Whoopi Goldberg was on a talk show recently when she was asked (yet again) what life without Barbara Walters will be like.
She paused, blinked, took a deep breath and, instead of some bromide that could have sufficed as the easy answer, offered this instead: “It’s gonna be hard. It’s bittersweet.”
“Hard,” “bittersweet” … but for whom exactly? Walters turns 85 in September and stepped away from “The View” and television on Friday. She has been characteristically blunt in her assessment of the need to move on, best summarized by two words: It’s time.
By all accounts, Walters is in good health, has had no second thoughts and, will continue to work off-screen and occasionally even on-screen until she no longer can. She also will remain executive producer of the show she launched 17 years ago. “If someone calls up ABC and will only talk to Barbara Walters, she’ll do that, too,” says Bill Geddie, the show’s co-producer and a longtime colleague.
Just consider the barest outlines of the 50-year run:
Walters changed the morning show, evening newscast, magazine show and daytime talk. Far from minor adjustments, these were by-the-bootstrap transformations that reordered the TV landscape and pop culture. The “Barbara Walters Interview” became some sort of late-20th century “meta news event,” which either seemed to canonize or humanize its subject. To be part of a Walters pre-Oscar special was to nearly have won an Oscar itself. To be anointed “Most Fascinating” was to, indeed, be fascinating (even if you were not fascinating at all).
She was a trailblazer for women in the news media – and while Walters did not consciously set out to blaze anybody’s trail other than her own, she knew that was an inevitable consequence of what she was doing and how she was doing it.
“Barbara is truly in a class by herself and always will be because she was the first. She had to pay her dues so that no one else had to,” says Rick Kaplan, former CNN/U.S. chief and a longtime producer with Walters at ABC News.
Walters was also a lightning rod from almost the moment she stepped into this arena. She was the newswoman – her numerous critics once charged – who erased the line that was supposed to divide “celebrity news” from “hard news.” Other critics said she was compromised by her friendships with the rich and powerful, from Henry Kissinger to Middle East leaders to Hollywood moguls.
Her interview style was celebrated but also ridiculed and parodied. She (after all) had once asked Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she’d like to be (an unfair rap against Walters, who was only following up a point Hepburn had made). She implored Jimmy Carter to “be kind to us.”
Gilda Radner created an unflattering image for the ages. (“Baba Wawa.”)
Then there was the Walters and Harry Reasoner show. (Oh, that.)
Everyone had, has and always will have an opinion about “Babs.” And so “bittersweet” might just be exactly the right word for this moment.
Eras come and eras go. But a singularly huge one ends this week.
Born in Boston almost exactly one month before the beginning of the Great Depression, Walters was the daughter of impresario Lou Walters, who opened the famed Latin Quarter club on the north end of Times Square in 1942. He went through various boom-and-bust cycles – mostly bust – and his daughter would invariably bail him out. But Walters’ older sister, Jacqueline – who died in 1985 – was the true catalyst of her life. Of “Jackie,” who was mentally disabled, Walters would say that she loved her, was ashamed of her, angered by her and fiercely protective of her.
It was this thicket of emotions that led to, as Walters wrote in “Audition: A Memoir,” “the compulsion to be an overachiever the fear of failure.”
She joined “Today” in 1961 after a stint as a publicist with Tex McCrary (often called the father of the modern TV talk show). At the time, female contributors were referred to as “‘Today’ girls.” “Tea-pourers,” Walters called them. From the beginning she wasn’t destined to pour anyone’s tea.
The show had hired actress Maureen O’Sullivan to work alongside host Hugh Downs. But O’Sullivan flopped, and the job was then essentially split among three women – art critic Aline B. Saarinen, movie critic Judith Crist and Walters. Walters pushed for more airtime, and got it, usually by working alongside Downs, on the condition that he got to ask the first questions of an interview subject and then – only then – could Walters ask one.
When Downs was replaced by Frank McGee (in 1971), Walters – by then a bona fide star – secured two key provisions. First, if McGee left, she would be “co-host.” Second, if she landed her own interview, she would be the one asking the questions.
The biggest break came in 1972, when she went to China with President Richard Nixon. Richard Wald, former NBC News president and now the Fred Friendly professor of media and society at the Columbia Journalism School, recalls, “The assignment got a lot of blowback from a lot of people who were literally the senior correspondents of NBC News because she was not considered ‘a serious person.’ (McGee, for example, said, “China is not far enough.”) But Barbara got there and outworked everyone else feeding stories to ‘Nightly News’ and ‘Today,’ and was also finding stories no one else was finding. She did just one hell of a smashup job, came back and then the tone (of the critics) changed.”
She became co-host after McGee died in 1974.
By the mid-’70s, she was a TV superstar, and in 1976, she was tapped to become Harry Reasoner’s co-anchor at ABC’s faltering evening news program. There was vast press coverage over her $1 million salary, the highest in TV news, although even more controversial was the innovation ABC crafted: Half of that salary would be paid by the entertainment division, which expected four non-news specials from her a year.
Walters had to chase world leaders – but also box office stars. Suddenly, the idea of the “TV anchor” was radically transformed and not necessarily for the better.
The “ABC Evening News,” with Reasoner and Walters, was an immediate disaster. Reasoner was resentful of her presence and she was ill-suited to the cosseted job of reading the news. Roone Arledge, the ABC News president who would subsequently break up this team, wrote in his autobiography, “On her own, Barbara was fabulous – so long as she wasn’t anchoring.”
Of this period, Walters would later say: “What saved me were the letters from women who said, ‘Hang in there. If you can do it, we can do it.’ And I got one telegram that read, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down.’ That one was from John Wayne.”
Arledge, who died in 2002, had joined the news division as president after a hugely successful run at ABC Sports, and essentially saved Walters by taking her far away from Reasoner. What followed was a fallow period. She secured some of her most famous interviews to that point – Fidel Castro, a joint interview with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
She joined a faltering “20/20” in 1979 – then hosted by Downs, whom Arledge admiringly called “a Gibraltar of bland congeniality in a fad-tossed television sea … ” There was certainly nothing blandly congenial about Walters, who soon would redefine TV news by embracing lifestyle and celebrity coverage along with other traditionally non-news topics that had begun to surface.
Her near quarter-century run there was a vast success, culminating with the Monica Lewinsky interview of March 3, 1999, seen by 70 million viewers.
Walters had by then become the world’s most famous TV interviewer – a star far beyond the range of most of her subjects – and the grind had also begun to fray her. She then sought a new challenge, which would become “The View.” This was her “chance to be a little lighter, a little more personal,” she told Newsday at launch in 1997.
“The View” has ranged from the ridiculous to the serious – a daily lock on the zeitgeist as filtered through four sensibilities, Walters’ in particular. Much was frivolous – the off- and on-screen brawls with co-host Rosie O’Donnell, for example. And yet in the ephemeral, 24-hour news cycle that has come to dominate the flow of public information over its run, “The View” managed something utterly inconceivable at launch: It made news about itself. This show, improbably, was to become Walters’ magnum opus, and a major, much-copied hit.
Her departure, said “View” co-producer Geddie, is “a huge event, and you couple that with (David) Letterman leaving and you can’t help but look at the landscape of television and sense a major ground shift. Broadcasting as it has existed will be no more.”
That’s exactly right, and, as Goldberg said, bittersweet.