Let the Barbara Walter's farewell tour begin!
Monday's edition of "The View" opened with the show's founder and star fixing the camera with that fearless don't-let-the-strange-absence-of-wrinkles-fool-you-I've-been-on-television-for-50-years gaze and announcing her upcoming retirement. "After all the speculation and rumors last month," she said, "I promised that if I had any announcement about my future plans, you would hear it first, here."
Well, sort of first. On Sunday night, Walters, who is 83, tweeted an announcement of her announcement to her million-plus followers, jolting everyone out of their Mother's Day lull, sparking a flurry of blog posts and late-edition news pieces and guaranteeing a dutifully large audience for Monday's "The View." Having summoned us, she delivered, with a lovely video montage of clips from her career, a row of high-wattage ABC/Disney suits sitting in the front row and a "surprise" visit from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
So not exactly the same shock value as, say, Lyndon B. Johnson announcing he would not run for a second term, but effective nonetheless. Also fitting; few journalists have surfed the roiling waves of social and industry change as skillfully and gracefully as Barbara Walters.
Never mind the string of "firsts" that inevitably follow her name — female co-host (with Harry Reasoner on "ABC News"), female anchor to make a million dollars, journalist to interview (fill in the blank) — or even Gilda Radner's iconic impersonation on "Saturday Night Live" (although no doubt painful to endure at the time, it proved Walters' significance rather than diminished it), Walters single-handedly changed the perimeters of journalism. Often mocked, lovingly and not, for bringing tears to the eyes of her subjects — "I'll get to cry to Barbara Walters when things don't go my way," sang Brad Paisley in "Celebrity" — Walters conducted a one-woman revolution: She made emotion newsworthy.
And that pretty much changed everything.
Where many male journalists circled their subjects aggressively, steely-eyed and verbal fists raised, Walters radiated an air of concern, using her soft voice and endless curiosity about how people think to turn her interviews into conversations. What some saw as less than rigorous (or perhaps just feminine) interviewing skills proved to be canny professionalism — Walters knew that the trick was to get people talking. People want to feel comfortable, which allowed her to increasingly become a go-to interview. More important, people who feel comfortable talk more than people who do not. And when people talk, they reveal things, including and especially their essential humanity.
No matter how how devastating the scandal, how egregious the crime, Barbara Walters understood that whoever she was talking to was first and foremost a human being with fears and liabilities. As she became more famous than many of her subjects, Walters continued to lean forward in interviews, eager to connect. Even orchestrating what will no doubt be a spectacular final lap ("final" being a relative term — "I'm not fading into the sunset," she said Monday), Walters began on an outlier note.
"I wasn't beautiful. I had trouble pronouncing my Rs' — I still do," she said Monday during her taped clip, before rolling out her famous interviews: Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, all the presidents since Richard Nixon, Monica S. Lewinsky ("the most watched interview in television history"). Even now, Walters understands that the wall between interviewer and subject, between journalist and audience, is best managed at waist level; any higher and it's difficult to see what's going on, and the risks of it toppling completely become greater.
A brand before people knew to become a brand, Walters moved seamlessly with the times, from nightly news to newsmagazine to a daytime talk show that has often elevated the genre. During the 2008 presidential election, the ladies of "The View" became America in miniature, arguing over politics, discussing gender and race and giving voice to what many Americans were thinking. The "Barbara Walters Special" remained a staple of night-time television, shifting as the audience did. When the hype around the Oscars grew, Walters began doing interviews hooked to the ceremony. When celebrity culture surged, she started her "Ten Most Fascinating People" specials.
So when on Monday she introduced Disney Chairman Bob Iger, who was there with several ABC and Disney Ps and VPs to honor the occasion, Walters immediately went into interview mode, asking him what he planned to do upon his retirement in 2015. And when Iger suggested the two of them go on "Dancing With the Stars" together, it was easy to imagine it, but only if he'll let her lead.
Walters is 83 years old, and she has more than a million Twitter followers. If she goes on "Dancing With the Stars," she'll probably win the darn thing.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun