Norah O’Donnell’s appointment to CBS News’s chief White House correspondent was the Washington equivalent of a juicy Hollywood breakup-slash-hookup. When the news broke in June, political and media blogs went wild; the consensus, as Politico put it, was that it was “a stunning shakeup,” especially considering her 12 years with NBC News. Her new duties, aside from leading the network’s coverage of the executive branch, include following the Democratic presidential election campaign, acting as the primary substitute anchor for Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation and occasionally contributing to 60Minutes.
As her star continues to grow far beyond Washington circles, no one seems more awestruck than O’Donnell herself. “Wow. 60Minutes! You know, I grew up watching 60Minutes,” says the 37-year-old, who will bring no small amount of youthfulness and glamour to the newsmagazine. “I love my NBC family, and I wouldn’t be the journalist I am today if it wasn’t for that experience. CBS offered what I believe is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to have a front-row seat to history.”
From that perch, O’Donnell has a bird’s-eye view of the upcoming presidential election—one she says could wind up a political soap opera, for all the expected reasons. “President Obama is vulnerable because of the state of the economy and the record unemployment,” she says. “That would be unprecedented for a president to be reelected with unemployment as high as it is. That’s why Republicans are feeling more optimistic about their chances, and why you see so many Republicans in the field.”
O’Donnell comes by politics naturally, having been born in Washington, DC, and growing up in a military family. Her father was a doctor in the Army while her mother ran the Walter Reed Auxiliary, a private volunteer organization that tends to injured soldiers. (Her sister followed a similar path and is now a surgeon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.) Meanwhile, her own family is decidedly civilian. She met restaurateur Geoff Tracy, proprietor of several popular Chef Geoff’s eateries, while the two were students at Georgetown University. The 20-year union has produced three children—twins Grace and Henry, four, and daughter Riley, three. On the subject of work and family, O’Donnell does not sugarcoat the difficulties of a modern woman’s work-life balance. “I spend more time at work than I do with my family,” she says frankly. “I was feeling guilty about it, but there is no balance to be had. I spend more time at work, and that is just the way it is.”
A hectic life also leaves little room for retail indulgence, although she is widely considered one of the best-dressed women on the small screen. She does confess to the occasional late-night Internet shopping spree, long after the kids are asleep. “I would say my style has evolved,” she says. “When I was 25 years old, if I wore a skirt, I always wore pantyhose. That was the proper thing to do. We now are all on the Internet and television wearing sleeveless dresses and high, high heels.”
Not many heels have stepped into the role of chief White House correspondent, a male-dominated post that has historically led to network anchor-dom. Cognizant of her potential path, O’Donnell has embraced the opportunity to make her mark on the political media sphere. “Brian Williams had that job, Dan Rather held that job,” she says. “The people who have been chief White House correspondents are legendary and the very best journalists in American history. And, so, that was really decisive for me.” Hail to the chief.