January-February 2022

The life of Courtney Kube

The NBC News correspondent talks about her last trip to Afghanistan, how Tim Russert helped shape her career, and that time her 4-year-old interrupted her while she was live on air

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Courtney Kube at home in Bethesda. Photo by Lisa Helfert

As she was leaving Afghanistan this past July, Courtney Kube was struck by the thought that she might never go back. The national security and Pentagon correspondent for NBC News has reported from all over Afghanistan dozens of times since 2006, and she’s developed an attachment to the rugged beauty of the country’s landscape—and to its people.

“I’ve made friends there over the years, people who I got to see every single time,” she says. “It was hard to leave that last time. I definitely feel connected to Afghanistan. I feel very blessed, as strange as that sounds, that I was able to see those places.”

Even when Kube returns to her Bethesda home from an overseas trip or a long day of reporting at the Pentagon, she sometimes finds it difficult to push the job aside. When Syria attacked its own people with chemical weapons and the U.S. responded with a missile attack in 2017, the story hit her hard.

“I felt like every time I looked at social media or did reporting about the region, I was looking at the body of a little kid,” says Kube, 43. “Part of it was [my] twins were really small at the time. I would look at that and say, ‘How come my kids get to live in Bethesda and go to school and play with toys and eat dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets? Why do my kids get to be innocent kids, and these other kids, for no other reason than where they were born, have to suffer like that?’ That was a time where I actually had to take a step back sometimes and stop looking at the pictures and the coverage. It’s tough to separate. ”

When we spoke with Kube via Zoom in early October, she had spent the day checking in with her sources at the Pentagon, asking about the continued fallout from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s decision to fly fighter jets close to Taiwan’s airspace. She had been scheduled for a live shot, but that was canceled due to a press conference with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“It’s really nice not to put on makeup and do my hair,” she said as she bounced her then 8-month-old son, AJ, on her knee. Her husband, Eric Dent, a former Pentagon spokesman for the Marine Corps who’s now working in the civilian world, was due home any second. They have three children together—twins Ryan and Jackson are 7—plus Dent’s sons Eric, 26, and Ethan, 25. In October 2019, Kube went viral after then 4-year-old Ryan made an unscheduled appearance on camera as she was reporting live on MSNBC from the network’s D.C. studios. “Excuse me, my kids are here,” a smiling Kube said. “Live television.”

Kube, holding AJ, with sons Jackson (left) and Ryan. Photos by Lisa Helfert

Kube didn’t grow up dreaming of a high-profile career as a network news reporter. Her father, Robert, is an environmental engineer, and her mother, Dianne, worked as a nurse and medical practice administrator. A cheerleader and soccer player at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, Kube wanted to be a doctor. But an internship after her junior year at the University of Michigan changed the course of her life. She was living with her parents in Bethesda and working at Hamburger Hamlet when she got an offer from Meet the Press, one of dozens of places to which she’d applied.

“It was actually a pretty small staff, so they let me do a lot for a 20-year-old kid,” she says. “I loved being in the studio; I thought it was so exciting to watch the cameras moving around and see the people on the set. I remember Madeleine Albright came in, and John Lewis came in, and I couldn’t believe they were letting me walk them to makeup.”

After graduating from college in 2000, Kube got a job as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, D.C., and she’s been with the network ever since. “On Sept. 10, [2001], I actually had a phone interview with a tiny little affiliate, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go be a reporter in the middle of nowhere. I’m going to learn all about it and work my way up.’ The next day was 9/11,” she recalls. “I remember working for about two days straight. Right after that, Meet the Press offered me a job as a production assistant. I never really looked back.”

Bethesda Magazine spoke with Kube once in October and again by phone in November.

How big of an influence was Tim Russert on your career?

Because we were such a small staff, I got to learn a lot from him. He was a perfectionist. He would drive you hard, but he prioritized family and personal life, too. When my grandfather died, he showed up in my office with a six-pack of Rolling Rock and said, ‘What do you need?’

One of my favorite shows that we did was a Christmas show. We were having Caroline Kennedy on. She didn’t speak very much then—this was before she was an ambassador. We knew in advance that she was going to be on, so I spent a lot of time looking for video and photos of her, and I found these old videos of her as a little kid at the White House at Christmas with her brother, who had died only two or three years earlier. I spent a bunch of time getting the film switched to video, and then of course we go through the show and Tim wasn’t able to run all of the video. So after the show he walked over to me and said, ‘What did you think of the show, kiddo?’ I said, ‘It was a great show.’ He looked at me and said, ‘But…’ I said, ‘You know, I had that video of Caroline Kennedy and I was so looking forward to seeing her reaction on the air when you showed it to her.’ He said, ‘OK, hang on,’ and he walked away and comes back with Caroline Kennedy and one of our tech guys and one of the studio monitors. The director had it all set up for her to watch it. It was video she had never seen before. He didn’t have to get Caroline Kennedy and ask her to stay and look at video for me, but he did it because it was important to me and I had worked on it and he cared. That’s the kind of thing that Tim did.

