Barbara Walters emerges as a 'Rulebreaker' in Susan Page's new biography Walters was the first woman to co-anchor a national news show on prime time television. "The path she cut is one that many of us have followed," says biographer Susan Page, author of The Rulebreaker.

Barbara Walters forged a path for women in journalism, but not without paying a price

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1246719526/1246887451" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. On October 4, 1976, Harry Reasoner, evening anchor for ABC News, introduced the nation to the first female network news co-anchor on prime-time television - Barbara Walters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REASONER: Closer to home, I have a new colleague to welcome. Barbara?

BARBARA WALTERS: Thank you, Harry. Well, tonight has finally come for me, and I'm very pleased to be with you, Harry, and with ABC News. And later, I'll have a chance to comment on my new duties. We'll tell you tonight about a Supreme Court action which allows the death penalty to go ahead in at least three states. We will hear some...

MOSLEY: That was Walters in 1976 on her first day as evening anchor for ABC News. She was only in that role for two years, but her arrival changed news media as we know it. Walters was not only the first woman to sit in the chair, she also became the highest-paid anchor, commanding top dollar in what was an exclusively male-dominated field. The press dubbed her the million-dollar baby.

In a new biography by award-winning journalist Susan Page, titled "The Rulebreaker: The Life And Times Of Barbara Walters," Page explores Walter's career, starting with how her entertainment booking agent father and special-needs sister shaped her world view, how she cultivated her signature interview style, and the cost her ambition and success had on her personal life. Walters shaped what we now know as personality interviews, long-form televised conversations with sitting presidents, foreign dictators, celebrities, and the notorious, including high-profile murderers and criminals.

Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief at USA Today, where she writes about the White House and national politics. She's the author of two other biographies about powerful women - "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush And The Making Of An American Dynasty" and "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi And The Lessons Of Power." Susan Page, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SUSAN PAGE: Tonya, it's great to be with you.

MOSLEY: Yes. So all of the biographies you've written so far have been about powerful women - Barbara Bush, Nancy Pelosi, and now Barbara Walters. What is it about Barbara that you wanted to get to the heart of?

PAGE: You know, she's such a consequential figure for journalists - not just for women journalists, but an especially consequential one for women journalists in broadcasting and print, for me. The path she cut is one that many of us have followed. Many of us have benefited from the battles that she waged. And there was no good biography of her - no 360-degree biography of her. She had done a memoir in 2008. But she hadn't gotten the treatment I thought she deserved, the exploration of her career.

MOSLEY: Well, this is quite a book. We go from her childhood all the way until her last days and her death. Did you two ever meet?

PAGE: I never met Barbara Walters. But it was my good fortune that Barbara Walters lived her life out loud and on tape. She did so many interviews. She was interviewed so many times. Tonya, let me ask you - did you ever meet Barbara Walters?

MOSLEY: I actually did meet Barbara Walters in 1996 at the Regis and Kathie Lee show. She was filling in for Kathie Lee at the time, and I was a guest on the show. It was a makeover show. One of the things she actually told me because I asked her if she ever got nervous during an interview, and her response was just fake it until you make it. And so it is what makes this biography so fascinating because we get to see her inner life, as well as her outer life and the things that motivated her.

I actually want to start with her first big splash. She had been with the Today show and NBC, starting off as a public relations person and then a writer and then a reporter. And then she moved to "ABC Evening News." So she co-anchored the "ABC Evening News" with Harry Reasoner. And Walters, who was 47 years old at the time, had worked her way up and signed this million-dollar-a-year contract with ABC, which meant that she was making more than her contemporaries, who were all men. We're talking about legendary names like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley and Howard K. Smith. How did she negotiate such a high salary?

PAGE: Tonya, just to note, she was 47 years old. She told everybody she was 45. You know, one of the fun things about her memoir was to see the things she said that were true and also to see the things that she said were not true. This was - you know, this was the achievement, the dream of a lifetime to become the anchor on the evening news, which was a position of just unparallled authority in TV journalism. And she got there by working harder than anybody else, by negotiating harder than others did, by having a sense of the marketplace and by willing to take a leap to ABC, which was then the third-ranking network, and willing to take a chance on her.

