The Uses of Enchantment

Barbara Walters got the story by giving her subjects what they wanted.

         Illustration by Andy Friedman

The career, God knows, has been long. A book is in order. And let’s not kid ourselves—if not now, when? Lately, her appearances on The View bring to mind the final years of the Reagan presidency. Lucidity is waning; recall plays tricks. Too often, a tiny, nut-brown hand waves vaguely in the air, or—fingers balled up into a little fist—raps sharply on the big, shared desk as she tries her damnedest to call forth the name of some famous actor or politician, or the salient details of a recent scandal. Her well-known list of most desired “gets” has become a death roll. The time has come.

And the book is a triumph! While the morning’s “Hot Topics” are a frustrating 20 minutes of words ever on the tip of the tongue, the glories of yesteryear are seen as if through the lens of the world’s most powerful telescope. Today is a muddle, but yesterday is Byzantium, all hammered gold and precious jewels. Barbara Walters has known presidents and kings, famous call girls and genteel murderers, Nobel Prize winners and dumb blondes who have changed the world. She has floated on the Dead Sea by moonlight and interviewed Moshe Dayan in his backyard. She has been to the ancient city of Per­sep­olis to observe the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian monarchy, where 50 yellow and blue tents had been erected by “Jansen of Paris, the hot interior decorator,” and filled with Limoges, Baccarat, Porthault linens, and two tons of Iranian caviar. She has chatted in a palace garden with Princess Grace, eaten prime rib and potatoes off TV-dinner trays with Katharine Hepburn, bounced around the Reagan ranch in Ronnie’s favorite Jeep, motorboated across the Bay of Pigs with Fidel Castro, risked a nighttime landing during a Baghdad blackout to interview Saddam Hussein, been admitted into Muammar Qaddafi’s desert tent (where she worried that her pink knit suit would clash with the general’s green-and-white mufti), brokered and conducted the first joint interview with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, pressed her body tight to Sylvester Stallone’s while his Harley roared between their legs.

Hers has been a big, show-biz life, one in which a certain type of snub—the bad table at an important party; the misspelling of her daughter’s name in a personal note—rankles for decades, and in which kindnesses register on a meter that is highly sensitive and always running—Princess Diana walking Barbara not just to the door of Kensington Palace but all the way to her car; Richard and Dorothy Rodgers ensuring that her suitcases were unpacked, and her clothes hung up or folded in tissue paper, when she arrived at their sumptuous house for weekends; Bing Crosby’s butler wrapping up a death-bed souvenir (a pair of reading glasses) and sending it to Barbara’s mother.

It wasn’t all perfect; it wasn’t all easy. You try flirting with Dick Nixon for four punishing years of White House dinners and dingbat late-night phone calls, only to have him give the big Watergate interview to David Frost. You try adding a bit of fun to a one-hour special by showing viewers a glimpse of your own New York apartment in between exclusive interviews with a reclusive movie star and a president-elect, and then wake up to Morley Safer broadcasting: “sandwiched between the white bread of the Carters and the pumpernickel of Streisand, we were treated to the pastrami of Ms. Walters herself.” Sure, it was hard when the Bennett Cerfs dropped her like Typhoid Mary when she ticked off Sinatra; and yes, it was painful when her only child plunged into drugs and ran away from home. But this is not a list of regrets; this is not a settling of scores. Didn’t Duke Wayne himself tell her not to let the bastards get her down?

Where did it all begin? At the Latin Quarter, her father’s Miami Beach nightclub, amid the fan dancers and chorus girls and headliners: Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker and Señor Wences and Milton Berle. With a small girl’s awareness that backstage, where the make-up comes off and the feet slip out of the dancing shoes, all these glittering freaks and marvels are just people, with the same old collection of miseries and blunders, dreams and self-delusions as anyone else. It began with the understanding that the two together—the dazzling apparition in the footlights and the weary hoofer pulling off her pasties and checking the bus schedule—were the core of something important, some kind of expression about the human condition.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Grads of '69" (June 1999)
Wendy Kaminer reviews Miriam Horn's Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age With Hillary's Class—Wellesley '69.

It began too on the day she opened the letter from Wellesley and discovered that she had been wait-listed. This is the original snub, the one that built a fire wall between her and the company she wanted to keep. It had been an audacious notion, the idea that Wellesley would accept the hard-working little Jewish girl with the Cuban heels and the father in burlesque and the New York apartment (by then, there was a Latin Quarter in Times Square) that her mother had decorated in pale yellow and lavender brocade, “like a huge Easter egg.” She ended up at Sarah Lawrence, where the family background was no problem, and which offered an untested, brand-new kind of education, one designed as an alternative to the tradition and pomp offered at America’s elite colleges—but Barbara, of course, was from a social class and a particular family background in which notions of tradition and pomp were goals in themselves, and she suffered. And that snub keeps coming back to smack her in the ass. Where did Diane Sawyer go to college? And Hillary Clinton? And Lynn Sherr? What would her life have been like if she had rolled the dice, waited all summer to see if Wellesley would find a space for her? But—no regrets. Didn’t she make something of herself? Didn’t she do it all on her own, with no man to help her, no pedigree or rampart of yellow hair?

