July 31, 2014
Barbara Walters: farewell to one of the last great listeners
The Washington Post Agency
At 84, Walters even outlasted most of the technology that brought her into America’s living rooms — first as a tea-pouring Today girl in the 1960s; then as the first woman to co-anchor a nightly newscast in the mid-’70s; followed by 35 years as popular culture’s grande dame of the televised interview — adapting her skills to the speed with which news sparks conversations and celebrities melt down.
She’s one of America’s last good ears, allowing even the most notorious among us to have a say, asking many (if not always all) of the questions we wanted answers to, while never seeming to make the occasion about herself.
Two weeks ago, when V. Stiviano, a companion and self-described “right hand arm man” and “silly rabbit” of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, aired May 2 on 20/20, and will not be remembered for anything much, except maybe that it will be Walters’ final “get” in an endless list of them. It’s a long way from her interview with Fidel Castro in 1977. It’s a long way from her following President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. It’s even a long way from the two-hour, 1999 interview she did with Monica Lewinsky that lured in between 50 million and 74 million viewers, the sort of non-football TV ratings that simply can’t be had any more.
Her sincerity sometimes crossed signals with her townhouse demeanour. At some point you were just meant to understand that she was fancy. Whether she went to war zones or Oscar night, she was never a fly on the wall. Her presence conveyed meaning and her scoop was the exclusive interview. These gets became everything — and rather than cede territory, Walters fought for more gets as her competition circled (Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, even the intra-network rivalry with Diane Sawyer and now Robin Roberts, whose own careers owe no small debt to hers.)
The Barbara Walters piece of any moment (be it a war, a scandal, a memoir, a sequel) meant that things had reached an apex. The hype could float no higher. Whoever it was, whatever the story was; after the Barbara interview, it was usually all over. The story had been exhausted and began its descent.
Walters has also outlasted the ritual farewells our culture once bestowed on her male peers and anchormen of yore — Walter Cronkite’s 1981 retirement being a prime example — back when the broadcast networks and the nightly news dominated both the business and the viewer’s attention. Her last lap has been eclipsed by all the retirements and hirings and shuffling on late-night TV.
The farewells scheduled this week for Walters (who will remain available when and if duty calls) seem almost perfunctory, even nominal, such as the (lovely, I’m sure) naming ceremony this week of an ABC News headquarters building on West 66th Street in New York after her. Her departure, announced a year ago, will take up Thursday’s and Friday’s episodes of The View, followed by a two-hour ABC News retrospective (Barbara Walters: Her Story) on Friday night.
On NBC, Saturday Night Live welcomed her last week as a surprise visitor to its Weekend Update segment; but that mostly turned out to be a brief tribute to decades of the show’s own “Baba Wawa” jokes, about which Walters is good-natured, because that is what one is supposed to be in the face of SNL’s redundant ideas of humour.
Some will always regard Walters as the woman who asked Katharine Hepburn what sort of tree she’d like to be. That tree question? That weirdo Hepburn brought it up! Said she sometimes felt like a tree. What kind of a tree? Walters asked. Isn’t that what a listener does?
There is no shortage of TV and multimedia outlets inviting the famous and infamous to sit upon new sofas and tell us how they feel. But with Walters’ departure, we are losing one of TV’s more neutral listeners. We’re also losing one of TV’s dwindling safe spaces. Walters may have gone softer over time, but do not underestimate the worth of a safe space in a culture that now seems to prefer satirical ridicule and constant interruption as a form of conversation.