Broadcast journalist Barbara Walters

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We reprise our enlightening 2008 conversation with the trailblazer—who retires from her broadcast career this week—about her then-newly released memoir.

Barbara Walters' career is marked by choices that helped break through the male bastion in U.S. network news. She was the first official female co-host of NBC's Today show and, at ABC, the first woman ever to co-anchor a network news program. The 12-time Emmy winner rose from writing for local stations to conducting headline-making interviews and hosting top-rated TV specials. Walters is also author of a best-selling memoir, Audition, which covers her more than five decades in television news. As she steps away from the business and co-hosting The View—daytime's long-running chat-fest that she created and co-exec-produced—ABC News announced that their NY headquarters building will be named in her honor.


[Begin previously recorded interview]

Tavis: I’m pleased to welcome Barbara Walters to this program. Her trailblazing career in journalism and television has included so many high-profile assignments, including, of course, the “Today” show, “20/20,” and now some show called “The View.”

Barbara Walters: Oh, that.

Tavis: Yeah, oh that show, yeah. (Laughter) The best-selling new book about her career, as if you didn’t know, is called “Audition: A Memoir.” Barbara Walters, what a delight to have you on our show.

Walters: I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for having me on.

Tavis: It’s my pleasure. Let me start by asking, now that you’ve had a chance to do the rounds, any regrets yet that you did this?

Walters: Well I said when I was going to do it, I said in the beginning that a lot of young people come up to me, especially young women, and say, “Oh, you’ve had such a career,” and so forth. “I’d like to be you.”

I’ve said, “Well then you have to have the whole package,” and the package has ups and downs and the packages, I think a lot of people thought of me as being very austere and sort of one dimension.

I think they see from this, good, bad, or indifferent, that there are other dimensions. So no, I have – there are things that are very personal in the book about my family, about relationships, and also a lot of it, I hope, that is historic and that is informative.

I either did the book and told the truth, or what was the point of doing it. I did this interview and that interview. That’s not that interesting.

Tavis: Why the need, and if not the need, the desire – if that’s not the right word, you unpack it for me.

Walters: Okay.

Tavis: But why whatever to tell this story, to tell it now, with regard to people seeing those other dimensions of you. If you survived and succeeded this long in the way that you have, why even show those other dimensions of you? There’s no pressure to do that.

Walters: Well I think that’s true. There was no pressure to do this book at all, and I certainly had never wanted to. Other people have written unauthorized books about me and I never reacted to it.

It was at a particular place in my life. I had left “20/20” after 25 years, I thought well, I’ve got this time and I really wanted to write about my sister, my relationship with my sister, who is considered mentally retarded then or developmentally disabled, and her effect in my life, and my father’s ups and downs in his show business life.

It was going to be a little book, and I wanted people to be able to relate to it. I thought I had all this time. Well then as it turns out ABC came to me and said, “No, no, no, four specials a year. We don’t want to lose you.”

Suddenly, I was so busy. Then the publisher said, “But you’ve got to write about the president, and you’ve got to write about the murderers and you’ve got to write about the heads of state and you’ve got to write about Monica Lewinsky,” and suddenly – not suddenly, because it took me three years – it was 600 pages.

I can write it now because, Tavis, I’m in a very good place in my life, and I hope that it will be inspirational, that it will help especially young people, both men and women, and that they understand a little bit more about my life and the career.

Tavis: Does it trouble you, and you’ve been in this business for so long and so good at it, does it trouble you that when you want to tell a particular story, that other parts of the story, to your point about the whole package, overshadow the stuff you really want to talk about.

Walters: Well that happened for a strange reason, because Oprah, whom I adore, didn’t interview with me 10 days before the book came out. The book was embargoed. It’s only been out a week.

So nobody read it, and she, her people, put the statement out about send her the book because I think they thought it would drive viewers to the program, and it did.

It’s four pages out of the entire book, but it’s all people had read, and I put it in because it was a part of my life, because I’m not perfect. A lot of people aren’t. But also I felt that it was historic, and I’ve tried to do that in the book.

