In New York, Tavis talks with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric about her broadcasting career, her advocacy work for cancer research and her new book, The Best Advice I Ever Got.
CBS News’ Katie Couric
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Katie Couric to this program. She is, of course, the anchor for the “CBS Evening News” and a contributor for “60 Minutes.” This Friday she’ll be anchoring CBS’s coverage of the royal wedding in London. Her much-talked-about new text is called “The Best Advice I Ever Got.” Katie Couric, I am honored to have you on this program.
Katie Couric: Thank you, Tavis Smiley. I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: I love this book.
Couric: I’m so happy you do, and I hope a lot of other people do, because as you know, all my proceeds go to Scholarship America, and I thought that was sort of a nice way to pay it forward since the whole genesis of this book was a graduation speech. Now hopefully a lot of kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to college will be able to do so if people purchase it.
Tavis: I know you came on at my invitation to talk about the text, and I promise I will spend the overwhelming majority – underline that phrase – overwhelming majority of this conversation talking about the book, but not all.
Tavis: Because as you may have heard, you made a little news today.
Couric: Yes, I heard that. (Laughter) I heard that. I made it, so I did hear it.
Tavis: Yeah, you made a little news. So what do you want to tell me about this decision? It’s official now.
Couric: Yeah, yeah. Listen, I think pretty much it was a fait accompli.
Tavis: The worst-kept secret in -
Couric: Yeah. (Laughter) It was clear, and it was sort of – I didn’t mean to be coy, I just didn’t want to jump the gun on any kind of announcement, and I wanted to be respectful of my successor at the “Evening News,” but I’ll be stepping down as anchor and managing editor – you introduced me that way, I think, at the top of the show – of the “CBS Evening News” at the end of my contract, which is at the end of May.
Tavis: So what’s next?
Couric: I’m not sure. I am still kind of mulling my opportunities for the future. I’m really excited about the future and I absolutely loved anchoring the “CBS Evening News.” I have been working with some incredible people for the past five years who I respect and admire very much, including my executive producer, Rick Kaplan, who’s just the consummate news man, and many of my other associates.
But I think that I’m excited about the future and about doing something that’s just a little more in my wheelhouse. While it was such a privilege to sit in that chair that once was occupied by Walter Cronkite, it’s a pretty confining venue and I think I’m looking forward to doing what I think I do best, which is interacting with people, interviewing people, having sort of more extended conversations.
Tavis: Sounds like a daytime talk show.
Couric: Well, that’s something I’ve been looking at. I haven’t sort of decided completely that that’s what I’d like to pursue, but certainly it does seem like that might be a really good venue for my particular skill set.
Tavis: You’re trying to be coy again?
Couric: I’m not trying to be coy. I’m not trying to be coy, Tavis. (Laughs) But I’m saying outright that that’s something I am considering, and that might be exciting for me.
Tavis: Top of the list, or just on the list?
Couric: I would say top of the list.
Tavis: Top of the list, okay. I’ve known you for a few years and have always been honored to consider myself, I guess, one of your large group of friends.
Tavis: I was honored when you asked me to write a piece for the book, and I -
Couric: Well, yours was excellent.
Tavis: No -
Couric: Can I just say – no, don’t get all modest on me, Tavis. Tavis wrote about sort of success scars and about – we entitled your essay “Failing Better,” because you quoted Samuel Beckett. I don’t know if you feel like reading any of it -
Tavis: No, I love it.
Couric: – but it was really quite, I thought, inspiring, and you pointed out that everyone who succeeds or is a success has failed repeatedly, and you have to figure out how to look at failure in a different way. You even talk about Michael Jordan, which I’ve quoted on a number of shows -
Tavis: I saw you.
Couric: – (laughs) that I mentioned your essay and talked about how many shots he’s missed, how many games he’s lost, how many winning points he’s failed to get, and at the end of it – it’s a Nike ad – he says, “That’s why I’m a success.”
