Barbara Walters emerges as a 'Rulebreaker' in Susan Page's new biography: NPR

The Rule Breaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters, by Susan Page

In 1976, Barbara Walters became the first woman to co-host a national news show on prime time television. She served in that role for only two years, but her arrival changed the news media.

“She is such an important figure for journalists, and not just for female journalists,” says biographer Susan Page. “The path she blazed is one that many of us have followed.”

Page is Washington bureau chief USA today and the author of The Rule Breaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters. Although they never met, Page says that talking to hundreds of Walters' friends and colleagues and watching hours of her interview tapes gave her a sense of her subject.

Page describes Walters as a fearless journalist who does not shy away from controversy and tough questions. She battled sexism throughout her career, especially against her first co-host, Harry Reasoner, who, Page says, frowned upon Walters' presence and kept track of how many words she spoke on air compared to him.

After leaving the nightly news station, Walters became known for her lengthy interviews. Her conversations, which combined news and entertainment, covered a wide range of topics, including Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, Richard Nixon, Monica Lewinsky, Michael Jackson and Charles Manson. In 1997 she created The viewa daily talk show with an all-female cast of co-hosts.

“One thing I found interesting about Barbara Walters is that she thought all kinds of people were interesting and worth talking to,” says Page. “She really expanded the world of interviews [national] journalists not only covered presidents, but also notorious murderers.”

For Page, Walters' success feels personal: “When I envisioned a career in journalism, it never occurred to me that I couldn't do major interviews with important people because Barbara Walters did. print journalism, not TV journalism, I have benefited from the struggle that Barbara Walters waged.”

Interview highlights

About her family life that pushed her to work hard

Understanding the source of her drive has been difficult to understand and I think this is crucial. And I decided, after all this coverage of her, that there was a moment that ignited the ride in Barbara Walters, and that was the moment her mother called her and told her that her father had attempted suicide. Her mother did not call an ambulance. … [Barbara] called the ambulance. [Barbara] rode to the hospital with her father in the ambulance. And she realized almost in an instant that while she was going through her first divorce, she didn't really have a career and that from then on she would be responsible for supporting her father, who had just attempted suicide. her mother, who was perpetually unhappy, and her sister with special needs. And that required her to get serious, make some money and keep it up. She always felt like it could all disappear in an instant.

On news of co-host Harry Reasoner's hostility over working with Walters

He disdained her so openly on air that the director quit on two takes. That's a shot where you could see Harry Reasoner talking to Barbara Walters because he was always frowning. It was so bad that they received many letters from mostly female viewers complaining about the way she was treated. … It was really an untenable situation and one that took a while to unravel, and it was a situation that made Barbara Walters nervous. It was the only time in her career that she thought she might have made a mistake so big that she wouldn't recover. She said not only did she feel like she was drowning, but there were people trying to hold her head underwater.

At a turning point in her career, when she interviewed Fidel Castro

So this was in 1977. Officially she was still the anchor [of ABC Evening News], but it didn't go well. And she landed this interview with Fidel Castro, who had rarely been interviewed by Western journalists. And… she got into a boat and crossed the Bay of Pigs with him. He drove his jeep through the mountains while she sat next to him, holding his gun up to prevent water from splashing on it. It was a great interview. A very tough interview. She asked him about press freedom, which did not exist in Cuba. She asked him if he was married. This was a question he refused to answer. …So he finally gave up, answered the call and formally said no. So it was a great interview and it was a comeback interview for her. It both showed what she could do in an interview, and it made her feel more confident again.

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About her interview with Richard Nixon, when she asked him if he wanted him to burn it down Watergate tapes

That was in a particularly difficult interview, because the only way the Nixon people agreed she could do it was to do it live. No unnecessary matters needed to be left out to answer that last question; she had to be incredibly attentive to controlling the interview so she would have time to ask that question. And the other thing we need to know about that question is that she always wanted to ask the question that everyone wanted to hear, even the hardest question possible, like would you have burned the tires? She wanted to ask the one people wanted to hear the answer to. That was one of them [her] great gifts. And she learned this by preparing for hours and writing the proposed questions on small 3×5 cards, shuffling them and revising them, and finally having them typed on 5×7 cards to ask. She would let an interview go where it went. She didn't always follow the cards, but she always had a plan in mind for how she wanted the interview to start. What she wanted to do in the middle and what she wanted to do at the end to give it a real kick.

About her friendship with Donald Trump

They were transactional friends. She went to his wedding. He went to the celebration of her third wedding. He was often a guest there The view when The view started in 1997. He was then a real estate developer in New York. And if they were short a guest, they could call Donald Trump and he would come over and be on the show or even do a cameo skit. …And in fact, an ABC executive told me, when Donald Trump got involved in politics, that there was a feeling and some discomfort that she had given him a platform and a legitimacy that he might not have had otherwise . .

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About her preparation for her infamous interview with Monica Lewinksy

Barbara Walters was asking the questions, but at the same time Monica Lewinsky was working with her team to answer the questions. The question that caused the Monica Lewinsky team the most trouble was the question, “Do you still love him?” Because at the beginning of their practice sessions she said yes. And then she said she couldn't say no because she loved him. And sometimes she loved him. And they warned that this was not an effective response. So in this interview you hear her give the answer they had already thought of, namely no. But in her follow-up research she does acknowledge that she sometimes still has warm feelings for him. On Barbara Walters' side, they worked for a long time on what the closing question would be, because that's a powerful point of view in an interview like this, that last question. And they decided, “What are you going to tell your children?”

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On Gilda Radner's impression of her as 'Baba Wawa', making fun of the way she spoke

She was injured when she heard this. For starters, no one doubted who she was parodying, even though there was an exaggerated lisp that Gilda Radner used. And Barbara Walters had a speech disorder. She called it a bastard Boston accent. Other people called it a lisp. Whatever she had tried, she went to voice coaches early in her career to try to fix it, but it failed. So her feelings were hurt when the skit was performed Saturday evening live. Now it has made her famous too. She accepted it, but I think she always found it a bit hurtful. … When Gilda Radner died … Barbara Walters wrote a sympathy note to her widower, Gene Wilder, expressing her condolences for her death, and signed it “Baba Wawa.”

About her reluctant retirement

She worked until she was eighty. … In her seventies, she worked at a time when most women had involuntarily retired. So she worked for as long as they wanted to keep her on the air. But because she sometimes skipped a step, there was a fear that she would embarrass herself or undermine some of the professional work she had done. …The people at ABC convinced her it was time to retire. And then CNN came up with a secret offer to put her on the air at CNN, which she reconsidered when her friends came back and said, no, it's time. … There was a grand finale The view, where two dozen women prominent in journalism came to pay tribute to her. And at her last, big show The view. And when she was backstage afterwards, one of them came up and said… “What do you want to do when you retire?” And Barbara said, “I want more time.” This means I want more time on air.

About whether she was happy

I asked 100 people who knew her: was she happy? And a few people said yes. Joy Behar from The view said “cheerfully,” which isn't a bad answer, but most people said that while she was proud of what she had done and loved the money and fame she had won, she paid this huge price for the personal side – she had three failed marriages. She was estranged from her only daughter for a time. She never lost the feeling that she was always competing and could never stop and be satisfied. So she had the most successful professional life, but I think she had a pretty sad personal life.

Thea Chaloner and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

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