Katie Couric: It’s great to be traveling America among “the great unwashed”

It’s not as bad as it sounds. She didn’t mean it in a “these ignorant peasants sure do smell when they haven’t bathed” way. She meant it in a “I love to chat with these ignorant peasants no matter what they smell like” way. She’s a people person, guys. Accept it.

Rick Kaplan, her executive producer, says that “when she’s on the road—in Iraq with David Petraeus—she has a great way with people. People like her and she likes them. There are anchors who consider being on the road a pain in the butt. She really looks for opportunities to feel the earth and touch people.”

That’s why Couric has spent recent weeks in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New Brunswick, New Jersey. She is touring what she calls “this great unwashed middle of the country” in an effort to divine the mood of the midterms.

Therein lies a key reason why Couric has sometimes struggled in her current job. She’s always seemed constrained by the rigid, 22-minute format, a far cry from her freewheeling Today performances over a decade and a half. So she has devised ways to slip out of her $15 million-a-year prison—launching a Web show, engaging on Twitter, and getting out in the field.

Says James Lileks, who reminds us that “the great unwashed” is a phrase coined by one of the world’s most notoriously bad writers:

If you can name the crime that will get me committed to a $15-million-a-year-prison, I will endeavor to commit it posthaste. But perhaps the reason she’s struggled is contained in her quote: the middle of the country suspects she regards them as hobnailed dirt-smeared dullards. It fits with the idea that real America – smart, credentialed, urban, sophisticated – exists in a thin crust on either coast, with the rest of the country a parenthetical insert in the national narrative. Unwashed. Criminey.

No, amend that. “Real America,” according to the coastal cultural viziers, is middle America, and that’s the problem. “Better America” is what you get in New York. But only between certain cross-streets.

I wonder if Katie would agree, even privately. Just as everyone thinks they have a sense of humor, everyone thinks they’re a populist — or rather, everyone thinks they’re not an elitist. Salary’s no barrier: Plenty of conservative media personalities do extremely well financially yet would bristle at the suggestion that they’re among the elite. Politics is, in theory, no barrier either: I don’t think of, say, Ralph Nader as an elitist even though he’s farrrrr left ideologically. The combination of salary and politics might be lethal, though. Is there even a single rich liberal out there whom righties wouldn’t instantly assume looks at middle America as the “great unwashed”? The only one who pops to mind is Bill Clinton but I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.