Who’s Afraid of 60 Minutes?

No worries for the candidates

How do you make thirteen of 60 Minutes feel like an eternity? Sic Katie Couric on Senator Hillary Clinton.

What struck me first about Couric’s questions Sunday night during her thirteen-minute interview of Clinton was not that they were too soft (though they weren’t particularly tough and nor were those Couric’s colleague, Steve Kroft, posed to Senator Barack Obama in his companion interview…more on all that in a second) it’s that they were, often, too…beside the point. I found myself wondering aloud, These are the things you—even you, Katie Couric—choose to ask a presidential candidate?

Out of the gate, Couric queried Clinton about her current level of self-doubt:

Have you grappled with the idea, Senator Clinton, that it could be [Obama] and not you?

Couric tried a little harder in the follow-up, painting a sad-face scenario:

Even in your deepest, darkest moments, when you’re exhausted, you don’t think ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going through this, I’m spending so much money, I’m so tired and this could be all for naught?’ What if that happens? You have to, once in a while, think that. No?

Striking out on that front, Couric tried to make news with this one: “Do you like Senator Obama?” (Like like or just, you know, “like”?) And then, come Clinton’s affirmative reply, Couric tried again, desperate for some conflict (read: headlines): “Not one scintilla of bad blood between you now?” Steve Kroft, too, tried to draw out some conflict: “There’s been nastiness already. There probably gonna be more nastiness. Is there a point at which you go to the closet and pull out Clinton’s skeletons?” he asked Senator Obama.

Couric took her high school line of like-him-or-like-like-him questioning to a high school in Virginia where she, having cornered a campaigning Clinton in a classroom, asked this all-important question:

What were you like in high school? Were you the girl in the front row taking meticulous notes and always raising your hand?

And then, wait for it…:

Someone told me your nickname in school was Miss Frigidaire. Is that true?

Kroft and Couric both got in that evergreen softball, the However do you hold up under the stress of campaigning-type question. Couric’s version for Clinton: “How do you do it? I mean, the satellite interviews, the speeches, the travel, the debates, the schmoozing, the picture taking, 24/7,” And, the follow-up: “But I’m talking about pure stamina. Do you pop vitamins? Mainline coffee?” Kroft’s version was a follow-up to his question of whether Obama “is the same person he was a year ago.” Said Kroft: “I’ve seen you in the morning. You look…I know you’re getting three, four hours sleep.”

The only discussion of policy that transpired during Obama’s sit-down with Kroft occurred when Obama invited a surprised-seeming Kroft to ask him about issues, any issues.

KROFT: You talk about big ideas and often with a lack of specificity. And it’s been one of the complaints about your campaign.

OBAMA: … you know, if there are issues that you want to cover right now, I’m happy to.

KROFT: Yeah, I have a—actually, I have a …

OBAMA: So why don’t we work those through?

Yikes! Did Kroft even have an issues-related question at the ready? His next question sounded more like an off-the-cuff ice-breaker than a thoughtful question from a seasoned reporter: “What do you think of what’s going on in Iraq right now?”

Obama got two more Iraq questions thereafter and Clinton got one from Couric (one of two policy-related questions). Kroft’s toughest question for Obama? That’s a toss-up. Maybe: “You’ve made the case that you have the best chance to defeat John McCain. Why do you feel that way?” Or perhaps it was, “You feel like you’ve got the momentum?” Or else: “Did you play basketball on Super Tuesday?” The toughest-sounding question Clinton faced was, “Why are you so often seen as polarizing?” Or maybe it was: “Do you think [your dad] would still be saying, ‘You can do better?’”

Couric ended her segment by explaining to viewers that 60 Minutes had asked Senator John McCain, too, for an interview, but that he had declined for scheduling reasons.

McCain might want to make time for 60 Minutes after all. If Clinton’s and Obama’s interviews are any indicator, the questions are more likely to be pointless — even painless — than pointed.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.