A Star is Reborn

Ms. Couric said it was also a nonthreatening way for her to get to know the candidates. “We built from there,” she said.

CBS’s coverage reached a pinnacle on Sept. 24, a wild Wednesday during which Ms. Couric arguably altered the entire course of the election.

The day began at the Millennium Hotel near the United Nations, where she met Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, for the second post-convention interview with the press-wary vice presidential candidate. Ms. Couric felt that in many ways her subject remained a blank canvas. Before the interview, she prepared a long list of questions, which she then chopped down to the essentials. “I didn’t want to feel so rushed about getting to the questions that I couldn’t do follow-ups,” said Ms. Couric. “I wanted to be able to re-ask the questions if she was circumlocutious.”

That decision turned out to be prescient. Again and again, throughout the subsequent interview, Mr. Palin tried to cling to her talking points. When Ms. Couric pressed for specifics, Ms. Palin stumbled. “But can you give me any other concrete examples?” asked Ms. Couric at one point. Um, no.

By mid-afternoon, clips from the interview were ricocheting around the Web, boggling brains across the political spectrum. Back in her office at CBS, the entire vortex of the political world seemed to be swirling around Ms. Couric. The phone kept ringing. She spoke with Henry Kissinger about preconditions and Iran. She talked to Al Gore about the environment. “This is the craziest day I’ve ever had!” Ms. Couric thought. Things got crazier.

John McCain called. He told Ms. Couric that due to the financial crisis he was suspending his campaign. Ms. Couric promptly wooed Mr. McCain into the CBS Evening News studio for an interview. “I don’t think we need to scare people,” Mr. McCain said on camera, “but I certainly think we need to tell them the truth.”

As it turned out, prior to showing up for the interview with Ms. Couric, Mr. McCain at the last minute, had canceled his scheduled appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, explaining that he had to immediately rush to D.C. (Ms. Couric said she was unaware at the time of Mr. McCain’s prior commitment).

Across town, Mr. Letterman was taping his show when producers figured out Mr. McCain’s actual whereabouts. Mr. Letterman promptly showed the audience an internal CBS feed, showing Mr. McCain sitting across from Ms. Couric while an assistant dabbed makeup on his face. Some emergency! “You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen, this doesn’t smell right,” said Mr. Letterman.

Ms. Couric said that the subsequent fallout—Mr. Letterman spent the next several weeks on air battering Mr. McCain—was between the Late Show host and the U.S. senator from Arizona. “I’m on the phone with the candidate, he’s telling me something, and I invite him on the Evening News,” said Ms. Couric. “Sue me.”

“I was just glad I wasn’t the one getting makeup put on,” she added.

Why’d Mr. McCain choose her over Dave? She shrugged. “There were nefarious suspicions that he was trying to distract attention from the Sarah Palin interview,” said Ms. Couric. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”

In the meantime, the Palin interviews were a sensation—generating gazillions of Web hits; inspiring a rip-roaring parody on Saturday Night Live; prodding Bill Kristol into fits of public recrimination; and severely damaging Ms. Palin’s credibility as a serious vice presidential candidate.

“The interviews were important,” said Ms. Couric. “I don’t mean to sound too self-congratulatory, because anytime a candidate does an interview, if it’s properly done, it should be revealing. Quite frankly, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of persistence I’ve seen in a lot of political interviews this season.”

"A lot of people interviewed Sarah Palin," said Mr. Kaplan, the executive producer. "The one they’ll be talking about ten years from now is Katie’s."

Mr. Kaplan said he disagreed with recent suggestions that the impact of the interview was due, in part, to Ms. Couric and Ms. Palin’s shared gender-what might be called the undermining sister theory of what tripped up Ms. Palin. "It didn’t have anything to do with the whether Katie was a woman or a Martian," said Mr. Kaplan. "It had to do with the fact that the quality of Katie’s questions were extraordinary, and the qualities of Sarah Palin’s answers were controversial."

 

RECENTLY A NUMBER of veteran TV network executives speculated to The Observer that given CBS’s $12.5 billion third-quarter write-down, it seems unlikely that the network could afford to buy out the reportedly $40 million remaining on Ms. Couric’s contract. That leaves Ms. Couric in control of her destiny.

But despite her most recent star turn, some observers doubted whether Ms. Couric would be able to find a company willing to match her current salary, considering the ongoing financial struggles that are sweeping through the media industry.