It was a stroll down memory lane last Friday night when Barbara Walters highlighted on 20/20 her 25 years on that newsmagazine. Barbara is leaving as co-host, though she told us she will still be on the show occasionally. In fact, she will be back again this Friday night with a sit down with Mary Kay Letourneau, the sixth-grade schoolteacher who had sex with a student. Kind of odd, even for a diva, to give a farewell performance and then follow it up with a return engagement only a week later.
Last Friday’s “25 on 20/20″ was Barbara’s greatest-hits collection from the more than 700 interviews she has conducted for the show. We saw snippets of all her bigger political “gets,” including Sadat and Begin, Moammar Khaddafi and Boris Yeltsin, and two gushy interviews with Fidel, decades apart. They were mixed in with murderers and relatives of murderers, such as the Menendez brothers, Mark David Chapman, and John Hinckley’s grieving parents. There were also lots of celebrities, in the best of times and the worst of times, from Bing Crosby to Christopher Reeve from Leonardo DiCaprio to Martha Stewart. And, of course, all the presidents since Nixon.
There was girl talk, too. Barbara Streisand, giggling, asked Barbara when she was getting married, and Elizabeth Taylor, giggling, let Barbara try on her doorknocker of a diamond ring. And Katharine Hepburn instructed her, in their final interview, to call her not “Miss Hepburn” but “Kate.” This time Barbara giggled with delight, as thrilled as any fan by Hepburn’s apparent show of intimacy. And maybe that was part of the secret of Walters’s interview technique: She treated movie stars reverentially as if they were as important as world leaders and asked world leaders the same questions she asked movie stars. Yes, she asked Moammar Khaddafi whether it bothered him that people thought he was crazy. But then she asked Ann Heche exactly the same thing.
Of course Barbara’s biggest get and most-watched interview ever was Monica Lewinsky. And she worked long and hard, beating off Diane, Katie, and all the guys, to make that happen. She even schlepped down to Washington on the Shuttle to hand-deliver a box of bran flakes to Monica’s lawyer, William Ginsburg. Cereal was Ginsburg’s favorite lunch and it wasn’t served after noon in his Washington hotel–Barbara to the rescue with roughage to get the “get.”
The snippet from the Monica interview that Barbara picked to show included her amazement at Monica’s first move on the president, giving him a glimpse of her thong. “Who does such a thing?” Walters wondered. But would she say the same thing today after watching the reality bachelor and bachelorette shows on her own network, where young women on the hunt employ equally outrageous wiles? And they’re not trying to seduce anyone as important as the Leader of the Free World.
I’ve always thought of Barbara as the Rabbi’s Wife of television: smart enough and pushy enough to ask the questions you might want to have answered but didn’t have to ask because she was around. And I’ve always thought of her as intelligent, hard working, and resourceful. But she lost a lot of my respect in the last few years when her soft-touch interviews got even softer, as she chased ratings and would butter up practically anyone no matter how they had behaved.
One interview that especially made me cringe was with Sharon Osbourne, when the dysfunctional Osbournes were having their brief, inexplicable 15 minutes of mass appeal. At one point during the interview, Barbara asked Sharon, “Is it true you once sent someone you didn’t like a box full of feces?”
Sharon sheepishly admitted, “Yeah, I have done that. A few times. In a Tiffany box.”
“You’re nothing if not elegant,” Barbara quipped with, maybe, just a tinge of sarcasm.
But why–I wondered and still do–didn’t Barbara say the obvious: “Sharon, that’s disgusting.”
Barbara is one of the most admired women in America, a broadcasting pioneer for women; Sharon Osbourne is a crude-talking eccentric who, in the year and a half since that interview, has flopped on a TV talk show and is fast fading from B- to C-list status. The viewing audience would have accepted a bit of righteous indignation from Barbara. In fact, we would have liked it. And if a woman like Barbara Walters can’t set or confirm some standards, who can? But Barbara, as she so often did, took a pass.
Currently, TV newsmagazines such as 60 Minutes II are trying to get tougher and newsier to battle the increasing success of the hardball cable networks. But as Dan Rather has learned, that can have disastrous results. Obviously, TV news is at a crossroad, and perhaps Barbara, always very shrewd about her career, and at 73, is smart to ease her way out gracefully. Gossip columnist Liz Smith, one of Barbara’s greatest boosters, likes to say that gossip is news running ahead of history in a bright red dress. But on 20/20 the other night, even the most highly touted of Barbara Walters’s emotional, gossipy, big “gets” seemed, after the fact, timid and out-of-fashion and far less revealing or significant than they once appeared to be.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.