What Hillary Clinton can learn from Katie Couric.

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March 7 2007 3:05 PM

The Katie Show

Does Couric's rocky start at CBS spell trouble for Hillary Clinton?

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More troubling for Couric (and Clinton) may be the revelation that some television viewers have a built-in resistance to ladies in charge. Networks regularly commission telephone polls and conduct focus-group testing. The Katie data are carefully guarded, but insiders at CBS and its competing networks will hint at the general trends. Apparently, several months in to Katie's tenure, there remains a small but unmovable percentage of the American television audience that cannot now and will not ever feel comfortable hearing serious, scary things about the world from a woman. One can only imagine how they'll vote. Various sources put this percentage at around one-tenth of those polled—enough to make or break a primary.

One thing Clinton has decisively on Couric is the blessing of a boring and predictable wardrobe. Couric has been a sartorial flip-flopper in her first half-year on air, creating an easy focal point for chauvinists and her detractors. On the social circuit, she dresses like Carrie Bradshaw; in the daytime, she prefers turtlenecks and suits with strange collars. There's no telling what she'll wear on the news each night, except plenty of eyeliner. So far, Clinton, who found sartorial stability after some unfortunate choices early in her husband's White House tenure, has managed to keep people more or less focused on what's coming out of her mouth (nonapologies for her Iraq vote, subtle jabs at Obama, one off-pitch version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during a campaign stop in Iowa, and the like). She has done this in part by steering clear of ambitious stylists, wisely opting for roomy pantsuits with jewel-toned T-shirts underneath. Katie, take note.

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But Couric has had her share of successes, from which Clinton could learn as well. Since losing her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998, the anchor has devoted millions of dollars and immeasurable energy to increasing awareness of the disease. Screenings have gone up; doctors estimate hundreds, if not thousands, of lives have been saved. They call it the "Couric effect."

The anchor tests well among urban women because she is perceived as having warmth and passion—not exactly two of Clinton's biggest strengths. Since September, the Evening News' ratings have improved among younger viewers and in larger markets, at least a few of which, including Tampa and Minneapolis, are, ahem, in swing states. Clinton may not opt to have an invasive medical procedure on national television, as Couric did in 2000 when she underwent a live colon cancer screening on the Today show. But the senator's cause célèbre, reiterated in a terse Feb. 7 press release, is health care. She could shoot for a Couric-esque side effect by upping the passion quotient a little.

In late February, in a move right out of the Couric playbook, Clinton accepted a challenge from the Service Employees International Union: She will spend some time as a highway or health-care worker in an effort to win the 1.8-million-member union's endorsement. A day as Nurse Clinton? It's a start.

Rebecca Dana is a writer in New York.

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