Tavis: You jumped on me, and I’m going to get back to the book, I promise. I was only raising that as a sequitor to something I was trying to get to -
Couric: Oh, sorry.
Tavis: – about the CBS thing.
Couric: Oh, sorry. Oh, I thought we were moving – I thought we were making that smooth transition, Tavis.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, you were trying to make that transition.
Couric: (Unintelligible) okay.
Tavis: (Makes noise.) We’re back this way, just for a second.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) back to the book.
Tavis: Because you said something – I was saying, as one of your friends, I’ve only known you to be always – you’re pretty authentic and up-front and direct and honest. When you said to me a few minutes ago that you actually loved anchoring the “CBS Evening News,” can you deconstruct that for me?
Because I think – and you’re in the chair, not me, but just on the outside looking in I’ve looked at the way people said things – the things that were said about you, the ways at times I thought you were maltreated, the patriarchy, the sexism that I thought you were treated with on a number of occasions. Did you really mean to say that you loved anchoring the “CBS Evening News?”
Couric: Yeah, because I think I always look at the work itself and how I spend my days. I got to go to Egypt and cover the uprising there. I covered the earthquake in Haiti; I covered one of the most historic presidential campaigns in our nation’s history. I covered countless primaries.
So I think when I look back on all the amazing stories I’ve done in the past five years, that’s what I really love doing, and I really took the responsibility of anchoring the “Evening News” very seriously. I thought it was a privilege. Listen, I think you have to separate that from some of the criticism that I got along the way, and I think early on that was tough and I talk about that a little bit.
Tavis: Yeah, you do.
Couric: Getting back to the book. (Laughter)
Couric: But I think I really just focused on the work itself and the job I had to do every day, and I feel really, really proud of our team’s work and the body of work that I was able to sort of be at the helm of for the past five years.
Tavis: You made history, and I’m glad you did – a lot of people are glad that you did – as the first woman to anchor, solo, an evening newscast, a network newscast. In retrospect, was it worth it?
Couric: Definitely. Tavis, I think you get to a certain level in the public eye and criticism is inevitable. So I think you have to put it in perspective. As your mom and dad would say, probably, consider the source and what motivates certain people. I think you just have to dig deep and believe in yourself and have the self-confidence you need to forge ahead.
So as a result I took a few punches early on, but it actually – I don’t mean to sound trite, but it is character-building. I think how you deal with that really is the measure of a man or a woman, and I feel just incredibly proud of not only what I was able to accomplish and the work that I did day in and day out, but that I didn’t quit.
That I kept going, I put my blinders on, I focused on the job at hand and I think my work really speaks for itself.
Tavis: So are you leaving better or bitter?
Couric: Better, yeah. I think better.
Couric: I’m not really a bitter person by nature.
Tavis: Yeah, you’re too perky for that. There’s that word. (Laughter) That was a joke.
Couric: I’m not really – I think at 54 it’s a stretch to call anybody “perky.”
Tavis: It was just a joke, it was just a joke.
Couric: That’s okay, you can call me perky.
Tavis: While we’re talking about your work – so we talked about the fact that you’ve made the decision to leave CBS now. Tell me about the royal wedding coverage? You’re on your way to -
Couric: I am.
Tavis: – to London for the big wedding.
Couric: It’s a very (unintelligible). Yeah.
Tavis: You’ve got an exclusive with David Cameron.
Couric: Yes, I do.
Tavis: I read that somewhere.
Couric: Yeah, I’m excited about that. I’ve interviewed Tony Blair on a couple of occasions, I interviewed Gordon Brown as well, and now I’ll be interviewing the new prime minister, who’s very interesting and has done a lot of fairly controversial things dealing with the economy in Great Britain.
So I’m looking forward to that. I’ll be doing it at Downing Street, and that’ll be fun. Yeah, I’m looking forward – listen, it’s a big event and big events are fun. Goodness knows we could use a little happy news, given the kind of year we’ve had with Tucson and Egypt and Libya and Japan. It’s sort of been relentlessly depressing.