MOSLEY: Harry Reasoner had been hosting with other men and then solo before Barbara was hired. To say that he had a hard time co-hosting with a woman is really an understatement. I want to play a clip from Barbara's first day co-hosting for the "ABC Evening News" when they were together in 1976. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC EVENING NEWS")

REASONER: I had a little trouble in thinking of what to say to welcome you, not to sound sexist as in that you brighten up the place or patronizing as in that wasn't a bad interview or sycophantic and as, how in the world do you do it? The decision was to welcome you as I would any respected and competent colleague of any sex by noting that I've kept time on your stories and mine tonight. You owe me 4 minutes.

MOSLEY: That was Harry Reasoner introducing Barbara Walters on the "ABC Evening News" on October 4, 1976. Susan, we heard a little laugh from Barbara at the end after he introduced her, and she goes on rather smoothly to say hello to the audience and then report the news. But Harry's welcome to her was a signal of his unhappiness about this whole arrangement. How bad did it get?

PAGE: Man, you know, you heard her laugh kind of uncertainly there?

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PAGE: You didn't hear him laugh 'cause he was not kidding. He did keep time. His people kept time on how much - how many words she spoke on the air compared to his. He created what today we would call a hostile workplace. In fact, he was so openly contemptuous of her on the air that the director stopped doing two-shots - that is a shot where you could see Harry Reasoner watching Barbara Walters speak - because he was always scowling. It was so bad that they got many letters from mostly women viewers complaining about how she was being treated.

And ABC worked up a form letter that said, please give the show a chance, basically. I mean, it was really an untenable situation and one that took a while to unravel. And it was one that unnerved Barbara Walters. It was the one time in her career when she thought perhaps she had made an error so great that she would not recover. She said that she felt not only like she was drowning, but that there were people trying to hold her head under the water.

MOSLEY: Wow. I mean, she received these letters from women because they could see the situation. They had experienced things like that themselves. But overall, how did the audience receive her?

PAGE: Well, the ratings weren't great. And that was the fundamental problem with it. The ratings were great the first night as people tuned in to take a look. But they didn't hold the viewers. And this was - you know, television is a game of the metrics. And the inability to challenge the other two networks' evening newscast was a pretty serious one.

Roone Arledge, who was hired after Barbara to take over the ABC News division, knew something had to change. And he sided with Barbara and against Harry. He sent Harry - Harry went back to CBS and Roone managed to gracefully move Barbara back into the role that she did so well and that was to do the big interview.

MOSLEY: How did an interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro shift things for her when she moved into doing those longer-form interviews?

PAGE: So, this was in 1977. She was still officially the anchor, but things were not going well. And she landed this interview with Fidel Castro, who had been interviewed only infrequently by Western journalists. And she wasn't just interviewed. She got in a boat and crossed the Bay of Pigs with him. And they - he drove his Jeep across the mountains with her sitting next to him, holding aloft his gun...

MOSLEY: It was dramatic.

PAGE: ...When they went through streams.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

PAGE: It was a great interview, a very tough interview. She asked him about freedom of the press, which didn't exist in Cuba. She pressed him on whether he was married. This was a question that he had refused to answer. And he - she pressed him so hard he finally gave up and answered it and said, formally, no. It was a great interview, and it was a comeback interview for her. It both showed what she could do in an interview, and it made her feel more confident again.

MOSLEY: You write about how she had a fascination with powerful men, both as interview subjects and in her personal life, which we'll get to a little bit later. I want to play a clip that really shows her signature interview style. In this clip, I'm about to play from 1980, Barbara is interviewing former President Richard Nixon. And in this interview, Walters is talking with Nixon about the discovery during the Watergate investigation of the 18 1/2-minute gap in the taping system of his phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTERS: In just the few seconds we have left now - and there's almost just time for yes or no - are you sorry you didn't burn the tapes?

RICHARD NIXON: You know, interestingly enough, everybody in Europe that I talked to said, why didn't you burn the tapes? And the answer is, I probably should have. But mainly, I shouldn't have even installed them because Johnson - system was there. I had it taken out, and I shouldn't have ever put them in in the first place.

WALTERS: But if you had it to do all over again, you'd burn them.

NIXON: Yes, I think so, because they were private conversations subject to misinterpretation, as we have all seen.

MOSLEY: That was Barbara Walters interviewing President Richard Nixon in 1980. Susan, I wanted to play that clip because as we heard, that big climactic question about the tapes - that was her last question. It feels fluid and maybe unscripted, but we learned from your book that her style was very calculated. How would she prepare and set up these climactic moments?

PAGE: Tonya, I just love the clip that you played because you have the former president of the United States acknowledging that if he had to do it over again, he would burn the tapes.

MOSLEY: Burn the tapes.

PAGE: It's an extraordinary admission. And that was in a particularly difficult interview because the only way the Nixon people agreed that she could do it was to do it live. She had to be incredibly alert about controlling the interview so that she would have time to ask that question. And the other thing that we should know about that question is she always wanted to ask the question that everybody wanted to hear the answer to. That was one of the great gifts, and she figured out that by preparing for hours and hours and writing down proposed questions on small, 3-by-5 cards, shuffling them and revising them and finally having them typed on 5-by-7 cards - now, she would let an interview go where it went. She didn't always follow the cards, but she always had a plan in mind.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is journalist and author Susan Page. She's written a new biography on the life and career of the late television journalist and talk show host Barbara Walters, titled "The Rulebreaker." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD & BILL EVANS' "CATCH A RIDE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today, we're talking to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today and author of "The Rulebreaker: The Life And Times Of Barbara Walters." Walters died in 2022 at the age of 93. Page has also written two other biographies, including "Matriarch: Barbara Bush And The Making Of An American Dynasty" and "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi And The Lessons Of Power."

Susan, with so much material to go on, to look through as you were writing this biography, which took you about three years to write, what were some of the most difficult things to uncover about Barbara's life?

PAGE: You know, understanding the source of her drive. There was a moment that ignited the drive in Barbara Walters, and that was when her mother called her and told her that her father had attempted suicide. Her mother didn't call an ambulance. Her mother called Barbara. She rushed over - they were all in New York. She rushed over to their hotel. She called the ambulance. She rode in the ambulance with her father to the hospital.

And she realized, almost in an instant, that while she had had a - you know, she was going through her first divorce, she didn't really have a career - that, as of that moment, she was going to be responsible for supporting her father, who had just tried to commit suicide, her mother, who was perpetually unhappy, and her special-needs sister, and that that was going to require her to get serious, to make some money and to sustain that. She always had the sense that it could all disappear...

MOSLEY: In an instant.

PAGE: ...In an instant.

MOSLEY: Yeah. To understand that moment with her father and his attempted suicide, we need to go back. We need to understand who he was, because, you write, understanding Barbara also means understanding her father and their relationship. Who was Lou Walters?

PAGE: Lou Walters was one of the grand impresarios of American history. He had started booking vaudeville acts. Then he founded night clubs, including the Latin Quarter. He was a central part of the entertainment framework in New York and also in Boston and Miami and later in Las Vegas. And he was a guy who would make a million dollars and then gamble it away on gin rummy games. He would be enormously successful, and then his night club would go bankrupt. And so this fueled that sort of - you know, that's not a great way to raise children, right? It fueled a sense of insecurity in Barbara that she felt her whole life.

MOSLEY: Barbara spent most of her childhood in the Boston area. How much was she involved in her dad's work growing up? What was she exposed to? What types of things would she help him with?

PAGE: Well, her mom would take Barbara and her sister, Jackie, to the night club at night, especially on the weekends, and they would - Barbara would go up into the place where the spotlights were to watch what was going on onstage, and she would spend time backstage with these entertainers. And I - and it's one of the things that made her pretty fearless about interviewing people. She did not hold celebrities in the kind of awe that a lot of interviewers might because she had seen them not only when they were performing onstage. She had seen them when they were crying backstage or when they were encountering all the human problems that people have.

MOSLEY: Did she ever talk about a specific time or incident or person that she actually got to see those two sides of the person in?

PAGE: She would tell the jokes that Milton Berle had told, and she would talk about sitting on his lap backstage. And, you know, she was moving in a world that included entertainers and also included people connected with the mob, some kind of unsavory figures. One of her best friends in the fifth grade was a man known as the king of the bootleggers, who had gotten out of jail, loved the Latin Quarter, would come over and take her to his racetrack in the afternoons and go place bets for her, which she said she always won.

MOSLEY: That sounds kind of inappropriate today.

PAGE: It sounds totally inappropriate today, and yet it was part of the world in which she lived. It was one reason she wasn't put off by men with dark sides - by people like Roy Cohn, for instance, or this - or the king of the bootleggers.

MOSLEY: You mention Roy Cohn. He was a very powerful man. He was the famed lawyer who came to prominence for his role as Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel during the McCarthy hearings back in the 1950s. They were friends. They had a long friendship. How did that experience with her father actually show up in her work? How did that prime her for navigating this world of sometimes unsavory characters, really for the benefit of the interview?

PAGE: She didn't just forgive unsavory characters. She was drawn to them. She thought they were interesting. Somebody like Roy Cohn - they met when she was 25 years old. Her father introduced them. They became friends for longer than any of her three marriages lasted. He repeatedly proposed to her, and there were times when she seriously considered that proposal, although, as we now know, he was a closeted gay man, and Roy Cohn also delivered for her. There was one point when her father - a warrant for his arrest had been issued in New York in connection with his failure to pay taxes, and she called her friend Roy Cohn, and within a week, it had - that problem had disappeared. And she took his advice very seriously. When he told her that her affair with Edward Brooke, the senator from Massachusetts, would end her career if she continued it, because he was married and because he was a Black man, she cut it off. So she listened to him, and when he was at the end of his career and facing disbarment procedures in New York, she was one of the few friends from his past willing to go and testify on Roy Cohn's behalf.

MOSLEY: You mentioned Barbara had a special needs sister, Jackie. They had a close bond. Barbara felt immense pride. But you also write that she also felt shame and guilt over her relationship and feelings she had toward her sister. First off, how far apart were they in age, and what was their relationship like?

PAGE: Barbara Walters' sister, Jackie, was described as developmentally disabled. And she looked beautiful. She looked very much like her mother, and she would dress up and go to the Latin Quarter with her parents and her sister, but she had a terrible stutter that made her almost impossible to understand, and she would - she was easily frustrated, so she could go into tantrums. She required constant supervision. And they were a couple years apart in age, and she said that she loved her sister and hated her sister, that she loved her sister because she was her sister, but that she hated her because she felt that her sister - Jackie's limitations limited her own world. It meant she was reluctant to have kids come over to play with her. And it meant that she didn't have birthday parties, and she says that was why she didn't join the Girl Scouts.

And her mother, who was sometimes overwhelmed by caring for this special-needs daughter, would encourage Barbara when she got asked out on dates to take her sister with her. And, you know, it was perhaps a kind impulse on her mother's part, but, you know, it's hard enough to be growing up, to be a teenage girl, when you maybe don't have this great, full sense of your own self. To have this additional thing put on, it was just more than Barbara could sometimes handle.

MOSLEY: There is a story that you write in the book about attention-seeking Barbara. During her childhood, growing up with a special needs sister often meant that maybe the attention wasn't always placed on her. There's a story you tell about faking stomachaches, and this fib went pretty far.

PAGE: Faking stomachaches, to the bafflement of the doctors her mother took her to, since there was not actually anything wrong. And Barbara Walters eventually, as a little girl, had her appendix removed because that was the only thing the doctors could think of to do, and, you know, it's almost a funny story now, but you think about - how desperate must a little girl feel to undergo what was then pretty major surgery, a week in the hospital, just to get her mother's attention?

