

Lunden’s gain is not Hartman’s loss, although her job title change is significant: Hartman’s contract names him as the principal performer. Lunden will not be officially named co-host until December, after Hartman’s contract is renegotiated. “It’s a delicate situation,” admits Phil Beuth, the new network executive in charge of GMA. “We’re very high on Joan, but David is one of the most dynamic people on TV. We’d like to renew them both.”

Lunden’s assertiveness comes at a time when her stock is up and Hartman’s is down. After dominating the morning ratings for five years, GMA—which was built around Hartman—has ceded its No. 1 spot to Today. Under Capital Cities, ABC’s tough-minded new owners, Hartman, 51, may no longer have the unique status(including, it is said, a large measure of editorial control) he enjoyed when GMA was earning $40 million a year for the network. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see David leave when his contract expires,” says one staffer. “During our first meeting with the new management, an executive told the staff, in effect, ‘Hartman’s going to be a team player, or he’s not going to be here.’ That’s not the way to treat a guy who’s been an asset to the network.”

With all this backstage maneuvering, the question of what David and Joan really think of each other becomes paramount. Hartman’s opinion in public is magnanimous. “There is no doubt that Joan has matured in the job from when she started,” says Hartman. He must have given at least tacit approval to Lunden’s increased prominence over the past year and a half. (In one recent week, she led with hard-news interviews three out of the five days.) But on the air, lately, Hartman sometimes seems to look at her quizzically, like a guy whose demure homemaker wife just announced that she’s heading off to law school.

Indeed, Lunden has succeeded where more assertive sidekicks have failed. Sandy Hill, Lunden’s predecessor, is said to have offended Hartman by announcing that the show needed her reporting credentials. “David had a problem with strong women,” said columnist Rona Barrett, who was a GMA regular from 1975 to 1980.

And what does Joan think of him? In her new book, Good Morning, I’m Joan Lunden, a polite telling of her life story, schedule and clothing tips, Lunden makes little direct mention of Hartman at all. “Women in TV journalism are second-class citizens” is about as radical as she gets. Then she proceeds to undercut her independence with statements such as, “If we’re talking about the MX missile, I’ll probably wear a suit as opposed to a feminine silk dress.”

Since the book went to the printers last May, she apparently has become more willing to disclose some of her true sentiments. “It’s kind of like a divorced wife who rushes to her husband’s side when he has a heart attack,” she says thoughtfully. “People have said, ‘How can you like him—he’s kept you down.’ But I never knew where it was coming from. David and I never discussed it personally—we couldn’t possibly do that because our feelings would break through on the air, and viewers would pick up on that.”

Instead, she took her complaints to management. Lunden was unhappy when GMA moved to new offices recently, because her office was small compared to Hartman’s. After venting her displeasure, she finally got more—but not equal—space.

Such gutsiness is surprising but not completely unexpected. “Sometimes she sounded like an airhead, but she was always ambitious,” says one former GMA producer. The daughter of a surgeon who was killed flying his private plane when she was 13, Lunden says, “I’ve always been in a hurry to do things. My mother told me, ‘Hitch your wagon to a star.’ ”

Lunden broke into TV with no journalistic experience. A native of Sacramento and a graduate of that city’s American River College, she was hired by local TV station KCRA in 1973 as a news department trainee. Lunden rose to weather person, consumer reporter and to anchor by 1975, when she got a call from a New York station manager who had seen her on videotape. She was immediately hired as the acknowledged “white bread” element for WABC’s Eyewitness News. Lunden’s inexperience showed (her name was changed from Blunden to avoid being called “Blunder”) but she managed to outlast her critics. When she returned to her hometown on a visit, she had the wit to actually crawl on her hands and knees to the former boss who’d told her she’d “come crawling” back to her old job.

Married in 1978 to producer Michael Krauss, now 47, whom she met at WABC, Lunden was pregnant with her first child when she landed the GMA job in 1980. (As a WABC reporter she’d been contributing consumer reports to GMA before being hired full-time.) She was one of the first women in TV news to discuss her pregnancy on-air—in fact, after initial trepidation, GMA went all out, letting Lunden do exercises and other mother-to-be stories on-air.

Lunden has become one of the best-known working mothers in America—she does Mother’s Minutes, daily spots on ABC-TV, and Mother’s Day, a child-raising show on the Lifetime cable channel. Produced by Krauss, the cable program frequently showcases the couple’s daughters, Jamie, 6, and Lindsay, 3. Mother’s Day has given her new recognition—and clout—beyond GMA. “Having my own shows helped me to see what I could do,” she says.

On-and off-camera, Lunden maintains an intensive schedule. (This is a woman whose guest bathroom has toilet tissue folded neatly into a point at the end of the roll.) She gets up at 4 every weekday morning, returning to her suburban California-style home, 24 miles from New York in Westchester County, by mid afternoon. She plays with her children and is briefed by phone about the next day’s program, then turns her attention to speaking engagements, a book tour and her other shows. Lunden admits she’s occasionally prone to working-mom’s guilt. “When Jamie called unhappy from her first day at camp, I just left the office and came and picked her up,” she confesses. “By the time I got there, she was fine.”

In their on-air “marriage,” Lunden and Hartman may never achieve the liberated relationship of Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, who have ’80s style parity with Moonlighting-style sparring. Hartman is considered a master at making foreign-policy stories sing, and the producers would be foolish to abandon Lunden’s franchise as a tele-parent, even if she wanted to. But the old days of his-and-hers interviews are passing, and Lunden has already noticed one inner alteration. “My chair on the set feels a little different now.”