In 2005, you left Meet the Press to go cover the Pentagon as a producer. Why did you make that switch?

I went to Tim and said, ‘I love politics, but if I keep covering it, I’m going to start hating it.’ The fun of it had started to go away. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Anything but the Pentagon.’ He said, ‘Why’s that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about it—what if I can’t learn it fast enough?’ He said, ‘Let’s see what else we can find for you.’

A couple weeks later my phone rings and it’s Tim. He says, ‘All right, kiddo. You’ve got six weeks. Start studying, we’re sending you to the Pentagon. Go get Rummy [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld].’

When did you start going on the air?

I think I started in 2009. Rachel Maddow started putting me on her show. To be honest with you, I didn’t really want to do on-air. Sometimes they would ask me, and I would say I wasn’t available, because I was nervous. I had always been behind the scenes. I liked being the person in khaki pants and my hair in a ponytail telling the cameramen where to go and taking my notes. I wasn’t good at putting on makeup, and I’m still not good at putting on makeup. But Rachel Maddow was so encouraging, and she was such a good mentor to me, so I started doing her show more and more.

Then I started doing The Diane Rehm Show on NPR. I got more and more used to it. NPR was an excellent venue for me because it taught me how to speak more in sound bites. You need to know how to speak succinctly and how to wrap up your thoughts quickly.

Take us inside a Pentagon media briefing. What’s it like?

We’re actually a very collegial press corps even though it’s competitive. Before the briefings, everyone’s talking and gossiping. The tone of the briefing depends on the subject and on the briefer. We’ve had several really contentious ones lately with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But for the most part, the questions are not very political. We’re more interested in the facts, sort of the wonk of the story. There was a guy who used to work for Secretary Rumsfeld named Larry Di Rita who said, ‘The Pentagon press corps has an endless thirst for tedium.’ We really want all of the details.

Early on, I was really nervous in the briefings. Especially my very first briefing with Secretary Rumsfeld. The last briefing I did with him, it was only a couple of days before he resigned, I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, members of Congress are calling for your resignation,’ and I listed all these people who were calling for him to resign. I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, are you considering resignation?’ He said, ‘No,’ and turned to the next person. And I said, ‘Well, why not?’ And he said, ‘I said no, Courtney,’ and he turned around. I had been there about a year and a half, so most of my nerves were gone by then. But early on that would have freaked me out. It still does get your heart rate up a little bit when you’re trying to get your question in.

How, if at all, did your job change after President Trump took office?

Everything became busier. We would get news at all hours of the day and night. The one that I often think of is the 7 a.m. or so tweet about transgender service in the military, which kind of came out of nowhere. It wasn’t anything we were really tracking. The Trump White House kept a lot of decisions at a very high level—the midlevel people didn’t even know necessarily that something was coming. Seven o’clock in the morning and the president tweets something that’s going to really drive the news cycle. That was very different than anything I had experienced, even when covering the busiest times of [wars].

That being said, I actually found it was a period that I grew as a journalist. Because there was so much scrutiny about all of our stories, I was more meticulous and more careful than I had ever been before. I’ve always been a stickler for detail and facts, but under the Trump administration I was even more careful because a lot of times they would deny a story or say something was wrong and I wanted to make sure I had everything 100% buttoned up.

In October 2017, you reported that President Trump asked for a tenfold increase in the nuclear arsenal. He called the story fake news. How do you react when the president of the United States is saying that about your work?

That was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that. The first thing that I did was go back through every single note I had. I went back to every source. That was a well-reported story. We worked on that for days. I went back through everything and made sure that everything was ironclad. I knew the story was right. I was confident in it, but having the president tweet that your story is wrong is scary. You can almost feel it in your stomach.

Do you remember your first trip to Afghanistan? Were you nervous?

My first trip was with a pool. You travel with the secretary of defense, so it’s very safe, it’s very choreographed. I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous—I admit it. I was single at the time, so that, I think, made it a little bit easier. Every time, I got more and more comfortable going. The next time that I was really anxious about going was right after I got married. We were going into eastern Afghanistan to Jalalabad, toward the border with Pakistan. We were doing several different stories about troops at Christmas. I remember for the first time thinking, if I get killed, my husband’s going to be a widower. I always hated how upset my parents would get when I would travel. Then the first time I went back after I had the twins—it’s a very different responsibility because you think you’re leaving people behind.

Were you ever in a precarious situation where you felt unsafe?

There have been several. There was one time when we were riding in a helicopter at night over Kabul, I think it was 2012. All of a sudden, half of the lights went out in the cockpit. When we landed, the pilot said to me, ‘We lost all comms. We lost everything for a little bit.’

