“We’d had some failures in daytime, and Barbara Walters came to us with this idea of a program with a really interesting group of women talking,” recalls the late Arledge’s successor, David Westin, who in 1996 was president of the ABC Television Network.
Walters and Bill Geddie, the longtime producer of her Barwall Productions, had dreamed up this variation on Not for Women Only, the seventies-era female-oriented morning show that Walters had hosted on NBC while also co-hosting the Today show.
“It was coming from a different demographic, and I thought it was an interesting idea, different from a single-host show, and I thought they cast it beautifully from the beginning,” Westin recalls. “But Roone was very set on Barbara’s not participating. He felt she would be distracted from her 20/20 duties.”
But with her dogged persistence, Walters won, and The View debuted on August 11, 1997. It was an instant hit, and it helped Walters, who Berger says has a 50 percent ownership stake, accumulate a personal fortune estimated by friends at more than $100 million (a portfolio said to be managed by Bear Stearns eminence Ace Greenberg, one of her suitors between her three marriages and divorces). Yet it’s doubtful that even Arledge foresaw the extent to which Walters’s credibility would suffer as a result. There were, among other embarrassments, the secret deal to tout Campbell’s Soup during the “Hot Topics” segment (Walters killed the deal after it was revealed), and Walters’s impersonation of Marilyn Monroe on a Halloween episode, belting out a disturbing rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and refusing to break breathy character despite the desperate pleas of the other women.
The first real dent in Walters’s image was last summer’s messy ouster of one of her co-hosts, Star Jones Reynolds. Afterward, Walters was forced to admit that, yes, she and her publicity machine had been fibbing all along when they repeatedly insisted that Jones Reynolds—whose standing with viewers was undermined by her abrupt weight loss, followed by reports of her many wedding freebies, and her evident self-absorption—was welcome to stay on for the tenth season. Jones Reynolds surprised Walters & Co. by announcing her departure two days before their agreed-upon good-bye—and then told People the truth, that her contract wasn’t renewed.
“Star trashed everybody on the show,” Geddie says. “I was furious when this happened. I wanted to change the locks, alert security, say she can’t come back. Barbara, who’s a nice lady, said, ‘That’s so horrible.’ … Barbara doesn’t like to fire people—she’s not comfortable being a boss.”
In any case, it was a harbinger of the “dump-truck saga,” as O’Donnell calls it. That began just before Christmas, when Walters was sailing the Caribbean on a chartered yacht with Judge Judy Sheindlin, WNBC’s Sue Simmons, and Cindy Adams.
The afternoon of O’Donnell’s broadside, an angry Trump phoned Bill Geddie. He was especially incensed about the false personal-bankruptcy insinuation. Geddie reached Walters aboard the yacht and conferenced in Trump, who repeated his complaints. Walters told him the show was in reruns till after the New Year, but she’d be happy to clear everything up on the air when everybody returned. “He said, ‘Great, thank you, bye-bye,’ and we thought that was the end of it,” says Geddie, who insists that Walters never criticized O’Donnell in the conversation, as Trump later claimed. “That afternoon, as we were hammering out with Barbara and the ABC lawyer what we’ll say on the air, up comes a horrible press release from Donald—‘fat this,’ ‘loser that,’ just nasty. And I’m on the phone with Barbara, and I realize this is going to be a war, and now Barbara’s dragged into the middle of something she had nothing to do with.”
Trump was booking himself on as many television shows as he could to call O’Donnell a “fat slob” and a “degenerate.” He claimed Walters had told him privately that she’s “not a fan of Rosie.” On the yacht, Walters said with a sigh to Adams, “When mama’s away, the children will play.
When Walters returned, O’Donnell was upset that she hadn’t immediately taken her side against Trump’s ugly attacks, hadn’t bothered to phone her at the height of the uproar, and then didn’t respond to O’Donnell’s e-mails (because, Walters had claimed, her BlackBerry wasn’t working). Reading about O’Donnell’s cursing at Walters, Trump tried to drive a wedge between them. He sent out an “open letter” to O’Donnell—“you have good reason to be angry”—and quoted Walters in a phone call to him as saying “working with [O’Donnell] is like living in hell,” “Donald, never get into the mud with pigs,” and “Don’t worry, she won’t be here for long.”