Barbara Walters (s_bukley via Shutterstock)

Good riddance, Barbara Walters

Veteran newswoman retires to spend more time with her craven obsession with power


Alex Pareene
May 13, 2013 6:30PM (UTC)
Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams provides her very different view of Barbara Walters here.

Barbara Walters has announced her retirement from journalism, a profession she claims to have been practicing for more than 50 years. Walters, the former co-host of the "Today" show, ABC World News, "20/20," and current co-host of "The View," is a national icon and a pioneer, and probably as responsible as any other living person for the ridiculous and sorry state of American television journalism. She has announced her retirement a year in advance, so that a series of aggrandizing specials can be produced celebrating her long and storied career. So let's get things started off right, by reminding everyone how her entire public life has been an extended exercise in sycophancy and unalloyed power worship.

When she's not interviewing famous people, Walters is partying and vacationing with and occasionally dating them. Former relationships (dutifully recounted in her boldfaced-name-heavy memoir) include Sen. Edward Brooke, former Bear Stearns head Alan Greenberg, and Alan Greenspan, who I guess has a type. She's buddies with war criminal and society fixture Henry Kissinger. She's old friends with make-believe TV tycoon Donald Trump. She testified at the Brooke Astor trial, because Astor was, of course, a close friend.

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I'm not insinuating that Walters' myriad personal relationships with every single powerful person she's ever met have affected her work. I am allowing her to make that case for me. While the rumor that Walters had a romantic affair with George Steinbrenner, the married owner of the New York Yankees, is just a rumor, what is known is that they were close friends, and that that friendship led Walters to cover for him when she inadvertently stumbled into what would have been a good story.

Steinbrenner first met Walters in Cuba in 1977. She was there to interview Cuban premier Fidel Castro, and he was there with Yankee pitching great Whitey Ford on a top-secret mission to scout Cuban baseball players. As Walters related numerous times, Steinbrenner was furious when he spotted her and her camera crew in the hotel where they were staying, mistakenly thinking she was there to report on him. Over cocktails later that day, she explained that she was actually in Cuba to interview Castro, and that Steinbrenner's secret was safe with her. Steinbrenner and Walters were often seen together around and about in New York, and Steinbrenner was fond of telling intimates how he and Walters would be walking down Fifth Avenue together and would make bets as to which one of them would be recognized first. And throughout the '80s and '90s, Walters was a frequent guest in Steinbrenner's private box at Yankee Stadium and in the Yankee Club.

If the scouting mission was "top-secret," it's likely because the trip was probably a violation of the laws of two countries and the rules of Major League Baseball. But Steinbrenner's secret was safe with her, for ... some reason. I guess just because covering for the powerful is second nature to Walters.

That's also probably why she, legendarily, pretended to be seeing (romantically) Roy Cohn, the notorious scumbag McCarthyite mob attorney who was also, notoriously, a closeted gay man (who had persecuted closeted "deviants" while working with McCarthy). Cohn was one of the slimiest and most detestable characters of the entire 20th century. He was finally disbarred, in part for his hospital visit to a dying and incapacitated millionaire in which Cohn held up the man's hand and had him "sign" a codicil to his will naming Cohn the trustee of his estate. Despite his moral bankruptcy, Cohn remained a member of elite Washington and New York society his entire life. Walters said she was and remained close to him because he helped her father with a legal matter when she was a girl. But this also seems to explain why they were "dating" in the 1950s:

Did Cohn have a secret "nice" side?

"I would not use the word nice," she laughs. "He was very smart. And funny. And, at the time, seemed to know everyone in New York. He was very friendly with the cardinal, he was very friendly with the most famous columnist in New York, Walter Winchell, he had a lot of extremely powerful friends."

(Winchell, too, was an amoral power-obsessed monster.)

Let's not forget one of her most recent Big Scoops, an exclusive interview with murderous Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. How did she score that one? It probably helps that she was friends with Assad. Walters vacationed to Syria in 2008, and thought Assad and his wife, Asma, were "very charming and intelligent." After the 2011 interview -- while Assad's military was killing demonstrators across the country -- Walters wrote letters recommending the Assad aide who set up the interview for plum American media internships. (With Walters' help, the aide was accepted to Columbia.)

There's nothing wrong with weepy celebrity interviews. They can be fun! But for some reason Walters long ago was slotted into the "serious journalist" category despite her total lack of journalistic ethics and her tendency to interview her close, personal friends. Her legacy as a breaker of barriers is sound. Her habit of using her position to protect and cover for some of the worst abusers of power in the world should also be remembered as we are forced to spend the next year celebrating her achievements. It's actually remarkable how, in a city and an industry full of very powerful people, not all of whom are corrupt monsters, Walters has consistently grown close to the worst that the elite has to offer, from Steinbrenner to Trump. And that attraction to the blackest, most soulless exemplars of American power is probably why she's been so phenomenally successful.

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Have a great year-long retirement party, Barbara! Thanks for Elisabeth Hasselbeck!


Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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