Katie Couric's Leap Year

For Katie Couric, it’s been a rough six months in the anchor chair as the first female anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she still gets her kicks from taking enormous risks in public.

By Amy Wilentz

Being the person who bridges the schism between eras isn’t simple or easy, and working both sides of the gender, humor, and generational divides can be exhausting. Couric, as cheery as ever when seen from the middle distance, looks a little tired sometimes and slightly dispirited when you get up close. Not that she’s defeated. She is just not used to months-long public criticism of her work; this is the toughest professional situation she has ever experienced. And the awkward fit of her role doesn’t please her, even though she accepts that it’s unavoidable, for now.

"The people who used to watch me on the Today show are saying, ‘What happened to her? She’s not laughing and carrying on the way she used to.’"

Adjusting to the Anchor Role

What does she want to be? Sitting comfortably in her white-on-white office at CBS, Couric smiles and raises her arched eyebrows. For an interviewer, the situation is slightly awkward: You realize in about 10 seconds that you are interviewing America’s best interviewer. She makes you comfortable; gives you the feeling that she agrees with whatever you say; that she thinks you are, well, brilliant; that she is On Your Side.

Behind Couric are black-and-white photographs of women who achieved milestones: Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride, and Margaret Sanger. There’s also a nice shot of Audrey Hepburn gazing up in awe at the skyscrapers of New York, perhaps a version of Couric, who is, after all, an all-American girl from Arlington, Virginia, come to take over the big city.

"At Today, I seemed to be enjoying myself," Couric says, giving me a bright, encouraging yet humble smile. "I seemed to be fun loving. ‘We really liked her in the morning’ — that’s what the old viewers say." She leans back, poised and correct in her lovely Akris suit and high-heeled patent pumps. "But now — well, they seem to think it’s like I’ve had a lobotomy or a personality change. I am more of a conductor at the nightly news and less of a first-chair violinist, the way I was at the Today show. I’m enjoying it, but it’s an adjustment. When I am communicating, it’s important and fun, but those windows are small, and I’m an interactive person by nature. I like to talk and get a reaction."

Couric smiles. And guess what? I smile back.

The Big Picture

She shrugs. "The adjustment to not having someone to talk with on air about serious things and funny things is hard. The news broadcast is still a very controlled format. It’s really like transferring schools; I’m getting exposed to a whole new cast of characters, whole new systems."

She’s optimistic about the broadcast. "It takes patience. I will do my best every day." She points out that it took Tom Brokaw 14 years as NBC’s evening news anchor to rise to number one in the ratings.

"I’m still getting my sea legs," she says. "I certainly hope we’ll take a few more risks and do more unexpected things on the show, but I have to establish the broadcast as smart and trustworthy, and me as a relatively intelligent person who deserves to be at the helm of this kind of program." Couric, who celebrated her 50th birthday with several bashes last January, including a party at Tiffany, says that getting older has made her more reflective and less crazed: "It makes you want to squeeze every bit of life out of your days, but not become so obsessive and myopic about it that you miss the big picture. It’s important not to let one aspect of your life — in my case, work, obviously — take over to the exclusion of everything else."

For now, though, she wants to have fun working and move those ratings up. She still has no signature sign-off at CBS. "We change ‘em around," she says. "There’s one: ‘I’ll be back tomorrow night, and I hope you will too.’ I like that one. We decided that was more dignified than the more direct ‘Don’t stand me up!’"

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