It’s the end of an era. Though we’d all heard the rumors weeks ago, Barbara Walters has officially announced she’s retiring next year (and savvily saved that information until toda to steal the thunder during TV upfronts). “I’m perfectly healthy, this is my decision, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” she said on “The View,” before admitting, “There will special occasions and I will come back… I’m not dead yet.”
Really, I thought Walters and Regis Philbin would be the two tough cookies who might have to be taken away on stretchers before they turned their backs on TV, so I’m still giving Walters a little time to change her mind. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Even though I loved the Baba Wawa “SNL” skits by the late Gilda Radner, there’s no denying that Walters broke down barriers for women in television. She was the first female co-anchor of the evening news. She was a co-host of “20/20” back when that show was actually newsy. She saw the wisdom of bringing together an all-female group to discuss the topics of the day on “The View.” Whether or not you like the show isn’t the point. Walters didn’t just promote herself as a lone distaff wolf in a male universe. She pulled up other women to share in her success.
Yes, her soft-focus celebrity interviews weren’t always the best. The joke became that every star was required to cry about something on the show. She did ask Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be (as a joke, I asked Charlize Theron the same question — and while she wasn’t familiar with the Walters interview, she actually had an amazing, thoughtful answer that was the highlight of our talk). These days, the question is actually used in job interviews, so Walters should have the last laugh on that one.
As much as people want to dismiss some of her tactics, they worked. People who are known to be prickly or difficult opened up to her, showing their vulnerabilities. Walters was amazingly skilled at her job. She didn’t just get celebrities to cry, either. She conducted a joint interview with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the ’70s. She interviewed Fidel Castro. Walters got big gets, important gets — and stole them away from the likes of Walter Cronkite. She didn’t just do fluff, though she had an amazing ability to shift back and forth between the two. It doesn’t work very often (sorry, Katie Couric). We liked her even when she was tough, and sometimes because she was tough. She could ask hard questions. She could push. And she did.
These days, we think of her as the grandma on “The View,” a little prim, a little fussy. I hope she isn’t remembered just for the daytime talker. She’s done a lot more than that. And while she richly deserves to retire, I hope her legacy — the truly important things she’s accomplished — lives on. In her retirement speech, she spoke of watching others take her place from the sidelines. How many of them will be able to even begin to fill her shoes is the real question.