Barbara Walters doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s hardly in hiding: Most every day, she’s there gabbing away on her women’s daytime gabfest, The View, and this past Thursday, defending her friend David Geffen (“I adore him”) in the Hillary Clinton–Barack Obama fund-raising flap and predicting a member of her Upper East Side social set, Mike Bloomberg, might end up being president. Meanwhile, on her 26th annual Oscars special Sunday, she subjected Eddie Murphy and Helen Mirren to her persistent, ingratiating examinations. Another flawlessly negotiated hour of comfortable celebrity revelation where everybody ends up looking great, including—perhaps especially—her.
After all, her trademark r-flattening lateral lisp and voice that can clang like an alarm clock are at least as recognizable as Murphy’s honk. And she’s easily more famous than Mirren, who made the cut thanks to her deft portrayal of a steely and discreet Queen Elizabeth II befuddled by how she was expected to act after the death of Princess Diana. The rules had changed, and she hadn’t noticed.
Which is something Walters—an accomplished operator who interrogated seven presidents and countless blustery autocrats from Fidel Castro to Vladimir Putin, went to India with Jackie Kennedy and China with Richard Nixon, and scooped the world with her extraordinary joint interview with Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat—can identify with. Somehow, she got caught in a name-calling feud between her nominal friend Donald Trump and her nominal employee on The View, Rosie O’Donnell, who’d mocked Miss USA pageant owner Trump for posing as a moral authority by giving wayward beauty queen Tara Conner “a second chance.” O’Donnell accused Trump of hypocrisy, bad hair, and, worse, bankruptcy. Trump wasn’t happy, and Walters, bafflingly, couldn’t smooth it over. Before long, Trump was calling Walters a “sad figurehead dominated by a third-rate comedian,” while said comedian was in the gossip pages berating Walters as a “fucking liar” in The View’s hair and makeup room for not immediately taking her side when Trump called her a “fat slob” and a “degenerate.” Even low-rated ABC colleague Jimmy Kimmel piled on, putting a picture of Walters with a Pinocchio nose on his late-night show.
Like Mirren’s queen, “Barbara takes her job very seriously and she’s concerned with her image,” says Meredith Vieira, who left The View last year to replace Katie Couric on the Today show. “Any time that it’s tarnished, or even perceived to be tarnished, sure, that’s hard. The whole thing took on a snowball effect. Everybody, I guess, loves a train wreck—unless it’s their own train wreck.”
So how did things end up going off the rails?
“Barbara has the exterior of a debutante,” her friend Dan Rather notes, “but the heart of an assassin.” The dilemma confronting Walters: How does an old-school debutante-assassin operate in the crude new world of celebrity thuggery? Trump and O’Donnell are perfectly happy to trade blows and spatter blood, on the theory that WWF warfare is more reliable than subtle maneuvering at the court and the low road is preferable to losing.
Or as Trump, the Sun Tzu of shamelessness, tells me in his office-shrine on the 26th floor of Trump Tower: “There are some sound bites you can’t beat by taking the high road.”
I’ve been doing business with Walters since the mid-eighties, when I was a “Style” writer for the Washington Post. A former publicist—in the late fifties, she worked for future New York Times columnist William Safire in the office of legendary PR man Tex McCrary—Walters is scrupulous in the drudgery of fame maintenance. Like many reporters and columnists, I’ve received my share of handwritten thank-you notes on her embossed personal stationery and polite typed missives on the official ABC News letterhead. Once, at my request, Walters spent five minutes on the phone giving career advice to an aspiring pundit I was dating. Another time, over lunch at the Central Park Boathouse, I repeated to Walters something 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt had told me—that he’d never seriously tried to steal her away from ABC, despite press accounts to the contrary. The next day, a courier from Walters’s office arrived with a photocopy of Hewitt’s letter of apology to her. I could only imagine the fearful transaction that had produced this abject document.
Like any big star, Walters has a high-end Hollywood publicist, PMK-HBH’s Cindi Berger, to ward off train wrecks. She shares Berger with Sharon Stone, Jessica Simpson, the Dixie Chicks—and Rosie O’Donnell. Berger has the tricky job of keeping them from damaging each other.
I approached Walters at Michael’s, where she’s a regular at table 1. She gazed up from her plate of untouched gravlax and smiled a vague smile. “I’m not supposed to be speaking to you,” she said, looking pale and a tad weary in hardly any makeup but still marvelous for a woman of 77. She’d been telling her rapt companions—Suzanne Goodson, the ex-wife of late game-show mogul Mark Goodson, and Joe Armstrong, a socially connected former publisher of this magazine—about her little Havanese dog, Cha-Cha. She was wearing a black fur hat that had been shoved tightly over her head, as though to prevent stray thoughts from spilling out with her blonde highlights.