By MICHAEL STARR
Tavis Smiley has nothing if not impeccable timing.
The PBS talk show host and media dynamo, who’s celebrating his 20th anniversary in broadcasting, is here in Manhattan this week for two book signings — featuring Phil Donahue and Brian Lehrer — and to tape his show, "Tavis Smiley," at WNET (Ch. 13), his new broadcast partner. His guest tonight? Katie Couric, who’s supposedly about to announce (finally!) that she’s leaving her perch at the "CBS Evening News" (Mayor Bloomberg guested on last night’s show).
"I wrote one of the essays for Katie’s book . . . none of this was meant to happen this way," says Smiley, who’ll be promoting his own book, "Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure," tonight (8 p.m.) at the 92nd Street Y and tomorrow (6 p.m.) at Cooper Union with two one-hour conversations. They’ll be hosted by Donahue (tonight) and Lehrer (tomorrow), followed by a Q&A.
"Phil Donahue was my first talk show hero. He was, and still is, at the top of my list of personalities. He’s on the all-star team," says Smiley. "And Brian Lehrer is my favorite public radio personality. He’s the best interviewer on all of public radio, for my money."
Smiley says the title of his new book refers both to his 20 years in broadcasting and to his 20 "biggest failures" on the road to ultimate success.
"When you get to a certain level, the game is to act like you’ve always been famous, especially in LA . . . like you’ve never made any mistakes or ‘fail ups’ along the way," he says. "But there is no success without failure, and that’s the bottom line. So many people are concerned with their personal failures, the future of their families and of this country, that I almost hear a sigh from the audiences on tour like, ‘Wow, I’m not in this by myself.’
"You’ll hear stories about me I’ve never told before, like how I got arrested and went to jail for writing bad checks, or how it took me 16 years to get a degree because of drama with a professor, or an open-mike incident I had with a major Hollywood personality.
"I talk about this Hollywood personality because of something I said about him 25 years ago when I was still working for [LA] Mayor Tom Bradley. I wasn’t even on the air. I’ve learned so many lessons . . . "Even when I was justified I should have remained dignified’ — I was justified in taking on my professor, but I did it in such an undignified way that he flunked me."
Later this week, Smiley will interview Harvey Weinstein, George Soros and the new directors of The Schomburg Center and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
"I couldn’t ask for a better lineup," he says.