The Magazine

The Yenta

Barbara Walters asks the questions celebrities want to answer.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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She asks Hillary Clinton, after her husband's intern hanky-panky is revealed, "How could you stay in this marriage?" Then she turns the dial a strong notch further and asks: "What if he does it again?" She reports that "I knew it would be hard for her to answer, but I had to ask."

"I had to ask .  .  ." is a not uncommon formulation of hers. She regrets never having interviewed a pope. If a pope agreed to an interview with Barbara, before it was over she would doubtless get around to asking, "Holy Father, have you no regrets about never having had children?" Camilla Parker Bowles refused to do an interview with Barbara, who no doubt would have asked what's it like to have the Prince of Wales tell you that he wishes he were a tampon inside you? She would, you see, have had to have asked.

Somewhere, not very deep down, Barbara Walters knows that this vulgar streak, asking the low questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar. She also knows not to step out of her intellectual league, which isn't, let us note lightly and move on, the majors. An interview with Elizabeth Taylor is going to top one with any world leader any day. How does Barbara know? Simple enough; the ratings tell her so. All very well to interview Henry Kissinger (a friend, it turns out, but then very few famous people aren't her friends); but Maria Callas on being deserted by Aristotle Onassis for Jackie (soon to be O) Kennedy rings the ratings gong more resoundingly. Late in her memoir she complains, rather sniffily, that "since the Britney Spearses of the world and sensational crime stories became the big ratings draws, international political leaders .  .  . have come to be considered dull fare."

Barbara also has a nice taste for vengeance. Two anchors who never cottoned to her, Frank McGee at NBC, and Harry Reasoner at ABC, thinking her insufficiently intelligent and thus lowering the tone of their profession, get her stilleto through belated (posthumous, actually) gossip. She reports that McGee, thought to be a happily married man, toward the end of his life "plunged into a flagrant love affair with a young black production assistant named Mamye, and had left his wife to live with her," adding that she was not "particularly pretty." Reasoner is hung out to dry for his pettiness and backbiting. In her memoir, Barbara front-bites him.

Although some may have missed it, Barbara Walters has all along been living out a secret drama; in it she is a feminist pioneer, who breaks down all the masculine barriers and, at great personal cost, makes the way safe for Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, and all the other women in television. Why, after all, in a line of work specializing in high pretension, should only men be allowed to score big money as empty trenchcoats?

Barbara claims no one knows her politics, that when she is interviewing famous murderers, thugs, or thieves she holds back judgment, at least during the interview. She will, though, let us know that she feels deeply, very deeply. Of the parents of Ronald Goldman, the young man killed with O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, she tells us that she "ached for them." She goes in for what in the business isn't (but ought to be) called The Weepies: Interviewing the families of the victims of 9/11, she lets us know how wrenching it was for her. Repeatedly she reports that she has stayed in touch with men and women she has interviewed, to make sure we all know that she doesn't merely use these people as another "get," useful to score yet another ratings hit. She's very human, she wants us to know, and not in the least corrupted by the somewhat scurrilous job which has provided her such a good ride through life.

Some things Barbara will not do. The thought of her interviewing O.J. Simpson and helping him make money on a book sickens her. She finds Paris Hilton's family's request for money for an interview with their daughter "shoddy." Complicated negotiations were conducted over money for Barbara to interview Monica Lewinsky. "Of course I wanted to do the interview," she reports, "but I was not so ambitious that I didn't have a conscience." As part of her enticement pitch, she tells Monica, "I can give you the forum and the opportunity to present yourself with the greatest dignity." Monica goes for it, and the interview turns out to be "the most watched Special in television history" and "the biggest 'get' of my career." Monica Lewinsky's dignity, never really up for redemption, was not a keynote of the interview.

In the spirit of the times, Barbara gossips about herself. Well, not really about herself, but about members of her family. She talks about the complications of her parents' marriage, about the difficulties of her retarded sister, and finally, most lengthily, about her only (and adopted) daughter Jackie. (The perfect daughter for Barbara, a mischievous mind might say, would have been Monica Lewinsky, but ours is a world of sadly imperfect justice.) Raising Jackie is all sweetness and light, till one day the kid turns up missing lots of classes at the Dalton School, doing drugs, and bonking bad boys. At one point, she runs to ground, as they say in English detective novels about people who go into hiding.

But it is a story with a happy ending: The child is eventually found, detoxed, deprogrammed, and is now back in the game running a "small residential outdoor therapy program" in Maine for wayward girls. Barbara "supported her in every possible way .  .  . and our relationship became closer and closer."

Why keep the whole thing quiet? Why suppress an inspirational story? Why observe the thinnest desire for privacy? She pitched the story of her and her daughter's saga to NBC's Dateline, who bought it. As the punchline about the 84-year-old Jewish furrier who confesses to a priest about impregnating his 23-year-old secretary goes: She, Barbara, told NBC--she told everybody!

Her last big shot has been a daytime program called The View, in which four or five women not notable for their reticence nor concerned about their dignity talk about the "personal aspects of our lives." ABC, Barbara allows, would only go with the idea for the show if she agreed to appear regularly on it; modesty has its limits. On The View, guests of great celebrity, yearning to keep the flame of their fame alive, come on and are invited to do as the regular members do.

"Just plop yourself down on our couch," Barbara writes, "and discuss your film and your sex life." Fun! And another ratings winner for Barbara.

Pretty amazing, all of it. Why has this woman, who is relatively charmless, unless one counts cozening as charming, with lots of energy, boundless ambition but no obvious talent to accompany either--why has Barbara Walters become, with the possible exception of Oprah Winfrey, the most famous woman in America? From writing publicity releases to doing women's bits on morning television to becoming a correspondent-at-large to being the first female news (co-) anchor to running ratings-busting special interviews to being cohost of a television magazine show called 20/20 to being the central figure on a national coffeeklatch, she has gone, as the Victorians used to say--and no one, surely, could be less Victorian than Barbara--from strength to strength.

Now in her seventies, she admits to being a little tired of the game: "Cele-
brities with problems were becoming less appealing to me," she notes, and the competition for "gets" becoming tougher all the time with Diane Sawyer and Oprah now out on the hunt. But give Barbara her due: Week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were foolish and tasteless enough to answer her.

Quite a feat. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His third collection of short stories, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, will be published in 2010.