By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Katie Couric knew she would have high-level access during her trip to Iraq, but it wasn't until yesterday morning that she discovered just how far that would extend.
At 10:30 a.m. Iraqi time, a general called CBS's Baghdad bureau chief to say that the CBS anchor should go to a nearby heliport to be taken to an undisclosed location for an important interview. It was only after Couric and her executive producer, Rick Kaplan, boarded the military chopper and were flown to Anbar province did they realize they would be seeing President Bush, who was making a surprise stopover in Iraq en route to Australia.
In the interview, which aired last night on the "CBS Evening News," Bush said he hoped recent progress in Iraq would placate congressional critics of the war.
In a phone conversation Sunday from Baghdad, Couric said she better understands the frustrations facing U.S. troops but believes it is unrealistic for Americans to expect "instant results" from Bush's military surge. Offering a decidedly mixed picture of an unpopular war, Couric called Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, a "straight shooter" and said the escalation has produced "positive things" in some parts of the country. But, she added, Petraeus "candidly admits" that progress has been spotty.
"I said, 'Some people think this is a dog-and-pony show while the rest of Iraq remains a nightmare,' " said a tired-sounding Couric, recounting her conversation with Petraeus. "He said, 'Yup, that's true, but does that mean we shouldn't show you where things are going well?' "
The mere fact of Couric's trip has generated headlines, especially since she is a single mother who expressed concern last year about venturing into a war zone. But she said she feels comfortable with the network's security arrangements.
"I discussed it with my daughters and my parents a little bit, after I made the decision, and assured them I was going to be smart," Couric recalled. "All my friends e-mailed me, saying, 'No heroics.' That's not what this is about."
Anchor travel to Iraq has stirred anxiety since ABC's Bob Woodruff was nearly killed by a roadside bomb last year. Couric's celebrity is such that her trip is drawing more media attention than a similar trek by NBC's Brian Williams last spring.
Dismissing detractors who say she is concerned mainly with promoting her third-place newscast -- which she took over one year ago this week -- the former "Today" co-host said: "There's going to be criticism if I wear a white blouse. It's all about the work for me." The purpose of the trip to Iraq and Syria, she said, is to provide a snapshot of the war before Petraeus's much-anticipated findings are made public this month.
Yesterday's interview at an air base in Anbar -- Bush was in shirt-sleeves, positioned before an American flag, while Couric stood next to him with her hair pulled back -- broke little new ground. The president avoided direct answers to most of Couric's questions.
She asked Bush whether he could cite "tangible evidence worthy of adding 30,000 additional troops" and whether he had given Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a "stern talking-to." Bush said that "we're making progress" but that "it's difficult to get political reconciliation. . . . They understand that we expect them to pass more laws."
In another exchange, after Bush's public suggestion in Iraq of possible troop reductions if the current level of security can be maintained, Couric asked: "Are you saying that possibly some troops will be coming home by Christmas?"
"I'm saying that people need to pay attention to what General Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker say to the Congress, because they'll say to the Congress what they have recommended to me," Bush replied.
Couric pressed the point: "But just hearing those two words, 'troop reduction' -- do you think it will win some people over who are uncomfortable with this war?"
Bush appeared to undercut his earlier public comments, saying: "That was just speculating. It's not going to win anybody over until it becomes a reality."
Earlier in the trip, after talking with Iraqi families, Couric said she was struck by "the daily challenges of survival," especially the lack of sustained electricity and clean water.
Couric's interviews with American soldiers clearly made an impression on her, although she cautioned that many are reluctant to speak their minds.
"Soldiers are loyal and don't want to make waves," she said. "They're frustrated with the Iraqi government, which they think hasn't necessarily held up their end of the bargain. One soldier said, 'I'm just not sure this country is capable of democracy.'
"The soldiers have their doubts, but I also think they're very committed. One of them said: 'We can't leave our Iraqi friends high and dry. It would be disastrous.' "
Reflecting on the soldiers carrying their gear in the brutal summer heat, Couric observed: "I have to say -- not to sound too corny -- the soldiers are so impressive. They're such high-quality people. I'm glad I'm being reminded of their sacrifice. I feel like every American should spend a day in Iraq with these soldiers."
Back home, she said, Iraq is viewed as "a war that people are wondering why we got into in the first place. Almost everyone agrees there were huge mistakes" in the administration's planning and execution of the conflict.
Many Americans look at Iraq, Couric said, and "can't quite figure out why the founding fathers aren't sitting around a table signing the Declaration of Independence. I understand why people are frustrated. There are a lot of sacrifices being made here and the government does need to pony up. People want results and it's a long, painful, arduous process."