Couric's Prime Time
Thursday, August 28, 2008
DENVER, Aug. 27
Moments after giving Charles Barkley a big hug on the Pepsi Center floor, Katie Couric bumps into Joe Biden's son, Beau, in the basketball locker room that is serving as CBS's cramped work space.
Couric asks Beau, the Delaware attorney general, whether she can see his dad, who is suddenly much in demand as the vice presidential nominee. "Tell him to give me a quick call. Tell him not to forget the little people!" she shouts, walking off.
Half an hour later, Couric and several aides are in an elevator when she spots a familiar-looking figure and scoots out at the wrong floor. "Is that Evan Bayh?" she asks as the Indiana senator chats on his cellphone. She tells Bayh she had predicted on television that he would become Barack Obama's running mate. "I hope I didn't damage your credibility," he says.
Couric is moving at a whirlwind pace, constantly mobbed, constantly interviewed, a higher-wattage celebrity than most of the politicians she pursues. The freewheeling nature of covering the Democratic convention plays to her strengths in a way that a tightly scripted 22-minute newscast does not. She is, suddenly, the "Today" show Katie, fun-loving and wisecracking, not the more sober figure who has drawn mixed reviews in her nearly two years behind the anchor desk.
"I feel weirdly more comfortable and relaxed when I'm out of the studio, which is a sanitized environment," she says. "You pick up on the energy of your surroundings. . . . It's much more like my old job. I can really loosen up."
Asked if she has anything to prove while anchoring her first convention, Couric invokes her rivals, saying tersely: "No. Does Brian Williams? Does Charlie Gibson?"
But this could also be Couric's last convention, if CBS executives follow through on their earlier inclination to replace her after the election in light of her disappointing third-place ratings. CBS's convention ratings, too, have lagged behind those of not just NBC and ABC but CNN. No final decision has been made, and Couric, while acknowledging continued frustrations, dismisses the reports that blossomed last spring as "a crazy media spin cycle that was sort of surreal to watch."
CBS News President Sean McManus says "that story got old" and that critics now focus on Couric's job performance rather than her social life and wardrobe. The conventions, he says, are "the perfect vehicle for her to spread her wings a little bit."
The flight path can be unpredictable. At the security line Tuesday morning, Couric spots Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Party's nominee 20 years ago, and grabs him for an impromptu interview. Dukakis says he blames himself for George W. Bush's presidency because he blew the race against Bush's father.
Couric later tapes a series of promo spots from a small platform on the floor, about the size of a walk-in closet, wedged between the Virginia and Michigan delegations. CBS is broadcasting from the crowded spot, far below the skyboxes being used by ABC and NBC.
No sooner does Couric finish than she is led upstairs to a CBS booth for a series of interviews with radio affiliates. "It was hard not to get choked up," she tells one of the appearance Monday night by the ailing Ted Kennedy. "The cute quotient was pretty much off the charts," she tells another about Obama's daughters coming onstage. One interviewer turns off his recorder and blurts: "I'm a huge fan."