The idea then – this is 31 years ago. He’s been remarried for 26 years very happily, and he knew that this was going to be in the book, I wrote to him.

Tavis: Very classy, the way you handled that, by the way.

Walters: Well it was not only an important part of my life at the time, but also, 31 years ago an African American man and a white woman, it would have been the end of my career.

Now we have an African American running for president, and I was trying to say look how things had changed. Look at the way it was then, and look at the way it is now.

But now if you just take that out, you think that it’s a kiss-and-tell book. I was joking with somebody and I said that – let me show you something.

Tavis: Sure.

Walters: That all, when you open the book, all of these pages are all of the interviews, front and back.

Tavis: I love that.

Walters: That I had done. So I was joking, and I said, “You see, everybody thinks that these are all the interviews that I’ve done, thousands of them. But no, they’re really all the men I had relationships with.” (Laughter)

So it’s been a little bit – and your name is not here, I don’t think.

Tavis: No, I was about to add that. Mine is not, yeah. (Laughter) I’m not cheering that, I’m just saying it’s not there.

Walters: Well, I’m deploring that I have not interviewed you. My day will come with you.

Tavis: No, no, no. Let me ask, what has been the private cost, or the cost to your private life, of being such an iconic figure. On the one hand, people celebrate you and I know we all love to be appreciated for what we do, so there’s got to be a part of you that loves the fact that your work has been regarded as iconic. But there’s a cost to your private life (unintelligible).

Walters: I don’t know whether any of us who are in this business, especially if you’re in the news business, where you don’t have body guards and press agents. You don’t feel like this big, iconic figure at all.

But there is a refrain that goes through this book, and that is trying to balance your life, whether you’re a man or a woman, and it’s more with women. How do you combine a career and marriage and children, and what price, if any, do you pay?

There’s a chapter that I call the hardest chapter of all to write, which is about my daughter, who read it and said, “Mummy, put this in, it’s important.” If people know that we could make it after the kind of rebellious, difficult childhood that she had, and it was agony for both of us.

She’s so wonderful now, and she runs a therapeutic wilderness program for adolescent girls in crisis. I wrote about it because we thought that there’s so many parents now who are suffering with their children.

It’s awfully hard to bring up teenaged children.

Tavis: Did you blame yourself for any of this difficulty?

Walters: Oh, yes, but what I try to say now to women, and to men, because men are much more involved with their children than they perhaps were when I was a little girl, was you’re going to feel guilt, but there is no answer.

So many women have to work, men, and then you always have the feeling of should I have been home more, should I have done this more. Or you stay home and then the child goes off to college and you say, “Now what do I do with the rest of my life?”

So I put it in because I thought that it would be helpful and it’s also my daughter’s very funny. One of the things that she said that I’ve loved and that I quoted there, my daughter’s adopted, and people, I think, know that by now.

I adore her, and at one point I said, “Do you want to find your biological mother,” because she had never asked about it. I said, “I’ll help you, darling, if you want to. Don’t worry. We’re okay, it won’t hurt me.”

She looked at me and said, “I’ve had so much trouble with you, why would I want another one?” (Laughter) Then she said, I said, “Well I thought you might,” and she said, “What, another Christmas card?”

So there are very personal stories in this that go beyond that one small chapter in my life.

Tavis: The conclusion that you draw, if my reading of the text is right, and I think it is, the conclusion that you draw, particularly where women are concerned, is that you can have it all, but not at one time.

Walters: That’s what I think, but I talk particularly about two women – Katherine Hepburn (unintelligible).

Tavis: Absolutely.

Walters: – said, “I never want children. If little Johnny or little Jimmy, I had an opening night, I’d say, ‘Out of my way.'” Very bad impersonation, by the way. And Audrey Hepburn, who gave up her career for her children, and Bette Davis, who writes about the “price” that she paid.

I think it’s easier to have it all now, Tavis, than it was in the earlier days for me, because men, one hopes, are participating. Fathers now are much more involved. But we also have many more single mothers and single fathers.

