On The Set with
By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
Norah O’Donnell is the co-host of CBS This Morning, guest host on Face the Nation, and a 60 Minutes correspondent. This seasoned broadcaster has earned the moniker “tough but fair.”
Of course it helps Norah O’Donnell’s popularity that the camera loves her – she is tall and slim with perfect features, thick auburn hair, and big blue eyes. She’s also, as I found out when I visited her at the CBS studio on West 57th Street in early April, just plain nice. But the reason why O’Donnell is one of the top broadcasters on television is because she’s very good at her job. She’s a skillful interviewer who does her research and knows her stuff.
O’Donnell, 40, as of January, began her career working in print journalism, on a Capitol Hill newspaper called Roll Call. At 25, she was a full time contributing correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News.
As chief Washington correspondent for NBC, her on-the-spot reporting on 9/11 won her the Sigma Delta Chi Award, following which she traveled with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Afghanistan and other countries.
O’Donnell’s interview portfolio is a who’s who of political power players and world leaders. Her reputation is such that both Republicans and Democrats trust her. As a guest host of MSNBC’s Hardball, she proved that she could be tough but fair. And as part of the NBC News team, she received an Emmy for covering the 2008 election.
Chris Matthews, host of Hardball, said of O’Donnell, “Norah is the best communicator I know. She has the talent to connect with true excitement. I am sometimes in wonder at her readiness to nail a story, to get to the heart of what’s important. What a pro!”
Bill O’Reilly, whom O’Donnell interviewed on 60 Minutes, is equally complimentary: “Norah O’Donnell brings brains, beauty and feistiness to the forum. If she weren’t already Irish, we’d have to claim her anyway,” he says.
O’Donnell, who was the darling of NBC, (the late TV legend Tim Russert was also a friend and a fan – he chose the name of her youngest daughter), surprised everyone when she moved over to CBS in 2011; first as chief White House correspondent, and then, in July 2012, as co-anchor of CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Gayle King.
Coming up on the third anniversary of the switch to CBS, O’Donnell is happy with the move. In addition to the morning show, she fills in as guest host on Face the Nation and also contributes to 60 Minutes, where the opportunity to do the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that the esteemed CBS news magazine show excels at, is the fulfillment of a long held ambition.
O’Donnell is the whole package. She’s got brains, beauty, and a quick mind, but focus is perhaps the key ingredient in her makeup. She knows what she wants and goes for it. When she was a kid she used to sit on a bench in her bedroom and pretend to be Barbara Walters. At age 10 she was on television. In Seoul, South Korea where her father was stationed, she was part of a PBS-type show that was designed to teach kids to speak English. She would say little phrases in Korean and then in English.
Off the set, O’Donnell is a busy mom to 6-year-old twins, Grace and Henry, and 5-year old Riley.
Norah’s husband, Geoff Tracy, is also Irish-American. The couple met at Georgetown University (from which Norah earned a B.A. in Philosophy and a masters in Liberal Arts), and have been together for 23 years. He’s a chef and restaurateur, and in 2010, they authored a book for parents titled Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler.
It’s clear to me that O’Donnell loves her work (as we chat, her eyes light up at the idea of a possible story she might cover), and she’s clearly no slacker. One recent March day after her CBS morning duties, she served as a guest speaker at a women’s conference in New York (a firm believer in empowering women, she sits on the board of directors for the International Women’s Media Foundation). Then she flew down to Washington, D.C. to be Mistress of Ceremonies for the American Ireland Fund Dinner (AIF), which she has done for seven years, and the next morning, she flew out to Texas to film a segment for 60 Minutes.
Loretta Brennan Glucksman, the longtime guiding angel of the AIF, said of O’Donnell, “A large part of Norah’s popularity is that she’s genuinely proud of her Irish heritage, and her whole wonderful family attends the [AIF] party. But it’s her incisive intelligence, ability to listen acutely, and innate fairness that have propelled her to the top of her profession. Her Irish charm doesn’t hurt a bit, of course.”
And she looks marvelous. On the morning that we meet in her office, there is no evidence that she has been up since four a.m. She is wearing skinny white pants, a fuchsia colored top, and a pair of killer heels (there is much online interest in O’Donnell’s shoes). Her arms are incredibly toned. (A pair of 10 lb. weights sit near her desk). In one hand she holds a large take-out cup of tea, her beverage of choice – she takes it with milk, just as her grandmother would have done. Her other hand holds a copy of a speech that she gave to the Scranton Society of Irish Women in March 2011.
“I worked very hard on this speech,” she says, laughing. “When the idea of me as a dinner speaker was first proposed, Chris Matthews took me aside and said, ‘This is very, very important. It’s a really big deal, Norah, so take it seriously.’ And I did.”
Tell me about your Irish heritage.
