On the answering end of an interview, Walters walks warily


April 15, 1991|By Alice Steinbach Sun reporter Gerri Kobren contributed to this article.

For once, nobody cried during a Barbara Walters interview. But that may be because "The Great Questioner" -- as gossip columnist Liz Smith likes to call Ms. Walters -- was giving the interview, not conducting it.

In fact, if Barbara Walters (who has coaxed tears from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Patrick Swayze, Roseanne Barr and, most recently, Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf) were a tree, it seems fair to say she would not be a weeping willow.

As practiced in the art of answering questions as she is in asking them, the doyenne of television celebrity interviews -- who was in Baltimore last night to speak on the occasion of Sinai Hospital's 125th anniversary -- is a woman who doesn't fluster easily.

Although she can be a bit forgetful.

At a small press conference before her talk last night, a reporter asked her age. Ms. Walters, a beautiful, youthful-looking woman, hesitated. "I'm 58." No, wait a minute. She doesn't think that's right. "I was born in 1931." She does some math in her head. "So I'm 59."

In any case, she says, age is no longer an issue for women in television. "I am so much older than anyone [other TV newswomen] but I no longer hear any questions about age. . . . I really think it doesn't make any difference." Pause. "At least I know it hasn't in my career."

She attributes her longevity to "good genes. Obviously, if I looked awful and couldn't make it around. . . .

"Do you know that Mike Wallace is 72 or 73? I think he's the most vital interviewer we have." She sips some coffee. A slow smile appears. "If I were 73 and were still on the air, I would be a phenomenon."

No matter what her age is, Barbara Walters is a phenomenon. She's as famous -- or more famous -- than many of the newsmakers and celebrities she interviews on ABC's "20/20" or "The Barbara Walters Specials."

Certainly she is and has been the most famous woman broadcaster television has yet produced. In 1976, much to the chagrin of such newsmen as Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner, Ms. Walters became network television's first million-dollar journalist.

One of the qualities she is known for is her ability to get the "tough interview," the person who usually turns down other interviewers. What's the trick? she's asked.

"I don't think it's a trick," she replies. "I work very hard on it. It doesn't fall in your lap. People don't call up and say, 'Would you like me on your show?' " She laughs. "When they call and ask that, it's usually not someone you want to do an interview with. I write letters and follow it up."

It is very, very difficult, however, to secure an interview with Ms. Walters herself. The mother of all interviewers, it seems, is very wary of the press.

"Yeah, I am. I would rather do a television interview [than one in print] because I think you've got a fair chance on television even if you're edited. . . . I think that at least you have a chance of coming off the way you are -- good, bad or indifferent," she says.

Print interviews are more dangerous, in Ms. Walters' opinion. "In print interviews, you can say 'She said with a smile . . .' Or 'She said with a scowl . . .' I guess I've been burnt by print interviews so I don't give many," Ms. Walters says, neither smiling or scowling.

Which brings up the subject of Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. Barbara Walters has never interviewed Ms. Kelley but has interviewed Nancy Reagan four times. "I haven't read the Nancy Reagan book but I think it's unfortunate that these days anybody can write anything and there's nothing you can do about it."

She returned to the subject at the end of her hour-long speech last night, referring to the allegation that Mrs. Reagan had an affair with Frank Sinatra.

"I would bet that she didn't. It is not his style and it is not her style," she said.

Will we be seeing Nancy and Ronnie giving their response to the book on "20/20" this week? "I have not asked them to sit down," Ms. Walters says somewhat slowly. "I'm not sure it's even an interview I'd want to do at this point."

Barbara Walters knows what it's like to the subject of an "unauthorized" biography. Last year, a book on Ms. Walters by Jerry Oppenheimer, a former Washington Star and National Enquirer reporter, was published. The book depicts the newswoman as driven and insecure, a self-promoting perfectionist who puts work and fame above all else.

"No, I haven't read it," says Ms. Walters, "but people told me it was dull."

Interestingly enough, the book on Ms. Walters starts off in a similar fashion to the one on Nancy Reagan: by announcing she's shaved two years off her age.

"He is absolutely wrong about that," says Ms. Walters.

For much of her talk at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, she read from the transcripts of interviews she'd done with former Moscow Communist Party chief Boris N. Yeltsin, ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, General Schwarzkopf and actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Sophia Loren.

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