There is that constant trying to find the balance, and I think the constant guilt. Guilt is my second name in this book, I think.

Tavis: That word comes up a few times.

Walters: Yeah, too much. Too much, maybe, but.

Tavis: You lay out this journey for us, and as I got through the book I wondered and thought to ask you what it feels like for a woman, because so many women even today still don’t get to feel this in this way.

But what does it feel like to be a woman who is regarded – ABC didn’t want you to go, networks have fought over you, over your work, over this. But what does it feel like to be in your profession at a place in it where people regard you as a woman in this patriarchal, this sexist world, you’re regarded. That feels like what?

Walters: Well remember that there was a time when ABC didn’t want me.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Walters: When I came to ABC from NBC to do the news and was a failure. My career was, I thought, over, and there are a lot of people who are losing jobs and feel that they’re a failure. So it hasn’t all been wonderful, wonderful.

I think, and that’s why I could write this book and talk about myself with such frankness – if indeed I made even a little difference for women, and there are so any women now in front of, behind the cameras, that’s a great feeling for me.

To know that something in your life has made a difference, that it isn’t all just being on camera. When you work for a news department, you’re not catered to. You don’t have the bodyguards and the press agents and the managers and so forth.

So I still work very hard. “The View” for me is dessert. I love those women. But because I am in a very good place in my life, I can maybe almost for the first time, enjoy my life.

I’ve worked very hard, and I talked about this with Oprah. I said this to her too. Let’s enjoy it. It’s about time we enjoyed it. That’s the way I feel. I could not have done this otherwise.

Tavis: Was it worth having to travel all of that terrain to get to this point to enjoy it?

Walters: Oh, who knows, Tavis, whether it’s worth – you just do it. You do it. Part of it was that I had to work. At one point, my father, who was in show business and was very famous, he had nightclubs all over America, Lou Walters, Latin Quarter, lost everything. Everything.

I had to support my mother, my father, my sister, who was my responsibility, and my daughter. I had to work. So who had time to think of was it worth it? I didn’t have time to make those decisions or have those kind of philosophical discussions with myself.

Tavis: Let me offer this as an exit question, and I know you’ve been asked this in some form or fashion before by somebody, but not by me, so indulge me. I was literally looking at a list the other day, and we’re nowhere near Barbara Walters, but we’re celebrating our five years now on PBS.

We have our 1,000th – I know this is a joke to Barbara Walters, but we have our 1,000th show coming up.

Walters: Terrific.

Tavis: So I’m sitting with Neal Kendall, our producer, the other day, looking at a list of clips that we think we’re going to include in our 1,000th anniversary show. So I’m looking at this clip, looking at these potential clips for that show, I’ve got your book off to the edge of my desk.

I’m glancing over and I’m thinking, how in the world would Barbara Walters choose what goes on her career highlight reel? So if there are – just indulge me.

Walters: Okay.

Tavis: If there are three things that could not be excluded from your highlight reel, what might they be? I know there’s so much to choose from that you would have to have in your highlight reel?

Walters: Probably the interview that I thought was the most historic, which was an interview between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.

Tavis: Menachem Begin, absolutely.

Walters: When people say to me, “Of all the interviews, which is the most important,” I would say Anwar Sadat, because he changed history, and because I was a small part of that. In my whole life, not just my career, but everything?

Tavis: However you want to define it.

Walters: My sister.

Tavis: Your sister.

Walters: My older sister, my relationship with her, the fact that people made fun of her and made fun of me, and the love I felt for her, but also the resentment, which I think a lot of people understand.

One of the greatest influences in my life, that would have to be it, and my daughter.

Tavis: And your daughter.

Walters: Yeah.

Tavis: I’ll take that. Barbara Walters. Her new book, again, as if you didn’t know, “Audition,” and we are delighted to have her on the program. All the best to you, Barbara Walters.

Walters: Thank you for having me on. My pleasure.

Tavis: It’s my pleasure. The pleasure’s mine.

Walters: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you.

[End previously recorded interview]

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Last modified: May 15, 2014 at 3:24 pm