Thursday, June 12, 2014

An Evening with Barbara Walters

by John Shelby Spong

She was born to non-practicing Jewish parents. Because her father owned a series of night clubs from Boston to Miami, she grew up in the company of show business celebrities. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, graduating in 1953 with a degree in English. The “glass ceiling” was very much intact in that year largely determining what a woman could do or be. By refusing to accept those limits, this woman, Barbara Walters, was among the first to smash those barriers.

Every woman in America is in her debt today. Christine and I had the pleasure of spending one evening recently listening to some of her life story at Drew University, the wonderful school in my community that enriches my life in so many ways. Ms. Walters was the featured speaker at the Thomas H. Kean Lectureship, named for New Jersey’s former governor, who was also Drew’s president for six years.

The lecture hall awaiting Barbara Walters’ presentation at Drew was packed. The president of Drew, Dr. Vivian Bull, introduced her with typical and characteristic grace. Ms. Walters had earlier that day been given a Drew sweatshirt. Clearly this had happened to her many times before on other campuses, but, professional that she is, she made that Drew audience believe that this was the most elegant gift imaginable, by interpreting that sweatshirt as having conferred on her alumna status. The audience, purring with approval, was in the palm of her hand for the rest of the evening.

This remarkable woman then began to share with her audience the insights she had gained into many of the people whom she had interviewed. In one single program, she had brought together Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel. At some point in her career all of the major players in the Middle East had been her guests, including Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and King Hussein. When one focuses on Europe, she has had one on one interviews with Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

Crossing the Atlantic to America, we discover that she has interviewed every president and first lady of the United States since Richard Nixon. Moving into show business, people ranging from pop star Michael Jackson to classical actress Katherine Hepburn have sat opposite her on her program. She traveled to China with Richard Nixon on the journey that opened China to the West, a moment that historians still refer to as one of President Nixon’s signal accomplishments. In the sex scandal that embroiled the White House during the incumbency of President Bill Clinton, Ms. Walters conducted an interview with Monica Lewinsky that was watched by 74,000,000 viewers, setting a record that still stands for the largest audience ever to see a single television program.

She became such a cultural icon that other shows would caricature her with the certain knowledge that the audience knew her so well that she would be immediately recognized. One thinks of Gilda Radner’s take-off on her as “Baba Wawa,” which set a mark for Saturday Night Live’s treatment of a celebrity that was not approached again until SNL’s Tina Fey did her Sarah Palin takeoff in 2008.

For more than 40 years, Barbara Walters stood at that place in the media world where the daily news comes together with mass communications. So successful was Ms. Walters in this arena that on one occasion when she shared an interview with Walter Cronkite, the dean of American newscasters, Mr. Cronkite expressed great anxiety, asking his staff when the interview was over: “Did Barbara get more information than I did?” She changed forever the sexist perception that television news required a male presenter. Every female television host on both network and cable television today is in her debt.

It was not always easy; no struggle for equality ever is. When Barbara Walters, armed with her freshly conferred English degree from Sarah Lawrence College, began to search for positions in journalism, she experienced the limiting stereotype that the only role in which prospective employers could imagine a woman filling was that of a secretary. She was frequently asked in job interviews: “How fast can you type?”

Yes, even Barbara Walters had to start in that secretarial role. After a few months as a secretary, however, she applied for and got an entry level position in television as an assistant to a publicity director for WRCA TV, the NBC affiliate in New York City. For this talented woman, this opportunity was the nose of the camel under the tent. She was on her way and what most believed was a firm “glass ceiling” was about to be challenged and cracked.

