“I’m NOT sure that I wasn’t too candid,” said Barbara Walters.
The longtime television interviewer was in her 10th-floor office at ABC on a recent afternoon, talking about her new autobiography, “Audition.”
In it, Walters spills about her guilt-ridden relationship with her mentally disabled older sister, her father’s attempted suicide, her daughter’s turbulent adolescence, her three failed marriages and various run-ins with male colleagues.
“When I look back now I think, I don’t know -- should I have told so much?” she said. “But if you’re going to be honest, you’re going to be honest.”
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the 612-page book -- aside from her confession of an affair with a married African American U.S. senator in the 1970s -- is Walters’ admission that she was long haunted by insecurities.
They dogged her after she was named the first co-host of NBC’s “Today” show; when ABC lured her away to be the first female co-anchor of a network evening newscast; even as she hopscotched the globe, interviewing foreign leaders.
“No matter how high my profile became . . . my fear was that it all could be taken away from me,” she wrote.
After more than four decades on the air, during which time Walters interviewed 30 heads of state, every president from Richard M. Nixon on and countless celebrities, that anxiety has finally subsided.
“It’s about time,” she said.
Full of energy
The 78-year-old broadcaster (an age she refuses to confirm), had been up since dawn to guest host “Good Morning America” and then taped two episodes of “The View” before lunch. Her makeup was immaculate, her blond hair perfectly coiffed. She was dressed smartly in a taupe suit accented with gold jewelry.
“I have a lot of energy,” said Walters, but she’s contemplating retirement. “I don’t want to climb any more mountains.”
She started working on her autobiography after leaving “20/20" in 2004, in part to let people know that she has “not had a perfect life by any means.”
It isn’t a leap, she admits, to connect her lifelong worries about being accepted to an insecure childhood. The youngest daughter of a nightclub impresario who gambled, Walters was a “somewhat lonely child” acutely aware of her family’s precarious situation. Further complicating her home life was the condition of her older sister, Jacqueline, whom Walters both loved and resented.
When Walters was in her 20s, her father’s newest club went under and he tried to overdose on sleeping pills. Newly divorced, she was left as the sole supporter of her family.
She landed a job as a writer on “Today,” eventually making it on-air as a reporter in October 1964. Ten years later, she was named co-host.
Early on, she demonstrated a moxie that would help her navigate the male-dominated field. When “Today” host Frank McGee demanded that Walters be limited to “girlie” interviews, she protested. The network president came up with a compromise: McGee could ask the first three questions of newsmakers; Walters, the fourth.
Quietly fuming, Walters pursued interviews outside of the studio, where McGee could have no say. She got an exclusive with Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman and traveled with the president to China.
Because of her aggressiveness, male colleagues dubbed her a “pushy cookie.”
“I’m sure there are still some people who feel that way about me,” she said lightly.
The reaction was even icier when she joined ABC in 1976. The network promised her a then-staggering $5 million over five years to co-anchor the evening news and do prime-time specials for the entertainment division. The press derided her as the “million-dollar baby” and a lightweight.
ABC anchor Harry Reasoner was none too happy about their pairing, and it was quickly evident that the network had made a mistake.
“I would wipe my eyes before I went out there and put the smile on,” she said. “But after a while, people realized.”
Does Walters see any connection between her experience and the rocky tenure of Katie Couric on the “CBS Evening News?”
“She’s going through a very difficult time,” she said. “And I think, like me, she’ll survive.”
Walters survived by fashioning a new role for herself: that of the globe-trotting interviewer. She interviewed Fidel Castro in a patrol boat on the Bay of Pigs and scored a joint interview with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, infuriating competitors like Walter Cronkite.
Younger viewers who know Walters best from “The View” and her “Most Fascinating People” specials may be surprised by her earlier career, which at times reads like scenes from a James Bond movie: an arms dealer shows up at her Monte Carlo hotel room, a Central American dictator tries to romance her.
“I’m very grateful that I have that period in my life,” she said. “I think the whole body of my work is enough so that people, I hope, realize that I don’t just do celebrities.”
In recent years, however, her career has been buffeted by a series of high-profile celebrity controversies stemming from “The View,” the daytime talk show she created in 1997.
“The first nine years were very happy,” Walters recalled. “Then I think things began to go sour” with co-host Star Jones.
Jones’ decision to have gastric-bypass surgery and then refuse to acknowledge it put her co-hosts in an awkward position. After she had an extravagant wedding, outfitted in a part by freebies she promoted on the air, ABC decided replace her. Before the decision was public, however, Walters told a reporter that Jones was welcome to stay if she wanted to.
“I lied for Star,” Walters admitted. “I tried to protect Star. And it hit me in the face.”
Still, she doesn’t seem worried that the incident damaged her credibility.
“I think people understood,” Walters said mildly.
The following year, Rosie O’Donnell came aboard for a tempestuous stint as the show’s moderator.
“That was a roller coaster, because Rosie is enormously talented, but she also has a lot of, as she admits, emotional problems,” said Walters, who still exchanges e-mails with O’Donnell.
One person that Walters did not write much about is her ABC colleague and reputed archrival Diane Sawyer. When asked about their relationship, Walters notes they recently had lunch and reads out loud a warm e-mail from Sawyer on her computer.
“People will be very surprised that we have that kind of relationship,” she said. “Diane and I were pitted against each other, deliberately. We hated it. . . . But we never had animosity toward one another.”
Today, she said, they are “colleagues who understand each other and probably share more than most people do.”