And the winner is ... Katie Couric. The First Lady of Morning Television did a sensational job yesterday interviewing the president of the United States when he showed up unexpectedly during a live telecast of NBC's "Today" show from the White House.
This may have been the first "ambush interview" in which the interviewee ambushed the interviewer. Couric was just finishing up a scheduled chat and tour with Barbara Bush in the Blue Room when hubby George popped by to kibitz.
"So look who wandered in," Couric told viewers when the show returned after a commercial break and the president was standing there. "Hey listen, I got work to do over here," Bush said. But it didn't look that way. Several times he threatened to bolt but he kept changing his mind and staying.
He wouldn't go away. Perhaps spurred on by the fact that polls gave him bad scores for his debate performance Sunday night against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush hung around like the last guest at a party, trying to seem jolly and personable and largely succeeding.
Now and then there were borderline Nixonian touches (Bush referring to the "Today" show's "listeners"), and Bush occasionally seemed befuddled. But it was great TV, and Couric's unflappable finesse was a major reason.
Bush stayed for 19 minutes, Couric peppering him with questions the whole time. Some of them were shouted into her ear through an intercom by "Today" executive producer Jeff Zucker (from a network news truck in the White House driveway) but most of them she came up with herself on the proverbial spur of the moment.
"Ninety percent of that was just Katie on her feet," Zucker said admiringly late yesterday from New York. "She danced with him and just went with it."
Zucker cited Couric's relaxed humor as a plus; anyone watching would have to agree. After Bush had complained briefly about "contentious reporters" and then announced his intention to depart, Couric said, "Well, I know, but aren't I great? I'm one of those less contentious reporters who can convince you to stick around and talk with me because I'm so easy."
"I know what the candidate said about you: 'Blame it on Katie Couric,' " Bush said, grinning.
"That I was trying to prove my manhood," Couric corrected him, a reference to a comment Perot made after Couric interviewed him recently.
"You were, you were," Bush said jokingly. "That's it, and I'm over here protesting that I don't have a male dog on the program and you're taking the offense here." Bush brought Ranger the White House dog in with him supposedly to get equal time with Millie the White House dog. Bush joked at length about the dogs.
Barbara Bush stood there through all this looking a little perplexed. "I'm going to go home and write my resignation, put it on your desk and see if you take it," she told her husband soon after he showed up. "Come on, we've got to go," she implored several minutes later. By this time, Bush was considering Couric's offer to come back next week for a more formal interview.
"You're what I call a very fair interviewer," Bush told her.
"I know you're a very busy man, but we'd certainly appreciate some more of your time next week," Couric said.
"Just you and me alone in those blue chairs here?" asked Bush.
When Mrs. Bush made a reference to White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Couric said, "Marlin's probably pulling what hair he has left out."
"Come on!" Mrs. Bush said insistently a moment later, tugging at Bush.
Couric was not afraid to bring up touchy matters. "A lot of people said that Ross Perot stole the show the other night," she said to Bush. "What did you think of his performance?"
"I thought he did well," said Bush.
"That's it?" scoffed Couric. " 'I thought he did well'?" She got Bush to elaborate. When the matter of Iran-contra came up, Bush interrupted a rambling explanation to say to Couric, "I think I'll help you with the question."
"Oh thank you, Mr. President," Couric said with a touch of sarcasm. "Go ahead."
This was an interview where the small talk was more interesting, and perhaps more revealing, than the questions and answers. Bush began by saying things like, "Where's my man Willard when I need him?" -- a reference to "Today" weatherman Willard Scott. Actually, the 8:30 news and weather segments had to be scrapped to make room for the unplanned Bush appearance.
Bush commended Couric for a "fabulous interview" with Barbara Bush, claiming to have been watching it in another room. He complained about Millie waking him up at 3 a.m. by jumping up on the bed.
Later, during one of Bush's threats to leave, Couric said, "Well, I can see you're making a move toward the Oval Office. Mr. President, thank you very much." Then, sensing he would stay, she quickly asked another question: "What do you expect to hear in tonight's vice presidential debate, before you go?"
"Come on, Katie," Barbara Bush implored.
"What time do you break for the hour here?" the president asked. They'd already done that.
"You have 15 more minutes if you'd like to stay with us," said Couric.
"I'd like another segment here," said Bush.
Even at the very end, Bush seemed reluctant to leave. "He wants to stay, Mrs. Bush," Couric said. "He's not making any move." Mrs. Bush all but dragged him out. Bush's hand stuck into the frame as the camera moved in for a final shot of Couric.
"He showed up at the worst possible time," Zucker said of Bush yesterday, meaning 8:23 a.m., just before the "Today" show must break for local stations to insert their own news and weather. The few stations that didn't cut away at that point saw an additional four minutes of Couric and Bush jabbering away.
But he was "thrilled" that the president stayed, Zucker said. Asked if he thought Bush's behavior strange, Zucker said, "No, he didn't seem strange to me. It seemed like he had something he wanted to say. He was a little more emotional, maybe, a little more passionate, than I've seen him lately in his TV appearances."
Told that Couric deserved a raise for her superb performance, Zucker laughed and said, "Yeah, absolutely." Whether she gets it or not, Couric proved again yesterday that she's worth her weight in gold. Actually, more. She doesn't weigh all that much.