Barbara Walters in Real Life: Icon and ‘Pushy Cookie’

Photograph Source: Lynn Gilbert – CC BY-SA 3.0

Barbara Walters, who died on December 30, 2022, received many accolades during the days that followed. She was rightly hailed as a TV journalist who shattered glass ceilings and fused hard news with gossip-style entertainment and an interview style that led even famous world leaders and others, accustomed to formality and social distancing, to relish the aura of intimacy she created. She was admired, particularly by her female colleagues, who extolled Barbara Walters as ‘pioneer,’ ‘trailblazer,’ and ‘legendary.’ She was most frequently celebrated as an ‘iconic trailblazer’ who permanently elevated the role and impact of women in TV journalism. I share the view that her drive and style resulted in an extraordinary career that makes it plausible to eulogize her death with words of extreme praise, tempered in some assessments by her own self-deprecating image of herself as ‘a pushy cookie,’ and that she was, and probably needed to be, to climb to the heights of media stardom in the patriarchal kingdom from which she emerged.

In the close aftermath of such a public death, I felt hesitant to share my own less flattering experience with Barbara. Yet as the days pass, I became convinced that this idealized portrayal of Walters needed to be balanced by off-camera encounters, which admittedly seem trivial if compared to the experience of countless others, but they were important for me and  accompanied by intriguing asides.

My contact with Barbara Walters went back many years, reviving briefly three decades later. We were a year apart in age, she a year older, and both of us at the time attending Fieldston High School in Riverdale but living on the West Side of Manhattan, riding together in the school bus as we were considered by our parents too young to take the long subway ride to 242nd street alone, and then walk for another fifteen minutes up a steep hill to reach Fieldston.  We quite often sat together and chattered about various adolescent concerns. My hazy recollection of those conversations of more than 75 years ago does remember that I struggled to get a word in, while Barbara talked incessantly in a glitzy superficial way, and I was then (and now) too shy to hold my own. I do also recall that we sometimes talked about our fathers who both had strong personal ties to entertainment celebrities.

It was widely known after Barbara became famous that her father owned nightclubs, including the Latin Quarter in New York City. At school Barbara had a reputation  of talking too much and teasing student friends with the remote prospect of an invitation to accompany her dad’s night club, tantalizing to the teenage imagination. None came to me despite our friendly conversations that helped me at a rather early age to become a better listener than talker. Those older guys and her girlfriends who evidently received these much sought-after invitations to the Latin Quarter were apparently discreet or sworn to secrecy, and so I never heard accounts of whether the envisioned debauchery was more than an alluring myth. And maybe even the whole scenario was nothing more than a harmless phantasy.

At least 30 years later I ran into Barbara at a very different time in both our lives, a dinner meeting in the early 1970s of the Editorial Board of the recently established magazine, Foreign Policy. The event took place in the fancy East Side townhouse of Warren Manchel, a banker with international interests, the founding co-editor (with Sam Huntington) and publisher of the magazine, who had been Sam’s graduate school friend, and maybe roommate at Harvard. In the years before the magazine was sold to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and moved its offices, along with its editorial priorities to Washington, Warren’s home was the standard meeting place for periodic formal meetings of its Editorial Board.

As an aside, I do not think I ever before or since had the experience of sitting at a dinner table or living room with such as assemblage of overtly ambitious individuals. The group included such establishment stalwarts as Zbig Brzezinski, Joe Nye, Richard Holbrooke, and of course Sam Huntington. Sam had the most creative and interesting mind among us and also seemed the least ambitious when it came to reaching the top layers of influence within the U.S. Government. The others had their eyes fixed on plucking the biggest plums hanging from the upper branches of the power tree that grown so tall in the climate of Washington careerist politics. Those with academic ties were waiting restlessly in their campus offices for that phone call offering them a big job in government, suffering from what some derisively called ‘Potamic Fever,’ a reference to the river that runs through Washington.

Despite not running in that race, and seemingly out of place, I was there because Warren and Sam had recruited me to join the original FP Board at an expensive French NYC restaurant, not because I was on my way to the top but in response to my vocal anti-war stance during the Vietnam War. The foundational idea of FP was to create a magazine more alive and responsive to the diversities of ideological look than Foreign Affairs, then and still the most prestigious and influential journal of Western establishment opinion bearing on foreign policy. As I recall, Sam had supported the Vietnam War, while Warren opposed it on realist grounds, making me am acceptable critical lone voice among the others, all reallists, persuaded to join for reasons of friendship or career. Because of my public opposition to the Vietnam War on the basis of international law rather than anti-imperialism, I suppose I seemed a safe enough bet to satisfy the new editors’ quest for a more diverse venue for foreign policy commentary that would be reflective of some ideological differences in the country that rose to the surface during and after the Vietnam War, but were still not tainted by Marxism. The Vietnam experience, however negative it turned out, was not seen as strong enough to splinter the establishment consensus that prevailed at the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs. I never felt entirely comfortable in such company, but as Barbara taught me years before I joined the FP Board to believe I would learn more from listening to those with whom I disagreed than smoozing with likeminded comrades whose company I much preferred. I should further report that after the Carnegie Endowment took over FP in 1978, the Editorial Board was partially reconstituted, and I was not invited to remain a member, perhaps an early punitive pushback for criticizing Israel in public spaces after 1975. In any event, diversity was no longer a priority among foreign policy influencers, and in fact was seen as a sign of ideological retreat and weakness in the then prevailing effort to restore confidence in the reliability of American global leadership beneath the storm clouds of the Cold War, a goal that privileged unity of purpose and policy.

