'View' War of Words Prompts Question: What Can Americans Say About the War?

"View"creator Barbara Walters denied rumors that the debate was about ratings.

May 24, 2007 — -- After the explosive debate between Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck that rocked "The View" Wednesday, Barbara Walters, the show's creator and co-executive producer, declared peace and shot down any speculation that the argument was fabricated for ratings.

"Welcome to 'The View' … so Aunt Barbara is back and there will be peace in the kingdom," Walters said in an exclusive statement to ABCNEWS.com Thursday. "Rosie O'Donnell is off today: It is her partner Kelly's birthday, so Rosie asked to have the day off."

"It's a hot weekend, so everybody can cool off," Walters continued. "And for those who think, let us say, the interesting day, was planned for ratings -- that's just absurd. The highest ratings we've had for 'The View' this whole year were in February, when there were no feuds."

Fans of the ABC TV talk show got more than the usual chat and gossip Wednesday when a long-running debate between co-hosts O'Donnell and Hasselbeck about the war in Iraq erupted into a war of words. The political sparring match turned personal, sparking a larger debate about what Americans can and cannot say about the war.

Wednesday's heated debate was the culmination of a fight that started on "The View" last week, when O'Donnell said, "655,000 Iraqi civilians have died. Who are the terrorists?"

Conservative critics said O'Donnell was calling U.S. troops terrorists. Wednesday, Hasselbeck said O'Donnell should clarify her statement.

"I asked you if you believed what the Republican pundits were saying," O'Donnell said to Hasselbeck.

"Did I say yes?" Hasselbeck replied.

"You said nothing and that's cowardly," O'Donnell shot back.

"No, no, no. Do not call me a coward because I sit here every single day, open my heart and tell people exactly what I believe," Hasselbeck shouted.

"So do I," retorted O'Donnell.

Who Can Say What?

"The View" showdown is the latest example of how difficult it is to strike a balance between criticizing the war and supporting the troops.

"There are no clear lines about how far you can go in criticizing government during times of war," said David Gergen, director of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership. "But there are customs. One custom is you can criticize a president, you can also criticize the generals but you can't criticize the troops."

In the presidential race, both Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., had to backtrack after saying the lives of soldiers were "wasted" in Iraq.

"Unlike the war in Vietnam, the military is still very well regarded, so policymakers have to thread the needle on that one," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

In every war, there's conflict between hawks and doves. O'Donnell and Hasselbeck's fight harkens back to a Vietnam-era exchange between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William Buckley.

"The only sort of pro-war crypto Nazi that I can think of is yourself," Vidal said to Buckley.

"Let's not call names. Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I'll sock you in the God***** face and you'll stay plastered," Buckley famously shot back.

In Wednesday's exchange, there were no threats of violence, but both hosts seemed on the verge of tears, and the audience seemed incredibly uncomfortable.

"Every time I defend them, Elisabeth, it's poor little Elisabeth that I'm picking on," O'Donnell said.

"You know what? Poor little Elisabeth is not poor little Elisabeth," Hasselbeck shot back.

"That's right. That's why I'm not going to fight with you anymore because it's absurd," O'Donnell said as the debate wound down. Co-host Joy Behar called for a commercial break and the audience broke into applause.