Audition is a bit like a presidential memoir—long, comprehensive, ever mindful of the people who must be named and thanked along the way. (We are advised that as soon as we finish the book, we should rush out to buy and devour Alan Greenspan’s “fascinating read about his 18 years as chairman of the Federal Reserve.”) The chapters bear carefully considered titles, some of which sound like the names of really bad perfumes—“Finally, Fidel”—and some of which convey such forthright accountings of their deadly contents—“Dean Rusk, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger, and Prince Philip”—that it seems Barbara herself is telling us, “Go ahead, skip this one.”

Her book is composed of four strands: accounts of the interviews (padded, but fascinating); behind-the-scenes contract negotiations with her various employers (dull); reminiscences about her domestic arrangements, beginning in childhood (carefully couched, but interesting); and kiss-and-tell revelations about her romantic life, which just about killed me. In her day, Barbara Walters was a roundheels, a home-wrecker, and a two-timer, which ought to have made for great copy, but reading about these events was as off-putting as having your own mother tell you about the first time she reached orgasm. Furthermore, while her exploits were many, they lacked intensity, which lends them an aura of forced athleticism rather than commanding passion. Her several marriages seem to just peter out, her affairs drift away from her; she ends up sleeping with Alan Greenspan. She has apparently waited lo these 40 years to tell the world that she was once romantically involved with a married black man, but “Barbara Walters” and “jungle fever” are not concepts one wants jangling together in the imagination.

The erotic impulse seems to have attached itself most strongly to her work, and to the development of the Barbara Walters interview method, which—even more than the interviews themselves—is her greatest achievement, and which ought to be studied by anyone with an interest in talking to people and recording their words for posterity. Few broadcasters have been as maligned and as ridiculed by serious journalists as has Barbara Walters, but over the years, she has elicited more irreducible statements of self from more notable people than have all the giants of New Journalism:

Judy Garland (three hours late for her interview and two years away from her fatal overdose): “The only mistake I ever made, the only harm I ever did, was sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

Truman Capote (after the publication of In Cold Blood): “The only thing I couldn’t do without is my own conviction about my own creative gifts.”

Rose Kennedy (on the fifth anniversary of Jack’s death and five months after Bobby’s, bringing her count of dead children to four): “I just made up my mind that I was not going to be vanquished.”

Bing Crosby (after being asked if he would really disown his daughter if she had sex outside of marriage): “Aloha on the steel guitar.”

Jean Harris (on trying to make visitors’ day run more smoothly at her prison): “I kept saying to them, ‘Please let me have the list and I’ll arrange it alphabetically for you.’ And the guard said to me, ‘It won’t do any good, because they don’t come alphabetically.’”

The Barbara Walters method begins with nurturing and magnifying the subject’s most exalted sense of him- or herself, and asssuring the subject that this is the frame in which the story of the life will appear. Thus, Angelina Jolie isn’t a movie-star do-gooder; she works with “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” Henry Kissinger is not a courtier who apparently orchestrated the killing of innocents; he’s a peace-loving Jewish boy from the town next to Nuremberg who still gets tears in his eyes when he visits the old soccer pitch with Barbara. Walters believes—accurately, as it turns out—that once she has proven to her subjects that she will hew to the story about themselves that they most want broadcast (with actresses, it’s usually the notion that they are “beginning the happiest chapter” of their lives, and with people like Kissinger, it’s that they are not war criminals), they will relax into the candor necessary to reveal the humiliations, sufferings, and missteps that make the interviews so fascinating.

More people have revealed more humiliating episodes to Barbara Walters than to any other reporter, but remarkably few have ever been angry about an interview with her, because she has never sold one of them out. Many writers have learned the art of falling in love with a subject during the long course of reporting a story, but once the final bar tab has been paid and the celebrity deposited one last time into a waiting town car, the surgeon snaps on his gloves and makes the long, opening cut. But with Barbara, the love only grows. To this day she believes, adamantly, that JonBenet Ramsey’s parents are innocent, that Jean Harris should have been pardoned immediately, and that Monica Lewinsky’s master’s degree from the London School of Economics is proof of a first-rate intelligence.

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.

By Barbara Walters

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