NEW YORK – Barbara Walters got out while the gets were still good.
On Friday, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first surprise guest to pay homage to Walters on her last day as a host on “The View.”
Clinton was followed by a parade of television stars whose career paths were paved – at least in part – by Walters, including Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley. Celebrities, old friends and longtime employees paid their respects, and earlier in the week, so did some former co-hosts with rockier relationships, like Rosie O’Donnell.
But in all those tearful encomiums and declarations of love and respect, what was striking – and a reminder of what makes this legendary interviewer so unusual even today – were the few glimpses of Walters’ unvarnished personality.
Particularly now, when news anchors and television hosts are so careful and carefully managed, Walters is sometimes as unfiltered as many of the guests in those fabled interviews that form the spine of the ABC tribute shown on Friday night, “Barbara Walters: Her Story.”
When Clinton sat down on “The View,” one of the show’s co-hosts, Sherri Shepherd, excitedly addressed the former secretary of state as Hillary. Many co-hosts would have let it go, unwilling to pull focus from the moment, but Walters didn’t. Instead, she reprimanded Shepherd, saying, “I don’t call her by her first name.” Clinton hurriedly assured her hosts that “Hillary” was just fine.
(Later, Walters tried to clear the air, leaning over to Shepherd and saying, “You’re right, I feel like calling her Hillary, too.”)
The show went on without any further etiquette lessons, but that small interjection was telling. It’s not just that Walters has an old-school sense of propriety. She says what’s on her mind, even when it’s not particularly nice or helpful in keeping the conversation on a blandly even keel.
Over a long year of formal tributes and retirement star turns, Walters has said many times that today’s female anchors and television stars are her real legacy. Evidently, she expects her protégées to heed her advice.
Walters finds irksome the casual, first-name faux friendliness that a new generation of personalities affects. Walters, of course, befriended some of the world leaders and movie stars she covered; on air, however, she maintained decorum.
She hasn’t changed; her successors have – but so has the celebrity culture. And what was notable about Friday night’s two-hour special wasn’t so much that it showed viewers a new side of Walters. Instead, it made clear how skillfully she asked questions. For one thing, she didn’t look embarrassed or try to fill awkward silences.
Most of all, it revealed how less coached and guarded famous people were in those days. Now, a less media-savvy newsmaker in trouble can make bad things worse, as Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, did so resoundingly in his recent conversation with Anderson Cooper on CNN. But most politicians and movie stars are too well briefed and wary to speak from the heart – or the lack of it.
In 1987, Sean Connery said, and not for the first time, that he thought there was nothing wrong with hitting a woman. Bing Crosby told Walters in 1977 that he would never again speak to any child of his who had engaged in premarital sex. Or, as he put it, grimly, “Aloha on the steel guitar.” In 1988, Robin Givens admitted to feeling physically afraid of her husband, Mike Tyson. (They separated soon after).
Possibly the worst moment of candor came from Mark David Chapman, who in a 1992 prison interview explained why he shot John Lennon: “I thought by killing him, I would acquire his fame.”
Walters got people to speak their minds. She occasionally allows her own inner thoughts to spill out. Although she says she is leaving television, she didn’t say adieu Friday, she said “à bientôt!” And that’s another way of saying, “I’ll be back.”