Once, we were driving from Kabul to Bagram. It’s all dirt roads. I can see ahead there were a couple of guys on the side of the road with guns. It was clearly a checkpoint, but we didn’t know if it was a legit checkpoint. Given the area, we figured it probably wasn’t the Taliban, but you never really know. There are times like that when you get a little nervous, but there’s never been a time when I thought, oh, this is the end.

Is there one story that you’ve reported from Iraq or Afghanistan that was particularly emotional for you?

One of my favorites was in Nawzad. The Marines had secured this town, and we went to this marketplace. There were little kids running around us while we were getting video. All the shacks had pockmarks and bullet holes in them. It was one of my most vivid memories of Afghanistan because I felt the humanity of the moment. I couldn’t communicate with them, but I had some candy in my bag and I was giving them things and they were poking through my bag.

You achieved social media stardom when your son wandered into your live shot in 2019. What happened?

My husband was out of town traveling for work. That morning there was some breaking news about strikes in Syria. At the time, the boys went to a day care. We’d usually drop them off at 8 in the morning and then go over to the Pentagon. But I had to be in earlier that morning, and I just couldn’t make it work. That happened every so often: I would take them in [to work], bring an iPad, some toys, and I would buy them some yummy breakfast in the cafeteria, doughnuts or something.

I thought it would be a normal morning, but I kept having live shots and news kept breaking. They were sitting in the newsroom coloring and actually being pretty good for hours. It was 10, and I was going to break free, then take them to day care and go to the Pentagon. Next thing I know, I kind of felt a presence next to me. I looked down and Ryan was there, and he was reaching out for me to pick him up. A guy on the studio crew who was running the camera knew them. They went to a graphic and he lunged down and picked him up. Luckily, Ryan knew him or otherwise he would have screamed. As soon as the camera went off, my heart dropped and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to get in trouble? Am I going to get fired for what just happened?’ … NBC was great. They loved it. It was very real; it was very personal.

Can you believe it went viral?

No, I couldn’t. It was actually an amazing moment for me because I felt so supported. For once, I didn’t feel like I was the crazy mom who’s rushing from place to place and can’t always get it together. … It was really nice to know that people looked at it and thought it made me look real.

This past September, NBC News ran a story online about you that was headlined “Breast pumping around Baghdad.” Why is publicizing your experiences as a nursing mother on the move important to you?

Part of it is demystifying it. When I first started traveling after I had the twins, I didn’t have any friends who were traveling to conflict areas and trying to pump. The first trip after I had the boys was to Iraq. I remember so many people saying to me, ‘So you’re going to quit nursing before you go?’ I didn’t want to, but it’s not easy to walk around with a breast pump and to find places to go. I was so surprised by how many people were really supportive of me, especially people in the military. Look, it’s a little embarrassing to talk about breastfeeding and nursing, but I do hope that maybe other women will look at it and see that they don’t have to compromise. You don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed about it. Maybe it will make people feel a little bit more comfortable continuing to make it a part of their work life.

What is a normal work schedule for you over the course of a week?

Things are really different during COVID. The 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. shows I can do from home if I have to do them. Then I get the boys ready for school, get the baby up and feed him, and then head into the Pentagon. The Pentagon is a different beat than a lot of places. It’s sort of like a big police beat in a way: You’ve got to go see your sources every day. A lot of people I talk to, their phones are subject to monitoring because they have access to classified information, so you’ve got to talk to them face to face.

Most of my day I spend between live shots for MSNBC, for our streaming service, and a little bit more for CNBC now. In between that I’m meeting sources. If I have [NBC Nightly News], I’ll get home at 7:30 or 8. If I don’t, I can try to be home by 6.

How many hours of sleep do you get these days?

I think between three and four most nights. I rarely get more than two hours at a time. [AJ] is just a really bad sleeper. He’s super sweet, super pleasant—he just doesn’t sleep. And the twins are still bad sleepers.

What are a few of your favorite restaurants and places to hang out around town?

We are Fish Taco regulars. It’s embarrassing. Part of it is because it’s really close, but we also love it. The Irish Inn, we had our rehearsal dinner there. It’s probably our most special restaurant. Normandie Farm on Falls Road is another one that, when we get the very rare date night, it’s one of our places to go. Everyone treats you like family there.

Why do you choose to live in Bethesda?

After I came back from college, I bought my first house in Silver Spring, which I loved. Then I moved into D.C. and bought an old townhouse that I renovated. Once Eric and I decided to move in together and then get married, I knew I wanted to come back to Bethesda. I just love it here. Our kids go to Carderock Springs, which is excellent. We have the most wonderful neighbors. They’re like family. Bethesda has always felt like home to me. My husband grew up in Ohio and he feels the same way. We feel genuinely blessed to live here.

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.