MOSLEY: Our guest today is journalist and author Susan Page. We're talking about her new book "The Rulebreaker: The Life And Times Of Barbara Walters." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "ORSON'S THEME")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, my guest today is award-winning journalist and author Susan Page. She's written a new biography on the life and career of famed talk show host and journalist Barbara Walters, who died in 2022. In addition to "The Rulebreaker," Page has also written two other biographies about powerful women - "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush And The Making Of An American Dynasty" and her 2021 biography of Nancy Pelosi titled "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi And The Lessons Of Power."

Page is the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, where she writes about the White House and national politics. Page has covered seven White House administrations and is currently covering her 12th presidential election. She's interviewed the past 10 presidents and reported from six continents and dozens of foreign countries.

Barbara considered Donald Trump a friend. How would you describe their friendship?

PAGE: They were transactional friends. She went to his wedding. He went to the celebration of her third marriage. He was often a guest on "The View" when "The View" started in 1997. He was then a real estate developer in New York, and if they were short a guest, they could call up Donald Trump, and he would come over and be on the show, even do a cameo skit, the - kind of an amusing thing. And, in fact, one ABC executive told me there was - when Donald Trump got involved in politics, that there was a feeling - some discomfort that she had given him a platform and a legitimacy that maybe he wouldn't have had otherwise.

MOSLEY: I actually want to play a clip of one of the interviews. This is the one from 1990 about the publishing of his book, "Surviving At The Top," which came after "The Art Of The Deal." This was Barbara's second interview with Trump. And in this clip, Trump is stating something that he's been saying for the last 35 years. He talks about this all the time, and this is his idea that the press can't be trusted. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

DONALD TRUMP: And I hope the general public understands how inherently dishonest the press in this country is.

WALTERS: As a member of the press, let me try to clear up some of the things which you say are untrue. You write in your book, (reading) my bankers and I worked out a terrific deal that allows me to come out stronger than ever. I see the deal as a great victory, and eventually, the rest of the world will, too.

Being on the verge of bankruptcy, being bailed out by the banks...

TRUMP: Well, you don't have to say...

(CROSSTALK)

WALTERS: ...Skating on thin ice...

TRUMP: Yeah.

WALTERS: ...And almost drowning - that is a - that's a businessman to be admired?

TRUMP: You say on the verge of bankruptcy, Barbara, and you talk on the verge, and you listen to what people are saying.

WALTERS: I talked to your bankers.

TRUMP: Well, that's fine. And what do they say?

MOSLEY: That was Barbara Walters in 1990 on "20/20," interviewing then-real-estate businessman Donald Trump about his claims around his finances and his business dealings and personal life and divorce troubles. Susan, you mentioned that this was a hard-hitting interview, but it came after a pretty softball interview that Barbara was criticized initially for, right?

PAGE: Yeah. Yeah. She had done this soft interview that took seriously his presidential ambitions at the time. And she followed up with this very tough one. And it shows that, you know, you can criticize Barbara for being kind of cozy with some of the sources, some of the people she interviewed. But you cannot criticize the quality of the questions she was asking in that interview that you just played the clip of. She was asking the toughest possible questions. And she was following them up with questions and follow-ups that reflected the depth of the research that she did before she did an interview. That's a master-class interview.

MOSLEY: Later in life, with the creation of the show "The View," she cultivated this image of allyship with fellow women journalists. But early on, during the days that we're talking about when she was on "The Today Show," you describe a different Barbara when it came to her relationships with her female peers who were also in the industry. How did she see them? Like, it seemed to be collegial, but also competition.

PAGE: You know, it was just such a different time, Tonya. And it was hard for one woman to get a job on the air. It was going to be impossible, they all assumed, to have two people, two women do that, which meant it - made it a zero-sum game. So if Nancy Dickerson got a key interview, a key job on the air, Barbara Walters was not going to get it. And that fueled a sense of competition among many of the women who were trying to break into this new industry. There was not - you know, now we have a sense of sisterhood, of supporting one another when we can and of being supported. And that was just not the case in the world that Barbara Walters was operating in.