As was the habit at these Editorial Board meetings, which were more social gatherings than serious discussions of editorial or foreign policy issues, prominent personalities from various backgrounds were invited guests, and Barbara definitely had earned such a status.  Shimon Peres, the liberal Israeli leader greatly admired in the West, but badly misunderstood by liberal Zionists who wrongly regarded Peres as a staunch advocate of a diplomatically negotiated peace with the Palestine. At dinner with such an influential group Peres had other priorities in mind than pleasing diaspora Jewish communities. As was the custom at these dinner meetings, Peres was given the opportunity to make a presentation, and spoke long before it became fashionable, of the natural convergence of strategic interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East despite their apparent confrontational relationship at the time. When it came time for questions, there were a series of approving remarks in the form of questions from the distinguished Board members seated around the table. Put off by the cynical proposal, I dared put forward a mild challenge by point to the apparent tensions between Saudi governance and Israel’s embrace of democracy, and calling attention to his apparent lack of concern about the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people.

Peres, visibly annoyed, brushed off my remarks as naïve in relation to real world geopolitics, but Barbara interpreted my question as hostile, and took offense. She delivered a rather lengthy rant attacking me for an impolitic questioning Israel’s pursuit of its own interests as explained by its most beloved leader. I felt that Barbara had no memory of our earlier high school encounters. This impression was confirmed after the dinner was adjourned, and she came to me to apologize for the attack, saying that she had a tiring and frustrating day, and lost control of her feelings (something, incidentally, she was famous for not doing when performing her professional magic). Her earlier attack at the time struck me as an ultra-Zionist outburst, although I had no knowledge of her views on Israel beyond this incident, and I was sufficiently annoyed by her over-reaction to my civilly phrased comment to Peres, whom I had met on other occasions, that I didn’t bother to remind her that we were once, sort of friends. In fact, I confess that I was too intimidated by the surroundings dominated by men of power than to be other than polite. In retrospect, Barbara the only woman present other than Manchel’s wife, was self-confident enough to let her raw feelings to hand out without any sign of the intimidation that confined my question to socially appropriate constraints.

As a further coincidence, Barbara and I were both invited to a small lunch in the Delegate’s Dining Room at the UN two weeks later hosted by Clovis Maksoud, a prominent Lebanese diplomat, to honor the Palestinian intellectual diplomat, Shafik al-Hout. Shafik was a friend, who I shortly thereafter invited to speak to my seminar on international relations at Princeton. As visas only allowed Palestinian diplomats to travel within a 25-mille radius from the UN, I actually needed to obtain permission from the Secretary of State before Shafik could visit. Surprisingly, permission was granted, but only for the seminar, with a clearly stated prohibition disallowing any wider presentation of his views in the form of a university lecture. Such a constraint made the grant of permission less a victory for academic freedom than a personal accommodation. Decades later I can report with some pride that it was the best attended seminar during my 40 years at Princeton. Shafik carried off the occasion with great charm, wit, and knowledgeable views sensibly presented. The feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive, some saying that they had never before heard a Palestinian speak, and were impressed. Overall, the experience reinforced my convictions that grew stronger over the years that when academic freedom is given a freer rein at universities, we all benefit.

Back to Barbara, after seeming so alarmed by any show of sympathy for the Palestinian plight, seated next to Shafik, she let go of her politics, and behaved as someone seeming to flirt with an attractive partner at this lunch that she must have attended reluctantly, understandably fearing boredom in the milieu of UN bureaucrats. The lunch ended with Barbara giving her private phone number to Shafik. I never had the temerity to ask him whether he made use of it. Now I wish I had.

As in life, the asides may be more significant than the story line, and for this I apologize to readers who felt misled by the title and early paragraphs. From the vantage-point of the present, I feel grateful for Barbara Walters’ explorations of the links between private and public in the lives of some of the greatest figures of our time, at her best creating intimacy with historical figures who were not used to such exposure but in the moment enjoyed it. I suppose it says a lot that her most watched interview was with Monica Lewinsky and the U.S. president who most helped gain access to obtain interviews was none other than Richard Nixon.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB.