Barbara Walters isn’t like you and me at all. The daughter of a nightclub impresario who owned the Latin Quarter in its heyday, the product of exclusive private schools and a wife three times over, shed be the very model of a glib, tough-talking New Yorker if it weren’t for her endearing baby Baba tawk. Her favorite date? It used to be America’s most notorious lawyer, the late Roy Cohn. Her best friend? Why, it’s the head of the Federal Reserve, that nice Alan Greenspan. She is photographed, elegantly coiffed and gowned, at all the swellest parties, and she has become so famous that even Fidel Castro yells out her name when he spots her in a crowd. She doesn’t make viewers comfortable, but she is the person world leaders and Hollywood stars confide in when they want to dish. Maybe she’s just like them.
It wasn’t always easy for Walters to persuade the famous and powerful to give her their time. She became the most important interviewer on television, got to chat up people like Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran through that oldest of journalistic techniques: doggedness. “I’m an awful nag,” she says. She wasn’t deemed attractive enough to be co-host of NBC’s Today show, but in 1974 she got the job. She wasn’t considered experienced enough to become a network news anchor, but she got that job too. In 1976, when Walter Cronkite reportedly was earning about $400,000 a year, ABC successfully wooed her with $1 million—little enough to sit beside the cantankerous Harry Reasoner—to become the first woman co-anchor of a network’s evening news show. A year later she had a week that was as good as any in TV journalistic history, convincing both Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt to talk to her at a time nobody was sure they would talk to each other. If her drippingly sincere questions (a favorite: “When was the last time you cried?”) cause critics to titter or wince, the celebs Walters lures to her couch are eerily willing to address intimacies, insecurities or whatever else comes to her mind. Perhaps it’s her way of appearing understanding even when she’s asking the Duvaliers why they spent $4 million in Haitian defense funds on home improvements. And when they answer, she nods better than anybody, proving she cares.
She can get silly, of course, but sometimes that’s part of a celebrity journalist’s job description. She has ridden a motorcycle with Sly, played the drums with Ringo and admitted pondering Clint Eastwood’s “tight rear end.” More often, she is restrained at a time when fewer and fewer people in her line of work find that a virtue. With 25 years in the business, Barbara Walters has meant more to TV news than any other woman. Tough and regal, she may be somebody most viewers would be scared to sit down and talk with; maybe that’s exactly why she’s the one they most want asking questions for them.