Both sets of my parents are New Yorkers and have full Irish bloodlines. My mother’s parents are off the boat from Ireland. My grandfather Edward O’Kane was from Derry and my grandmother Mary Monaghan was from Belfast. I was named after Mary’s mother, Norah Murphy. As an Irish Catholic, the oldest of nine kids, Mary grew up in really tough circumstances. At 12, she worked in a linen factory in Belfast and later, by herself, she got on a boat and arrived in Ellis Island in 1930. Really the courage of my grandmother is truly remarkable. My mother went to the national archives in Washington, where all the entry books from Ellis Island are, and found my grandmother’s name and signature. What was her occupation? Hemstitcher. She had only $20 to her name when she landed. She got a job in Creedmore Psychiatric Hospital, as an attendant taking care of the mentally ill. She worked 12-hour shifts. My grandfather worked too – in maintenance. They had three kids and didn’t have a lot of money.
My mother grew up poor and said there were many nights she went to bed hungry, but my grandmother still found a way to send boxes of canned ham back to Ireland because she had eight brothers and sisters back there that she was taking care of.
And the O’Donnells?
My great-great-grandfather on my father’s maternal side came over and worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. I uncovered this fact when I was doing research for my speech to the women in Scranton. He had gone from Ireland to Scotland and came to Pennsylvania, which is how my grandmother Helen Morahan came to be born in Avoca, Pennsylvania in 1902. I’m named after her since I’m Norah Morahan O’Donnell. She later became a teacher and moved to New York, but her sister Mary McDermott lived right on Main Street in Avoca her whole life.
What’s remarkable about the Irish is that most European immigration to U.S. was by men, but with the Irish, in the 1920s and 30s, it was mostly women coming over to work as cooks and nannies. These Irish women were such pioneers.
What did exploring your Irish roots do for you?
For me, it was the discovery of sacrifice, and hard work and diligence. It’s not just the spirit of the Irish, it’s the determination to find something better.
I quoted W.B. Yeats in that speech in Scranton. He said, “Joy is of the will which labors, which overcomes obstacles, which knows triumph.” The joy that overcomes obstacles is really, in many ways, at the heart of my grandparent’s story.
Everybody says you’re so lucky to be Irish, but I think the Irish know they built that luck with a lot of hard work. And certainly, in the case with my ancestors, it was a very tough life. They had to leave Ireland because of no jobs. It was tough getting a foothold in America. It’s weird to think that just one generation ago, my mother didn’t have a lot of food on the table.
Tell me about your parents.
My mother, who, by the way, is now back in college, and at 67 is studying microbiology, won a scholarship to Fordham University and had plans to go to medical school when she met my father. She did not end up becoming a doctor because she was a freshmen and my dad a senior and they eventually got engaged and married and lived in the West Village near St. Vincent’s Hospital where my father was doing his internal medicine residency. Francis, my older brother, now lives in an apartment where out the window you can see the hospital where he was born. Sadly, it has since closed.
My dad was drafted into the army and stayed in for 30 years. They moved first to Washington, D.C. I was born in Walter Reed [Military Hospital]. Then they moved to Germany. My father went over first and my mom tells the story of landing in the airport in Germany and waiting for five hours with two kids – a baby, me, and my older brother – for my dad to show up. I can only imagine the conversation when he showed up.
We lived all over the world. I have a younger brother who was born in Germany. And then 10 years passed and we did a tour in Korea, and I have a younger sister who was born in Seoul. We loved it. We lived there for two years and traveled all over Asia.
Did you go to Georgetown because it was a Jesuit school?
I grew up Catholic and we went to church every Sunday. You always went even if you were sick. My older brother went to Harvard so it wasn’t that my parents insisted on a Jesuit college, but it was certainly part of the decision.
What I enjoyed was the emphasis on theology and philosophy. It wasn’t Catholic theology just the study of theology and philosophy, and they were required courses. I ended up becoming a philosophy major and my husband, who did not grow up Catholic, became a theology major, just because we were fascinated by the the study of it, and while neither of us are in those professions, it was a great liberal arts education.
Did your philosophy and liberal arts education help you in your career?
My liberal arts education was about the joy of learning and fostering curiosity. Tom Friedman of the New York Times, speaking at Notre Dame, said whatever you learn in college you’re going to forget in a couple years. What you really want to encourage is the joy of learning, because in order to be successful in life you have to constantly keep up and keep learning things.
At Georgetown, it was an enlightening period for me having gone to a big high school in Texas. Living in Washington, D.C., was a great education.
You covered Pope Francis and the conclave. Did you meet him?
I haven’t met him, but I would like to meet him. My father is named Francis. My parents are devout Catholics and Eucharistic ministers. To them it is all about service. At the heart and beauty of Catholicism are the priests and nuns taking care of the poorest among us. My parents love Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston [who is part of the Vatican commission advising Pope Francis on sexual abuse policy].
