From black-and-white to colorful celebs: Barbara Walters reflects at Drew

By Marie Pfeifer

Shortly before her death, 96-year-old Katharine Hepburn, a black-and-white sort of lady, told Barbara Walters that she pitied the newswoman for seeing life in shades of gray.
It’s actually been a lot more colorful than that for Walters, 84, who took listeners down memory lane on Thursday at Drew University in Madison.
Barbara Walters

Barbara Walters

Walters, who has announced her retirement, reflected on a television career that started in 1953 as the producer of a children’s program. By the mid ’70s, at ABC, she was the first woman anchor of a network newscast. Described by Drew President Vivian Bull as “the most prolific interviewer in TV history,” Walters has had sit-downs with every president since Richard Nixon. She even has her own entry in the American Heritage Dictionary.

“As we go through life, we learn that life is a gift.  As difficulties arise, we learn what is important to us,” said Walters in her usual style, confident and direct.

Christopher Reeve ranks among her favorite celebrity interviews, she told the packed house at her Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lectureship.

After a 1995 equestrian accident left the Superman star paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve’s wife, Dana, offered to “pull the plug” if that was what he wanted. “Think about it,” she told her husband, “but remember you are still you.”  Later, the Man of Steel wrote a memoir entitled Still Me and became the face of spinal injury research.

Walters also remembered meeting a young Bill and Hillary Clinton and wondering what they saw in each other.  Bill was a handsome, charming, dazzling man; Hillary was smart, with unkempt hair and not very fashionably dressed.

Years later, Hillary would say that her biggest decision was whether to stay married to Bill.  She did so, she told the interviewer,  because “no one can make me laugh the way Bill does.”

The Dalai Lama told Walters that life’s purpose is happiness, not heavenly rewards.  To accomplish this happiness, he said, one must learn not to be jealous or competitive, and to eradicate negative thoughts and smile often.
Walters said she tried that– and found it boring.
But then, she was raised around celebrities. Her father was a Broadway producer and nightclub owner. Walters has been married four times to three men, and has an adopted daughter.
Walters aimed to set the record straight about one thing: She did not go around asking her subjects what kind of tree they fancied themselves to be.  Actually, Katharine Hepburn offered that she wanted to be like the great white oak in her backyard, with branches reaching through the wall.
Other memorable interviews cited by Walters included Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad,  “detested by his people” for his brutality and abandoned by neighboring countries.
President Barack Obama revealed to Walters: “I didn’t expect to be president of the U.S.”  Early on, he entertained thoughts of becoming an architect, a baseball player or a judge, but found himself ill-suited to those pursuits.
President Barack Obama records an episode of The View at ABC Studios in New York, N.Y., July 28, 2010. Pictured, from left, are Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck. White House photo.

President Barack Obama records an episode of ‘The View’ in 2010. From left: Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck. White House photo.

When Walters asked Vladimir Putin if he ever killed anyone, he replied: “It is not my area.”
Margaret Thatcher told Walters that her father introduced her to politics and the principles of leadership.
Leaders, Walters said, “can either inspire or destroy.”   She suggested great leaders possess several qualities:
  • The ability to love someone and to receive love
  • Spirituality
  • Ethics
  • Philosophy
  • Strength of purpose
  • A desire to “be the great oak whose branches go right through the garden wall.”
Can women have it all? Walters said the odds have improved over the years, as husbands and fathers have taken on increased responsibilities.
As for retirement, don’t expect the co-owner and co-host of The View to retreat to some distant beach.

“I have always worked since completing college,” said the Sarah Lawrence graduate. “I plan to continue to be executive producer of The View.”

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