There is a widely held belief that Barbara Walters’s career stands as a testament to the power of the women’s movement. When she and Rosie O’Donnell were feuding, Rosie urged her own fans not to be too harsh: “She’s a feminist icon,” she counseled them on her Web site. This notion arises principally from Barbara’s being the first woman to appear behind the anchor desk of a nightly news program, as well as from her track record of getting exclusive interviews with so many world leaders. Her anchoring was hardly a success—it was one of her only ratings disasters, and she was summarily bumped—and her interviews, while an undeniable achievement, were not a feminist victory, but rather the very opposite: an essentially feminine victory, one in which a man’s game was played not by changing the rules of engagement, but by using the oldest of female wiles and manipulations.
Barbara Walters did not earn exclusive interviews with some of the most important international figures of her heyday by revealing to them a deep intellectual engagement with foreign and domestic policy. Nor did she do it by deploying pulchritude—minus the lighting and make-up, she has always looked like the love child of Madeleine Albright and Spiro Agnew. She did it by understanding the male ego, and the fact that powerful men are so eager to have a woman’s attention and respect that a careful question, combined with a sufficiently awed reaction, will have them lining up to tell their stories. “What is the first job you ever held?” she liked to ask very rich men whom she was wooing for an interview. “What is the biggest misconception about you?” she asked, and when they answered she nodded gravely, as though finally the truth was being revealed, as though finally the matter could be laid to rest. Her job, always, was to place herself in the position of wide-eyed acolyte. She never engaged in a battle of wits with a subject, never attempted to win an argument, and she learned early on not to interrupt. She flirted, but in the old, careful way of a courtesan, not a seducer. She always ensured that the wife was enclosed in the circle of attention (Audition leaves us with the impression that every dictator in the world has chosen a “down-to-earth” and “easy to talk to” and “remarkable” helpmeet), establishing that hers was not a mission of sexual conquest.
And she asked these world leaders the questions that women wanted to hear answered. Sure, she gave Nixon the old blah-blah-blah about Vietnam, but what everyone remembers is when she asked him why people thought he was so stuffy, and he worked himself into a lather, proving that he wasn’t always stuffy; sometimes he was angry. She did her homework on the energy crisis and the Middle East before going down to Plains to talk to Jimmy Carter, but she hit pay dirt when she asked him if he and Rosalynn slept in twin beds or a double.
Along the way, some say, she cheapened television news immeasurably, turning every politician or head of state she got her hands on into a human-interest story, someone whose daily habits, romantic inclinations, and personality trumped whatever bit of statecraft they were currently advancing. She approached her subjects the way the great Women’s Page writers used to approach them, from the standpoint that plenty of information was readily available about their philosophy and tactics, but that the missing piece of the puzzle was the private man, the husband.
We might dismiss Walters here as the world’s greatest booker but most intellectually incurious interviewer. And yet, reading her book, I was impressed by how much her interests and reportorial inclinations have stood the test of time.
I can’t imagine being even mildly interested in a new revelation about the diplomacy that took place during Nixon’s trip to China, but Barbara’s report that her hotel room there was always stocked with postcards featuring scenes of Chinese ballets, and that she could not throw a pair of panty hose or a used Kleenex into the wastebasket without having it returned to her neatly wrapped up like a present, tells me something about China in the ’70s that John Chancellor and Walter Cronkite never did. When the mandarins of journalism were covering yet another meet-and-greet, she had her interpreter take her to the Number One Department Store, where the huge space was heated by a single coal stove, the most-desired items were bicycles and sewing machines, and face cream and shampoo were sold “by the glob.” In the end, she rightly recognized that we are most fascinated by the everyday details, the emotions and habits through which we can relate the extraordinary life or circumstance to our own.
In 1997, ABC approached Walters to see if she had an idea for a program to be broadcast mid-morning (the loneliest time of day, Walters had long known, for the at-home mother). “Well, now that they mentioned it, I did,” she reports; she had always wanted to “do a show with women of different generations, backgrounds, and views.” She envisioned a long opening segment, in which the hosts would discuss various issues of the day. Hence The View, and hence “Hot Topics,” which instantly became the show’s most popular feature, as it remains to this day; often, “by viewer demand,” entire episodes are devoted to it. If you have ever worked in an office, you know that there are happy, convivial moments in which a group of women from up and down the totem pole—the hard-ass senior executive, the Vietnamese woman who runs the copy room, the motherly secretary, the gorgeous young marketing director—converge at the coffee pot or in the lunch line and have a few minutes of chatter, during which their differences of class and age melt away. They instantly fall into certain companionable roles: the smartest one lends an educated perspective on a topic, the most outrageous one cracks the kind of jokes she wouldn’t dare to if a man were around, the least intellectually secure one feels safe enough to ask the most rudimentary questions. So it goes during “Hot Topics,” which for 11 years has presented female conversation as it has existed in offices and busy kitchens and village squares down through the ages.
Again and again throughout the volume, we are reminded that if there is one journalistic principle for which Barbara has no time at all, it is “conflict of interest.” Her closest friends seem to be the people whom she has interviewed and hopes to interview again. She nurtures them, she helps them, she loves them in the perfect and unconflicted way in which she was apparently never able to love her husbands or her only sibling. It was Barbara who stumbled upon a helplessly confused Julie Nixon Eisenhower at LaGuardia shortly after her father’s resignation and helped her manage the first commercial flight she took by herself, and it was Barbara who threw the book party for Alan Greenspan’s corker about the Fed. Once, on The View, when Michael Jackson was being tried for child molestation, the other ladies raged and cackled about the hell that would rain down on him if they ever got hold of him. But Barbara looked right into the camera, speaking neither to her colleagues nor to the viewers, but to an audience of one: “If I ever had the chance to talk to Michael,” she said—gently, kindly, the way all of us wish to be talked to when we are in serious trouble—“I would say to him, ‘Michael, what is your side of the story?’”
She was already working the story, already doing her thing—you could almost hear her assistant typing up the little personal note on the crested stationery: “Michael, I am always here for you.” This is how it must have begun with all of the people she has come to fall in love with, the murderers and the monsters, the celebrities whose loathsomeness radiates from the television screen. You had the sense, as she spoke, that if she ever slipped through the gates of Neverland, she would ride on the roller coaster and tour the private zoo and look carefully at the photographs that recorded a ruined, show-business childhood, and that by the time she climbed back into the purring limousine, even Michael Jackson would have entered the circle of enchantment.