The focus on the Catholic church has come to be on these great misdeeds that have taken place because there was abuse of children and there is absolutely no excuse for that. The church needed to recognize that it needed to reform, and it needs to heal. And for people who are Catholic, you hope that the mission, once you get rid of the sick priests, is to refocus on what is good in the church. Focus on the weakest amongst us and the people who need us most, the poor around the world and the social services that the church provides. When I grew up Catholic, that was always the focus. And that seems to be Pope Francis’ mandate.
Do you think we do enough to help people here in the U.S.?
60 Minutes did a story about two nurse practitioners who provide free care for people in central Appalachia.
That’s what I love about CBS. We are committed to original reporting, great story telling, and hopefully we are doing the kinds of stories you won’t see elsewhere. That’s why I came to CBS. We are not snooty about news, but we are not focused on a lot of the celebrity news that you can find in the news magazines. We are trying to focus on stories that tell us something larger about the human condition and the country that we live in or the world that we live in. That’s in the great tradition of 60 Minutes. Jeff Fager is our executive producer and is also our chairman at CBS, and those values are what animate us every day and that’s why I love CBS. I grew up in a household where your values were supposed to drive your decision making and how you live your life, and at CBS the values of original reporting and great storytelling are what animate us everyday. Gayle is like that and Charlie is like that.
You seem to work very well with Gayle and Charlie.
Oh we do. Chemistry is so difficult to create and for us on the show it comes naturally. When I first joined Charlie and Gayle, it was like we had been friends for a very long time. Our format is unique in terms of morning shows. The traditional format is that one anchor is with one guest and then in the next segment goes to the other anchor with a different guest. In our interviews, all three of us participate. Like for instance, Dr. David Agus is on the show talking about new breast cancer research and Charlie, Gayle, and myself will all ask questions. So that requires being able to read my co-hosts and sometimes give and take based on their interest in the story. We are all very generous with one another. Sometimes one of us doesn’t get a question in, but we don’t argue. It makes it, for me, the best job I ever had. We are focused on great journalism, and I also work with really great people. You don’t normally get those two things together.
Do you have a favorite story from last year?
The story that really stuck with me, was Malala Yousafzai [the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban]. That was truly memorable. You hear her story, but then meeting her – this 16-year-old has such presence and courage. I asked, “Weren’t you afraid?” There were threats made on her life. She has to live in England now. She said“I may be afraid of ghosts and dragons, but I’m not afraid of the Taliban.” She meant it. This was not some line. She wants to be prime minister of Pakistan one day.
Malala encapsulates what is going to be the story of the 21st century, which is the story of the empowerment of women and girls around the world. And that’s not just because it’s a moral virtue or political decision, but it’s going to become an economic story.
Women are the great untapped economic potential in the world. If you talk about global purchasing power, global economic power, women are going to grow exponentially in the next decade. Every major company is focused on that too, and on the fact that since 1982 women have gotten 10 million more college degrees than men. That’s the Bureau of Labor statistics. Women are getting more PhDs, masters, more post graduate degrees. We have taken a hammer to the educational glass ceiling. So, the question is, given that there is equal opportunity for education, why has it not translated to women in leadership positions?
In 1995, at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, when Hillary Clinton said “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” it was a moral issue. Now it’s an economic issue. Women make up 80 percent of consumer decisions. Based on who you’re looking at, we women decide what car to buy, what computers, and groceries. We buy our husbands’ socks and underwear too. We decide which house we are going to live in. Largely, women are the ones who make those decisions. And 40 percent are the breadwinners in the family. Our economic power is growing and it’s going to blossom into political power. We have to get over other stuff such as bias. That’s ones of the reasons I joined the International Women’s Media Foundation to help those women whose voices weren’t being heard.
Any advice for young women?
In my own career, one of the most important things I’ve done is to say exactly what I want to do. I knew early on I wanted to be a network correspondent. I wrote for a newspaper called Roll Call. I got on TV and thought, I want to be a network correspondent. I always tell people, know what you want to do. And I knew I wanted to be a network correspondent at 25. I covered the White House, covered Congress, covered the Pentagon. I traveled all over the world with presidents and Secretaries of Defense. Then I got married and had three kids. I had a deal to sign with NBC. I had a great job, but I wondered, am I really reaching my potential? And I thought, gosh, I really want to do 60 Minutes. That was a show I watched with my family. So I called my agent and said I really want to do 60 Minutes, and he said that’s great but everyone wants to do that. I told him to make the call anyway. So he called and Jeff Fager said he wanted to meet with me. And I met with Jeff and he said, we aren’t going to make you a 60 Minutes correspondent immediately, but would you like to be our chief White House correspondent and our principal substitute on Face the Nation, and if you pitch some pieces we like on 60 Minutes we can work on that?
So, you made it happen?
Yes, I created my own luck, just like my grandmother, Mary Monaghan.
This article was published in the June / July 2014 edition of Irish America. ♦