It's richly ironic: Barbara Walters, who made her reputation -- and a massive amount of money -- by asking celebrities and other big shots probing, thought-provoking and sometimes intrusive questions, did not like to be interviewed.
"It's not so comfortable to have the shoe on the other foot," she told me back in 2008, during the only one-on-one chat I've had with her. "I think I like it better the other way around. Now, I feel like I need to give you sound bites."
Walters, 84, officially retires from daily television work on Friday with a final appearance on "The View," the daytime talk show she created. In the run-up to her exit, a lot of us have been churning out stories reflecting on the legacy of this TV-news icon.
While doing so, I was compelled to dig up that old Q&A, in which she expressed her discomfort at being interviewed. Truth be told, I wasn't all that comfortable, either.
I've been in this business for longer than I like to admit and have chatted with hundreds of celebrities, from sports stars like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan to Hollywood types like Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie, so being in the presence of stars does not freak me out. But I do tend to experience a different level of angst when I speak to someone who conducts interviews for a living.
How will they judge my questions? My demeanor? My approach? I had similar apprehensions when I once interviewed the revered Walter Cronkite. I'm a journalist who gets a little edgy interviewing journalists.
Walters, of course, was one of the great interviewers of all time. In her 50-plus years on the job, she conducted hundreds of emotionally charged interviews in which she got to the heart of what made her subjects tick, often bringing them to tears.
After having established her hard-earned reputation, she enjoyed the kind of luxuries that network television brings: the access to the biggest names, their undivided attention, lots of time to warm up to a subject and dig into his or her psychological texture.
Unfortunately, most of us don't have those advantages when we conduct celebrity interviews. Our access is usually limited -- sometimes to as little as 10 minutes -- and often conversations are on the fly, via cellphone, or in some hermetically sealed hotel room with personal publicists breathing down our necks.
I can't remember how much time I had with Walters, who, in 2008, came to the Bay Area to promote her autobiography, "Audition," but it wasn't substantial. Fortunately, she was attentive and charming throughout a conversation in which she touched on, among other things, the book's most intimate revelations (an affair with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke), her tumultuous stint as an evening newscast co-anchor with Harry Reasoner ("I felt like a failure, and I thought my career was all but over"), the big interview she would have liked to get, but didn't (Osama bin Laden), and the biggest misconception people have of her ("That I'm totally together. That I don't bleed. That life and career for me has been nothing but up, up, up.").
And I had to ask her about her penchant for turning her interviews into sob fests.
"I'm sure that's what my obit will say: 'She made people cry,'" Walters told me. "One reason it happens is that I often ask people about their childhoods. ... And many aspects of a childhood can be very difficult and painful.
"But I don't really do it anymore. I even find myself telling (interview subjects), 'No, you can't cry!' It has gotten to be a joke."
When we were done, she thanked me for my interest in the book and told me, "nice job." Coming from the queen of interviews, that felt like a shiny badge of honor.
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