Jeff Zucker, who used to run the Today show before he started climbing the NBC executive ladder (now he's president of entertainment, news and cable), hasn't forgotten the interview Katie Couric did with President George H.W. Bush in October 1992. Still a relative newcomer as Today co-anchor, she was getting a tour of the White House from Barbara Bush when the President stopped by for a surprise hello. Interviews with Presidents usually entail days of research and lists of questions. Couric, on the fly, kept him going for nearly 20 minutes with small talk and tough questions on the upcoming election. "I was in the control room trying to help," says Zucker, "but mostly just watching in amazement. It was one of the most remarkable moments of broadcast journalism I've ever seen."
In an era when news and entertainment keep invading each other's turf, no one on television better embodies the ideal marriage of the two. Couric can grill Hillary Clinton or Bob Dole (so assertively that his wife had to step in and protest), probe delicate emotions with the Columbine families or Elizabeth Smart's parents, giggle excitedly with the dumbest Hollywood star and ogle the hot handbags for springall without a hint of strain. Her interviews on Today (the top-rated TV morning show for the past nine years) often set the news agenda for the day, and her hairstyles get picked apart over the water cooler. The unique bond she has with viewers made her campaign against colon cancer an unprecedented success. One look at Couric's televised colonoscopy and thousands were moved to do the same; colon-cancer screenings have risen 20% nationwide (and untold lives saved) in what researchers call the Couric effect.
It's an effect she understands and embraces with the kind of grace that few could manage. Walk down the street with Katie Couric and you'll see a woman under constant siege. Fans consider her a friend, and for each she stops to talk, answer questions, ask more of her ownlong after you or I would have run away screaming. For an American Idol culture, Couric offers another lesson: how to be a celebrity.