She suffered many indignities along the way. In time she moved to CBS News as a writer of news copy, then to NBC’s “Today Show,” once again as a writer. At that time, the working assumption in the industry was that a woman did not posses the necessary “gravitas” to deliver the news. The Today Show, however, discovered that they had a vast female audience remaining after the men departed for the “hunt” each day. So the Today Show decided to do a daily “women’s segment.” Barbara Walters became the writer and producer for that segment. In that role she acquired the nick name, “The Today Girl,” a title conveying the same insult black adult males felt when they were called “Boy!” Barbara Walters persevered, however, and as a result. Her role on the Today Show began to grow. By 1963, she had achieved the status of co-host with Hugh Downs, but she was never given the title or the salary her male co-host was paid.

When Hugh Downs left in 1969, those responsible for choosing his successor never once consulted Barbara Walters about his replacement. In 1971 Frank McGee was hired at twice the salary that Barbara was paid. With the help of her lawyer, she did have a clause added to her contract stating that if and when Mr. McGee ever left the program, she would officially become the co-host with the next male lead. Frank McGee died two years later and Barbara Walters was finally recognized with the title and salary that made her truly equal. The mountain had been climbed and she became the first female co-host of a morning news program in America.

In 1976, she became the first woman co-anchor of a network evening news program, joining Harry Reasoner on ABC’s Evening News. Reasoner, who had previously hosted this program alone, resented her intrusion. It was not so much resentment of Barbara Walters, but of the newly perceived need to have both a male and a female in the anchor chairs.

At 75 years of age after being not only co-anchor of the Evening News, but also chief correspondent and host for 20/20, she left ABC, going out in a blaze of glory. In her last year on 20/20 she interviewed Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fidel Castro and Martha Stewart!

Ms. Walters lived in that generation when for women marriage, family and career collided. Neither the world of journalism nor the world of business had yet fully understood the conflict that every modern professional woman faces when she refuses to sacrifice marriage and the raising of children to the demand of professional success. Barbara Walters exemplified that conflict. She was married four times, but only to three men, since she was married and divorced from the same man on two different occasions. She had only one child and that by adoption. She opened the doors, however, and today’s professional women increasingly live in a world that understands far better the issues that modern career women face.

I look at my four daughters, all of whom are in demanding careers in the fields of finance, law, science and medicine. Two of them know what it is to be professionally engaged for 60-70 hours a week. They have all made significant sacrifices to be able to do what they do. These daughters have also seen the world grow more understanding of women. Those who are married have supportive husbands, who see parenting as a joint venture to say nothing of cooking, vacuuming, shopping and doing the necessary errands that every household needs to keep functioning. In her generation, Barbara Walters had none of these supports.

I look at the Christian Church, traditionally a bulwark of sexism, and I see women being welcomed increasingly into all roles of leadership. There are still barriers. The Roman Catholic Church, Christianity’s largest, still regards women as somehow biologically unfit for ordination. In a church, which claims papal infallibility and in which power flows from the pope to the bishops to the priests and finally to the laity this means that until women are ordained, they will remain powerless in that church. Separate but equal is always separate, it is never equal.

The attempt of males to subjugate women, to force them back into the traditional boxes of male oppression is seen today in American politics in the debate over funding reproductive health issues and in attacks on Planned Parenthood. It is also seen in male attitudes. Witness the former CIA director Michael Hayden suggesting that Senator Dianne Feinstein was “too emotional” about her desire to see the Senate’s report on CIA abuse and torture released to the public; Mike Huckabee, a potential GOP presidential candidate, still wanting to lecture women on “controlling their libidos,” and Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, wanting to blame his former assistant, Bridget Kelly, for his George Washington Bridge problems, asserting that her “personal life had impaired her judgment,” and gratuitously revealing inappropriate details about Ms. Kelly in the process.

Thanks to people like Barbara Walters, we have come a long way, but sexism is deep and real. I suspect that if one of our major political parties nominates a woman for president, the opposing party will seek to destroy her, unable to cope with that ultimate transition in power.

They will fail because the world has moved beyond that mentality, but they will still try. Sexism will ultimately die. I give thanks to Barbara Walters for driving a few more nails into its coffin.


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