On June 9, 1977, a sweltering evening a few months before my thirteenth birthday, a monumental event was taking place in my home in the suburbs of Miami: My parents, my siblings and I gathered to watch ABC News’ superstar journalist, Barbara Walters, conduct a free-form, two-hour interview with Cuba’s pompous dictator, Fidel Castro, a first for American television.
This news special was impossibly epic, an earth shatteringly important moment for my Cuban-born parents who fled their beloved homeland precisely because of the draconian, murderous policies Castro implemented when he took power decades earlier. And as my family and I held our collective breath to see if Walters would throw softball questions to the notoriously verbally dexterous jefe, we were stunned that the contrary occurred. It was quite an interview.
Walters was astoundingly intelligent, measured and didn’t let the slippery Castro get away with much. Even at my young age, I remember admiring how Walters carried herself, friendly to the man, but tough as nails to the leader of a decimated country. It was a master class on how to conduct an incredibly difficult interview, all the while making history as well as terrific television.
That’s how it’s done, people.
When Walters took her final bow on television—it still doesn’t seem possible that “Barbara Walters” isn’t on TV on a regular basis—a litany of her incredible moments filled my head: Her interviews with every significant world leader including Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, England’s Margaret Thatcher, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, Lybia’s Muammar al-Gaddafi (I loved when she asked him if he was crazy), India’s Indira Gandhi, China’s Jiang Zemin and, more recently, three really bad guys, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as well as her dozens of revelatory conversations with every American president since Richard Nixon.
If Barbara Walters only conducted interviews with world leaders, that would by itself fill record books, but the fact that this particular tireless, curious reporter has elevated the act of celebrity interviews to a bonafide art form, speaks volumes to how rare a talent Walters truly is. Her fascinating interviews with Christopher Reeve, Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky (arguably the biggest “get” of her career), Katherine Hepburn, Oprah, Madonna, Patrick Swayze, Lady Gaga, George Clooney and every bold-faced name in Hollywood has directly influenced how celebrity interviews have been conducted ever since. Make no mistake, without Walters there’s no Oprah, there’s no Katie, there’s no Diane. I’ll go even further: In the history of television, there has never been a presence like Barbara Walters who aggressively straddles the hardest of news and the fluffiest of entertainment and treats both extremes with equal, unwavering professionalism and an unimpeachable ethic while consistently and indefatigably never forgetting she’s on TV and must amuse/inform/move the millions watching from their living rooms. No one in the history of the world has ever done that. Ever.
Since she launched The View, the daytime gabfest and ratings juggernaut nearly two decades ago, I’ve been concerned that the Hall of Fame career Walters had before The View may get tarnished by the likes of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Debbie Matenopoulos and the other lesser lights that shared her breathing space on that program, but—remarkably—Barbara Walters exited The View unscathed with her dignity and reputation intact.
Even now I’m sad for me since I’m undeniably a Barbara Walters fan; a fan in the sense that I respect her for I know the choices she has made—both in her life and in the moment while conducting interviews—reveal her to be a once in a lifetime talent, a one-woman journalistic Mount Rushmore. There’s a simple reason why ABC News headquarters in New York City will forever carry the Barbara Walters name: How could it not?
As I flash to that early summer night in 1977 and to my rapt family watching an American journalist asking the monster who ripped their lives—and their country—apart the toughest of questions, it still gives me chills. In a pointed moment from that historic interview, Castro incredibly implies that Cuba has its own form of freedom. Barbara Walters was having none of it: “Excuse me! You allow no dissent. Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are all under state control. That’s not freedom.” I can still close my eyes and see the expression on my dad’s face as he cheered Walters’ question and how my mom got teary-eyed as she said to no one in particular, “That’s right, Barbara. That’s exactly right.” That’s a journalist. That’s how it’s done.
Barbara Walters may be a personal hero, yes, but she’s also the best television journalist in the history of the world. So as she leaves public life at the height of the party, I hope this living legend, this television icon, this class act, takes a final, glorious bow.
No one has ever been—or will ever be—better than Barbara Walters. No one.