Audition: Barbara Walters' Journey

She was smart enough, and successful enough, to attract an industry-rattling offer from ABC in 1976: $1 million a year to do network specials and co-anchor with Reasoner.

"Since ABC News was doing so poorly with Harry Reasoner, it had no place to go, but up," she said.

As it turned out, the evening news did have another place to go -- further down.

Veteran ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson said the chemistry just wasn't right.

"The first night, of course, we had a big audience. Everyone came to see the million dollar baby," said Donaldson, who was at that time ABC's White House correspondent. "Barbara was a little stiff, but who wouldn't be? Harry was standoffish, and treated her as if 'Who is this dame' who he has to sit with."

Walters felt she was drowning without a life preserver.

"There was no reason to go to a therapist," she said. "I knew what was wrong."

She says she failed. But she kept showing up for work each day. Walters anchored the evening news at ABC for about a year and a half before she says the audience became "uncomfortable." ABC said it was over.

Rising From the Ashes

"The first thing I noticed was that when they took her off the program, here's this big star we paid a million dollars," Donaldson said.

"And it's six o'clock in the morning, she'd be out on the rope line with the rest of us. She was going to work hard, never mind that she had been demoted and it was all in the press. And she was going to demonstrate that she had the right stuff, as Tom Wolfe would say. And, for me, ever since that day, she's had the right stuff."

As a roving reporter Walters interviewed Fidel Castro in 1977, one of her most memorable.

"I would like to make it clear that we never had a romance," she said, referring to the frequent teasing she's endured after an interview some perceived as flirtatious. "One of the most charismatic people you can meet, but you also have to realize that he is a dictator, that he allows no freedom and he and I talked straight about that."

"That's when I did the best work I've done in the Middle East, with [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and [Israeli Prime Minister Menachim] Begin, and all the peace treaties," she said. "That's when I did the most important stories."

Donaldson said she was more like one of the boys than a diva.

"She demonstrated that she wanted to be serious," Donaldson said. "And she was gonna prove that she could do it."

Walters seemed on her way to another anchor chair at "20/20" when Downs became an unexpected obstacle.

"The company came to me and said they'd like to make Barbara a co-anchor. And my reaction to that was, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. And I resisted it," he said. "I was able to tell Barbara very early on that I was glad I was wrong because it worked out well."

She stayed on "20/20" for nearly one quarter of a century, and during that time interviewed seven different presidents in addition to prime ministers, princes, movie stars and murderers.

Brave on Camera

Although Walters is often associated with sensitive, sometimes weepy, interviews, she wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions either. When she spoke to Vladimir Putin in 2001 she asked straight out, "Did you ever kill anybody?"

When interviewing Boris Yeltsin in 1991 she didn't shy away from the questions everyone wanted to know, regardless of how they might have been received.

"When you were visiting America there were reports that you drank too much. Did you drink too much?"

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...