It’s a good punch line, but Walters is half serious. “I envy that,” she says. “I don’t have the same appeal to Bob Iger.”
Barbara Walters didn’t set out to become a journalist, as she explained in her 2008 memoir “Audition.” Her father was nightclub owner Lou Walters, who uprooted the family from Miami for New York, after he opened the Latin Quarter in Manhattan. He earned — and squandered — a fortune, which forever made Walters cautious about upswings in her career.
She changed high schools three times. “I had to make friends, be alert, ask questions, and I was never in awe of celebrities, because they worked for my father,” Walters says. “I was curious. Even today, if I go out to dinner and I’m sitting next to someone and I ask questions, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re interviewing me.’ ”
Walters once taught a master class that at ABC News, where she told young journalists to always ask subjects about their childhood. She believes this question unlocks a key to their personalities. Walters says she was shaped most by her older sister Jackie, who was disabled. “It gave me a childhood that was sad and kind of lonely, because there were things I couldn’t do, like have friends over,” she says. “I think it gave me empathy.”
At Sarah Lawrence College, she considered a career as an actress, but she was too frightened of rejection. When she accepted a job as a writer on “Today,” the staff there was comprised of six men and a lone woman. “And you didn’t get to be the female writer unless the other one got married or died,” Walters recalls.
She eventually parlayed her writing gig into an on-air job, and set her sights on the anchor chair. “This is my big line: They hired me for 13 weeks and I stayed on for 13 years,” says Walters, who landed her first on-air assignment in 1961. “I am very hard to get rid of.”
Since she started behind the camera, she has a strong grasp of what makes a good story. “What I do better than anything, I’m an editor,” says Walters, who can look at an interview transcript and instantly assemble the parts. (She generously offered to edit this story for Variety.)
Although she became a major star at ABC, she long regretted her decision to move to the network. When she arrived in 1976 to do the evening news, she found herself in an acrimonious partnership with future “60 Minutes” correspondent Reasoner. Viewers could cut the tension with a knife, and didn’t tune in.
“I considered that my biggest failure,” Walters says. “I was drowning without a life preserver.” She saved her career with her primetime interview specials and big gets like Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Carter, the Shah of Iran, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne and Christopher Reeve, the latter of which earned her a Peabody Award.
She explains she’s never intimidated by an interview because she is so thoroughly prepared. She writes her questions by hand on a stack of note cards after polling everybody in her life about what to ask. “Here is my idea of hell,” she says. “I sit down and do the interview. I ask the questions, and the lights go down. I walk outside and someone says, ‘Did you ask such and such?’ I go, ‘Coulda, shoulda, woulda!’ ”
Walters wakes up every morning at 6:30, and sometimes she’ll walk — or “slush,” as she puts it — through Central Park to the “The View” studio off the Hudson River. She reads three newspapers: the New York Times, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, all in print. She’s the rare TV anchor who books her interviews by sometimes phoning publicists herself. “She has a lot of energy for calling back again and again,” Sawyer says.
Even after she retires, Walters plans to keep her ABC News office, lined with 11 Emmy Awards (there’s another in her apartment) and framed pictures of her 45-year-old daughter Jackie and beloved dog, Cha-Cha. Walters has been married three times, and confesses she’s a romantic at heart — she loves to watch reruns of “Sex and the City” (which might be described as a scripted, racier version of “The View”).
She doesn’t regret placing her career ahead of her personal life. “I don’t think there’s a person I should have been with,” Walters says. “Isn’t that amazing? I don’t look back and think, ‘How did he get away?’ ”
She isn’t sure what she will do with all her new free time. She says she looks forward to sleeping late, taking in a Broadway matinee and traveling, and she might even go back to school. She recently enrolled in an art history class at NYU. “There were seven of us, and the professor never showed up,” Walters says. “That’ll teach me. I’m going to find another professor.”
For now, she needs to choose a last guest to interview. She hasn’t decided who that will be, but a good bet might be a certain former White House intern. Walters’ exclusive with Monica Lewinsky for a “20/20” special in 1999 reached 74 million viewers, a record for a TV news telecast on a single network. “It’s the biggest interview I’ve ever done,” Walters says. “I’d like to interview Monica again. I think Monica’s story is very interesting, because everybody else has been able to move on. I’m touched by the fact that she hasn’t been able to.”
Thanks to Walters, “The View” has been the rare place in daytime that celebrated politics. It’s been a stumping ground for presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama. But last year, the show lost its fire and ice: Both Hasselbeck, the conservative voice, and Joy Behar, the liberal, exited amid speculation “The View” was trying to become less political.
“These are not Barbara and Bill’s decisions,” Walters says. “The network is also involved. I think the feeling was if one went, both had to leave. We needed to shake things up.”
That will certainly happen in the show’s 18th season, which will likely add two new co-hosts. Plus there will be a void from the natural gravitas Walters lent to the program. “We’re experimenting a little bit,” she says. “Sometimes we think we should add a man.” And it looks like “The View” will hire another right-leaning personality to keep those Hot Topics segments heated. “We need a conservative voice,” Walters says. “We do try to present a different side.”
Even if Walters is the co-executive producer, she won’t be tuning in from home — but not because of any ill will. “I think it will make me feel bad,” Walters says. “I think I will miss it. If I don’t see it, I won’t miss it.”
For sure, the ultimate career woman has loved the time she’s spent in the (usually) relaxed environment of “The View.”
“The fact that it’s been on for 17 years amazes me,” she says. “The only way I can tell is when I think of some of the cast members, and the only original one is me.”
Soon that won’t be true anymore. “No,” Walters says, looking sad for a moment. She lifts her head and gives a knowing smile. “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”