As news of her retirement leaks, a look back at her newsmakers interviews and signature style that made every she ever questioned feel like they were with a therapist or close friend, rather than a journalist.
Just as Sally Ride made space travel a viable aspiration for young girls with their eyes on the stars, Barbara Walters allowed aspiring young female journalists to believe they too go tête-à-tête with the world’s biggest leaders and brightest stars, which is why the news of Barbara Walters impending retirement has so many reminiscing about her trailblazing career.
Her list of accomplishments is staggering: the first woman to co-host NBC’s Today Show, the first to co-anchor an evening news show, not to mention garnering the highest ratings of any TV news interview ever in her 1999 sit down with Monica Lewinsky.
She interviewed every U.S. president and first lady since Richard Nixon, and everyone from despotic world leaders like Mommar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro to revered super star celebrities like Oprah and Katherine Hepburn.
For fellow veteran broadcast journalist Connie Chung, Walters was both a competitor and a mentor, and a “tremendous influence.”
“She was bigger than life to me,” Chung said on Friday’s PoliticsNation.
Chung says she was in awe of Walters the first time she met her, as a young reporter at a local station. She met the younger Chung on the south lawn of the White House for an interview. They hopped into Walters limousine and rode off as Walters deftly fired off a laundry list of tasks to her assistance. Chung was wowed but also inspired.
Later on in their careers, Chung sometimes found herself competing with Walters for interviews. Although she always knew Walters had the advantage, but if she happened to score the interview, Walters always sent her a warm congratulatory note.
“That’s the amazing thing about Barbara, we’d be extremely competitve with one another,” Chung explained, noting that she always knew Barbara was favored to win the battle when they went head to head for an interview. “She would develop these personal relationships with people and make them feel so comfortable. You just couldn’t fight it.”
But Walters would be gracious when she lost, writing what Chung described as “mom” like notes congratulating her on her interviews.
At one point, Chung herself was “Barbara’d” as she describes it, when Walters began reaching out to her for an interview not long after she adopted her first child. “She started calling me, faxing me, writing me,” she said. “She just developed this correspondence and relationship with me, I had to say yes.”
Chung thinks those same personal connections are what causes so many of Walters interview subjects to tear up on camera. “She becomes personal but not in an intrusive way. She becomes your shrink, you’re on her couch, you’re revealing everything. You’re opening your heart ot her because she’s sort of like a mother confessor.”
“I think everybody feels comfortable and secure with her. They want to pour forth their inner thoughts, and she’s so understanding…that’s the way she is.”
With her retirement rumored to be set for 2014, America’s fortunate enough to continue to enjoy Walters’ emotional interviews for at least another year, but Chung is still hoping she’ll decide to stay in the business for even longer, “I refuse to believe that Barbara’s going to retire. If I have a vote, I’m going to tell her: not acceptable.”