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?

Katie Couric and Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Katie Couric and Hillary Clinton

No one has ever accused Hillary Clinton of being too perky or showing too much leg. Even so, the presidential candidate could learn a lot from Katie Couric. The bright-eyed former morning-show host made her debut as the anchor of the third-place CBS Evening News on Sept. 5, when she took over for Bob Schieffer, and Dan Rather before him, and Walter Cronkite before them. Her tenure has been a bumpy one and in that, a useful test of the public's willingness to accept a woman as a figure of national and international prominence.

Television news anchor and president of the United States aren't such different jobs, after all, and not just because until now they've been the exclusive province of old white men. These are the people who tell us what's happening in the world, what it means, and what we're going to do about it. They must be calm, personable, and handsome under lights. Diplomacy, intelligence, and genuine leadership abilities a plus.

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It's not simply that both jobs are traditionally male. It's that both demand a certain stage presence—an intangible sense of authority, divorced from direct, measurable accomplishment. Ideally, an anchor serves as a kind of chief executive of his or her broadcast, prioritizing news stories on-air and leading a corps of reporters and producers behind the scenes. He or she is also the public face of a network, acting as an ambassador to advertisers, viewers, and affiliates. These people—like voters—have an instinct about who should be telling them the news of the day: what that person should look like and how his or her (which is to say, his) voice should sound. Couric's rocky start can illuminate two questions for Clinton: how we'll handle a woman with such authority and how a woman who wants such authority should handle herself.

Of course, the two women come at these jobs with very different liabilities: Katie seems too soft, Hillary too brittle. But they've both staked claims in the same middle ground, taking pains to appear strong but not mannish, ballsy yet maternal. Both are bottle blondes (perhaps in an effort to mute their tough streaks). Both have gone on "listening tours" around the country, have undergone ambitious style makeovers, have opened their private lives to public scrutiny. And Couric and Clinton also share the occasional counsel of Matthew Hiltzik, a major New York City publicist who specializes in managing the public images of powerful and difficult women. (Despite these efforts, Couric and Clinton still ruffle feathers: Both are subjects of unauthorized biographies by Ed Klein, neither our era's greatest feminist nor our greatest historian, but a man with good taste in material.)

Although Couric had great early buzz, she's had a tough go of it these last six months, in a run that may be predictive of Clinton's early campaign. Her ratings are lame, despite her $60 million contract and the additional $10 million CBS spent over the summer on promotional efforts, which included plastering Couric's face on the front grill of New York City buses. The campaign raised hopes—and gave the press an easy punch line when Couric didn't deliver the ratings CBS desired. Lesson one for Clinton: Limit expectations. (Plus, you don't want to be the last thing someone sees before being mowed down by the MTA. There are specialists at Bellevue for people hit by buses. Whose newscast are they watching at 6:30 p.m.?)

In response to the Couric bus spots, NBC bought a billboard across the street from the CBS production studio and slapped up a several-stories-tall picture of Brian Williams to taunt its rivals. The effect, besides allowing neighborhood residents to admire the first-place Nightly News anchor's giant forehead every day, was to remind everyone that CBS had been in a distant third place for many years. Despite all the buzz, Couric had a long way to go. It's possible to read these developments as evidence that the Clinton camp should be happy about Barack Obama's early surge: The less we expect of Clinton, the better off she'll be. Still, it's worth noting that it's ABC's anchor Charlie Gibson—the old white man of the group, whose network treated him to a smattering of modest bus-stop ads near the ABC studios—who just achieved his second week in first place.

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.

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.