So I think some people may think it’s frivolous, but it is historic and it’s such a visual kind of spectacle I think it will be fun to preside over it in my own little way.
Tavis: What’s not trite or simple, I think I read this, you’re interviewing the husband of Gabby Giffords?
Couric: Yes, I did, actually.
Tavis: You did, you did already.
Couric: Yes, I did that last week in Houston, prior to his launch on Friday, and I have to tell you, I’m so impressed by him. He’s so incredibly – you know when somebody just emanates goodness? He’s so incredibly strong and stoic and steadfast, and you can understand why he’s her rock, and she might be his rock as well, by the way. I just know more about how he’s reacting to the situation. He’s a very, very impressive person.
Tavis: How cool is – since you know stories, you cover stories, you write stories – how cool is the story that she, I guess, apparently is going to be there to watch the -
Couric: Yes, she is, yeah.
Tavis: How cool is that?
Couric: He confirmed that with me during the interview we did last week.
Tavis: How cool is that?
Couric: It is so – it’s very cool and very exciting and such an important milestone. He said to me, Tavis, I think while he was making his decision on whether to go that he kept hearing from the doctors and from everyone she’s going to have setbacks, she’s going to have some setbacks; it’ll get worse before it gets better.
He said he kept waiting, worrying about these setbacks, and they just haven’t happened. I think she’s doing remarkably well. I asked him if some of the stories about her recovery have been over-stated, and I think people do want a fairytale ending, and the country – people are so impatient. They want her to walk out of that rehabilitation center and be back to normal.
He said the one thing he has learned about during this whole process is patience. She’s got some issues with motor skills on her right side because she was shot through her left hemisphere of her brain, and she has some language retrieval issues. I think it takes her a long time to speak.
She can, so she’s relearning that. It was really interesting, because he said some doctors think you would rather shot through your right hemisphere because that doesn’t affect things like speech as much, but he said your right hemisphere does affect your personality, your ability to read social cues, your interaction, and kind of the essence of who you are.
So he said the other things can be learned, but Gabby is still completely intact, who she is as a person, and so it’s really quite an amazing story.
Tavis: All right, I promised we’re going to spend a lot of time on the book, so let’s get back to “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives.” As I said earlier, I love the book and couldn’t wait to read – I just love great advice, myself, and I love being challenged by ideas that can help advance the things that I care about.
What is it that’s happening in our world right now that you think makes the timing of this book so propitious?
Couric: Well, I think there’s a lot of fear and anxiety about the future on the part of parents for their children and on the part of young people for their futures, and if they are going to be able to have the quality of life that’s been enjoyed by their parents, or better than their parents, depending on their socioeconomic level, and I think that it is a scary time, with unemployment and with global competition.
I love the essays in this book because I felt like everyone who contributed, and there were about 116, they really spoke from their heart, and I think there was something just very real and genuine, because they wanted – they were reaching out and trying to kind of give a helping hand to young people, and they talked a lot about what they’ve learned in their lives and what has been helpful to them as they’ve gone through their trials and tribulations.
So I just think that hopefully it will be helpful and inspiring, and not just for people who are graduating from college, although I originally intended it for that audience. But I found when I was getting these essays I loved reading them, because I think all of us need to reevaluate our lives and take stock and reassess our situations as we go along – I hate the word “journey,” but our journeys.
Tavis: That’s what it is, though.
Couric: Yeah, it is.
Tavis: When you look at the back of the book, as I am right now, you see these names of persons. They’re all accomplished Americans in so many different fields of human endeavor. On this program last night, your friend Michael Bloomberg, who writes a piece in here – the mayor, Mayor Bloomberg; like I know him, Michael. (Laughter)
The mayor was on our show last night and I asked him a question, Katie, about how it is that one of his stature and of his means, economic and otherwise, could be running a city that’s going through such a difficult time and connect with everyday people. How do you develop empathy for everyday people who are struggling when you’re this guy who’s a billionaire, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?
