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Review: Biography describes what ‘Rulebreaker’ Barbara Walters did to reach the top

Vaseline 1 month ago

By Glenn C. Altschuler

(Minneapolis) Star Stand

On May 15, 1953, TV Guide published a profile of Barbara Walters, the young producer of a 15-minute children’s program called “Ask the Camera.”

By the time she died, nearly seventy years later, Walters had bypassed or broken down many barriers. The first woman to co-host a network morning show, the first female co-host of a network evening news program and creator of the daytime talk show “The View,” Walters interviewed everyone in politics and entertainment and shortlisted the individuals that have had the greatest impact on television news.

In “The Rulebreaker,” Susan Page (USA Today’s Washington bureau chief also wrote biographies of Barbara Bush and Nancy Pelosi) draws on archival research and more than 120 interviews. She creates an often compelling account of a smart, demanding, competitive, thin-skinned presenter who once admitted that she did what she knew “how to do better than anything else.” Not life, not how to deal with life. I don’t know how to do that.”

Page explores Walters’ complicated and conflicted relationships with and decades of financial support from her father, Lou Walters, a nightclub impresario who made and lost fortunes; Dena, her often dissatisfied mother; Jackie, her special needs sister; and Jacqueline, her adopted daughter. Barbara’s three marriages failed, Page shows, because her career always came first. And Page explores her friendships and romantic relationships with attorney and fixer Roy Cohn, U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, and economist Alan Greenspan, among others.

Most importantly, Page documents the sexism Walters faced in network newsrooms. Frank McGee, her co-host on NBC’s “Today Show,” we learn, insisted on asking politicians the first three questions and lobbied producers to assign his colleague to “girlie” interviews.

Walters, however, did not call herself a feminist and did not join colleagues in lobbying for an end to systemic gender discrimination. The path she paved for the women who followed her, Page writes, was “first and foremost a path she blazed for herself.” Her rivalry with Diane Sawyer was a particularly nasty example of Walters’ view that getting on-air interviews with A-listers was a zero-sum game.

Page also implies that Walters’ approach to ‘the get’ and the interview itself was gendered. Several public figures, including Fidel Castro, flirted with her.

In stark contrast to the aggressive, confrontational ‘gotcha’ style that Mike Wallace made famous, she probed the emotions and motivations of her subjects. The audience loved it, but one critic complained that Walters had turned interviews into “hypocritical empathetic kudzu.”

That said, Page emphasizes that Walters has inspired generations of girls and women. As a high school student in Virginia, Katie Couric watched her on television and said to herself, “Hey, if my face doesn’t stop the clock… why not?” As the first solo female anchor on a network news broadcast in 2006, Couric thanked Walters for rattling cages “before women were even allowed in the zoo.” Walters, Connie Chung declared, “earned the right to be a diva.”

Walters died in 2022. Her cremated remains were buried next to her parents and sister at Lakeside Memorial Park in Miami.

Page suggests that her marker, which does not mention family relationships, is disingenuous.

“No regrets,” it says. “I’ve had a great life.”