A Star is Reborn

On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 31, Katie Couric sat down in the Olympic Flame diner at the corner of 60th Street and Amsterdam, and ordered a cup of coffee. Outside, the weather was mild. Beams of sunlight streamed through the window. A woman dressed in some sort of elfin costume strolled down the sidewalk.

Ms. Couric said that as a kid, her mother liked to dress her up on Halloween as a drunken doctor. The coffee arrived.

O.K., Ms. Couric, it’s trick or treat time: What would you want from CBS, the network that paid you a reported $15 million a year to lure you from your perch at NBC’s Today?

“I’d like an hour,” said Ms. Couric.

She’s already getting that, albeit on an ad hoc basis. On Monday, Nov. 3, the night before the election, the network was giving the CBS Evening News (which is typically a half-hour long) twice its usual length, said Ms. Couric. She was looking forward to the extra real estate. In an ideal world, if she had her druthers, the expansion would be permanent.

“I really would like more time,” said Ms. Couric. “Because I think time is not our friend at the Evening News.”

Not long ago, the suggestion was put about that time was not on Ms. Couric’s side at CBS. According to various news reports back in April, CBS, disappointed with her performance but unwilling to pay the ghastly sum the premature termination of her contract would entail, was letting her run out the clock and then planning to cut her loose. Or it was she, frustrated with the network’s handling of her and her show, who was planning to cut the cord at the earliest possible moment.

But against the odds—she wasn’t allowed the opportunity, for instance, to anchor a single presidential or vice presidential debate for CBS—Ms. Couric has used the 2008 presidential elections to make herself a commodity again. Not the too expensive piece of furniture the Tiffany network had bought and regretted, but the game-changing political journalist she aspired to be when she first took the Evening News. Hers was the most memorable interview of the 2008 election. Über political blogger Mark Halperin named her one of the five most important people in politics not running for president.

Her rising star has not only made life comfortable enough at CBS for her to use an interview with a reporter to request an hour-long program. According to The New York Times, others are looking to steal her: NBC News executives are currently considering her for the most coveted job in political journalism, as the next moderator of Meet the Press.

Memo to CBS President Leslie Moonves: Enjoy the vindication and give Ms. Couric what she needs to stick around!

Ms. Couric dumped a packet of Sweet’N Low into her coffee. In a few days, for the first time in her career, she would be sitting in the anchor chair on election night. “Love politics,” said Ms. Couric.

It was a good summer for CBS News, which had staggered badly during the 2004 election thanks in large part to Dan Rather and Co.’s flawed report on President Bush’s military records. Ms. Couric credited the news division’s rebound in 2008 to the team around her, particularly to CBS Evening News Executive Producer Rick Kaplan, who largely crafted the political game plan. 

From the outset of the primaries, Ms. Couric hit the road, met the candidates, kicked their campaigns’ tires and racked up interviews. “I don’t think it’s a secret that sometimes I get frustrated just reading lead-ins to an evening newscast,” said Ms. Couric. “I like to write and report and get out there.”

In a recurring series called “Primary Questions” (which later evolved into “Vice-Presidential Questions” and “Presidential Questions”), she asked candidates personal queries about such things as their fears, their tempers, and their thoughts on—gulp!—marital infidelity. Everyone got a shot at the same question. Their answers were presented back to back, allowing viewers to instantly compare and contrast the politicians. Senator John McCain would say his favorite book was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and, moments later, Senator Barack Obama would give his nod to the Bible and Shakespeare. The series was great political television: a bit of harmless patter that, on reflection, was actually revealing.

A Star is Reborn