He gave his answer; it was a good answer. He gave the answer. I raise that to ask whether or not the advice offered by these august personalities is advice that can be adhered to, can be reveled in by everyday people who are not at this level.
Couric: Oh, definitely, because I think there are levels of accomplishment that really run the gamut. Not everybody is a multibillionaire in this book like Mike Bloomberg, who by the way is one of the most philanthropic people in the country. I think just the very fact that he’s involved in public service – he could be doing something totally different, but he clearly cares about other people. I think that’s a great testament to his level of empathy and compassion and what you were talking about.
But I also did a lot of people who aren’t as well known, like Jacqueline Novogratz, who started the Acumen Fund, and other people, and writers. These are not necessarily super, quote, unquote, “financially successful” people, but they’re people who have found real fulfillment -
Tavis: I know that, because I’m in it. (Laughter) And you’re on PBS right now. Not CBS, PBS.
Couric: – real fulfillment in their lives in all different kinds of areas. General Odierno, General Petraeus both contributed something. I should probably look at the list myself, but there are a lot of people who some of them are – Michelle Kwan, who’s an Olympic skater, obviously, and she’s getting her master’s at Tufts. I just saw her there recently.
Ken Burns, a documentarian who’s doing something that he loves so much. Bob Schaeffer did a great essay in here, Meryl Streep, Fareed Zakaria talked about being an immigrant. I think there’s just something for everyone, and I hope that people aren’t – these people have achieved a certain level of success, but I think they are incredibly generous people in offering to talk about what they faced along the way.
Tavis: As these essays came through and you were reading them, did you detect – how can I put this – did you detect a through line, a consistency through all of this advice?
Couric: Well, we divided it up in chapters, and I think that there are definitely some thematic links to these essays. I think a lot of people did talk, quite frankly, about failure, and how they had to get up. Michelle Kwan talked about how she had to learn how to fall, for example, as she was training to be an Olympic skater.
Others talked about the importance of resilience, and I talk a lot about how I had to be resilient after the death of my husband. He was 42 and we had two little girls, two and six, when Jay died. So resilience, I think, is a theme. Hard work and tenacity is a theme. Not being afraid of failure. Carrying your courage around in your pocket like your cell phone Anna Quindlen wrote about.
I think minute particulars, that’s from a William Blake poem that my minister at my church talked about, about how you live your days is how you live your life, that’s a quote from Annie Dillard. But he talked about going through life and living it in minute particulars. Just the small acts of kindness add up and really are the things, the threads that create your moral fiber.
A lot of people talked about that. Other people talked about being committed to something greater than yourself. So I think there are themes, and they seemed to fall into these categories which I think worked out really well.
Tavis: You mentioned Jay, your late husband, and every time I think of Jay I fondly remember – actually, I met you – you may recall this – I met you through Jay. I knew Jay first.
Couric: That’s right.
Tavis: Because Jay and I were doing commentary together almost every night on CNBC.
Couric: On OJ Simpson, right?
Tavis: On OJ Simpson stuff. That’s how I got to know Jay -
Couric: Or on MSNBC, right? Yeah.
Tavis: MSNBC, yeah. So through Jay I got to meet Katie Couric. I always think of the great conversations he and I would have off-camera all the time, and since you raised his name, I know it’s been years now, but I also know you never close on the death of a loved one like you close on a house. It’s not like that, I know. But since you continue to do work in his name, was there some advice that Jay gave you that you have found yourself going back to time and time again over the years to navigate forward with your two girls without Jay?
Couric: I don’t know if there’s any advice he gave me except for sort of the example he set for me as a person of extraordinary integrity. I think Jay was a very honorable person. There was sort of an old-world civility and gentlemanliness about Jay, as you probably remember, and I think Jay just embodied everything that I looked for in another human being.
He was an incredibly diligent hard worker. He used to prepare so much for those television appearances talking about the legal aspect of whether it was Timothy McVeigh or OJ Simpson, and what I really – I admired so much about Jay because he was an incredibly kind person, but I also – and Dan Abrams went – who is a lawyer -
Tavis: Mm-hmm, I know Dan, yeah, sure.
Couric: – Dan, and a friend of mine – and when Jay died Dan wrote me a note and said he was such an original thinker. I think so many people often got on and just regurgitated what had been on the wires, but Jay had a very, very creative and original mind.
So he was a lot of things, but any specific advice – actually, I have to tell you one thing. When he was so sick he said to me, “Nothing really matters except your family and your friends, in that order.” I think what he was saying to me is it’s fine to be on this hamster wheel, running and running, trying to grab the brass ring or whatever you define as success, but your relationships, that’s really all that matters when it’s all said and done.
Tavis: A lot of this advice – and I know the story well, of course – it was your Case Western speech.
Tavis: So you see Katie Couric on 25 media appearances, you know the Case Western connection to the book.
Couric: They’re very happy. They’re very, very happy.
Tavis: They should be. Their fundraising should be up right now. You mention Case Western about a gazillion times.
Couric: I know, I can’t help it. It was the way the whole thing started, Tavis.
Tavis: I know that this is a book that’s not going to be just enjoyed by young people, but it’s great for young people. It’s great advice as they start their lives or college careers or life after college.
I raise that to ask whether or not, or how it is that you even remain hopeful about the world that these young people and your daughters are going to inhabit, because the world is a really scary place. You need some good advice to try to navigate through it, but what makes you hopeful about the world?
Couric: Well, I believe in the inherent goodness of people and the goodness of our country, and I think that these are challenging times, but we’ve seen challenging times before. I feel like I sound like a politician now, but I do believe that there are extraordinarily talented people in this country and they all have gifts.
Everyone has a certain gift. I think we have a responsibility to make sure those gifts can blossom in people who are less fortunate than we are and may not have the advantage of the educational opportunities that you and I have had. So I don’t know, I’m basically, as I said in my introduction – Jay used to say I was born on a sunny day.
I am a glass-half-full person, and I just believe in the promise of young people. You look at the incredible things that have happened in our country in terms of technology and all the exciting things that are happening and all the things that have been invented and how our lives have changed – really, Tavis, I don’t know if you feel this way, but in a nanosecond, the way we consume information, and that’s opened up a world of possibilities for people.
So I feel like I do feel hopeful, because it’s just too depressing. The alternative is too depressing.
Tavis: Were you at all surprised that all these major players said yes to your invitation?
Couric: I think they were maybe inspired to do so because of the scholarship aspect. I think nothing’s a bigger turnoff. I’m sure you’ve been approached by people; they ask you to contribute to a book that they’re putting together that they’re going to -
Tavis: For profit.
Couric: It’s sort of gross, and I’ve been asked a lot to do that in my life, and I always think, well, if I do that I’m going to put it in my own book. Just because unless it’s going to charity or to something bigger than somebody’s bank account, I think it’s not that appealing.
But I think because of this it was, and I’ve been in television for 32 years now and I actually have some real relationships. I know I’m not going to be like we’re super-tight with these people in the book, but I think there’s some mutual respect and affection that I have for many of the people who are included here, and I feel so privileged and so honored that I’ve been able to interact with some of these enormously accomplished people.
Tavis: You’re being very modest. The first thing I thought when I saw the book and saw the names on the back was that there are a whole lot of people who respect the work and the contribution of Katie Couric.
Couric: Well, that’s nice of you to say.
Tavis: No, a lot of people. It’s called “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives.” Katie Couric is living an extraordinary life. You’ve always been nothing but good to me and I am honored to have you on this program and wish you only the best in the coming months and years.
Couric: Thank you, Tavis. Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thank you, Katie.
Couric: I feel the same way about you.
Tavis: I appreciate that. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Good night from New York.
Couric: It’s a mutual admiration society.
Tavis: We love each other.
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