MOSLEY: One of her longtime rivals was Diane Sawyer. How would you describe that rivalry?

PAGE: It was fierce. When Roone Arledge hired Diane Sawyer to work at ABC in 1989, Barbara Walters saw it as a betrayal. She - it meant that there was this other high-profile, prominent woman journalist who would be going after the same interviews that she was going after. And she set out to beat Diane Sawyer. She set out to take interviews from Diane Sawyer.

MOSLEY: You give examples of actual interviews that - I don't even know if you would call it fight over, because it almost, like, big-footed over.

PAGE: Everybody was trying to get an interview with President Clinton, who was running for reelection. And ABC had the inside track on getting the interview. And Roone Arledge decided that it was Diane's turn to get the presidential interview. And so Barbara just ignored the rule that Roone Arledge had set, that this was Diane's turn. She went around, and she met with Mike McCurry, the press secretary, and made the case not only why she should get the interview, but why Diane should not.

And then when the White House finally called the Washington bureau chief of ABC to say, good news, you've got the interview, but bad news, it's going to Barbara - the Washington bureau chief, Robin Sproul, called Roone Arledge and said, so this is the situation. We've got the interview, but they've chosen Barbara.

And Roone Arledge was enraged, because this was just one more case of Barbara defying his rules and also trying to steal something from Diane Sawyer. And he told her to turn down the interview, to call the White House and say, no, thanks. We won't interview the president if it can't go to Diane. Well, the Washington bureau chief sat and thought about that for a while. And while she was still trying to figure out how to deliver this message to the White House...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

PAGE: ...Roone Arledge's assistant called her back and said, you know that thing that Roone asked you to do? Have you done that yet? And she said, no. And she said, OK. Don't do it. We're fine.

MOSLEY: Wow.

PAGE: And they did the interview.

MOSLEY: Susan, as confident as she was, you write that she was also human. And the way she spoke, the way she pronounced her Rs became her signature, but also something that she was very sensitive about. I want to play a clip from "Saturday Night Live" of the late Gilda Radner portraying Barbara Walters in a skit. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

GILDA RADNER: (As Barbara Walters) Hello. I'm Baba Wawa (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

RADNER: (As Barbara Walters) And welcome to "Baba Wawa At Warge (ph)."

(LAUGHTER)

RADNER: (As Barbara Walters) We are indeed wucky (ph) to have as our guest tonight the gweatly wespected (ph) and world-wenowned (ph) cweator (ph) of shuttle diplomacy - sometimes controversial, but to my mind, a weally (ph) wegular (ph) guy...

(LAUGHTER)

RADNER: ... (As Barbara Walters) Secretawy (ph) of State, Dr. Henwy (ph) Kissinger.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: That was the late comedian Gilda Radner portraying Barbara Walters in a skit on "Saturday Night Live." Many comedians would actually go on to take on a version of the skit. And Barbara, Susan, seemed good-natured about it, but you write that she was actually very self-conscious about this and hurt.

PAGE: She was wounded when she heard this. I mean, for one thing, even though there was this exaggerated lisp that Gilda Radner used, nobody had any doubt who she was parroting. And Barbara Walters had this speech anomaly. She called it a bastard Boston accent. Other people called it a lisp. Whatever it was, she had tried. She'd gone to voice coaches early in her career to try to fix it, and it failed. So her feelings were hurt when this skit was done on Saturday Night Live. Now, it also made her famous. She came to terms with it, but I think she always found it kind of hurtful. Now, I'll tell you one thing she did, though. When Gilda Radner died too young, I think of cancer...

MOSLEY: Yeah, cancer.

PAGE: ...Barbara Walters wrote a sympathy note to her widower, Gene Wilder, expressing sympathy on her death, and signed it, Baba Wawa.

MOSLEY: Oh, wow.

PAGE: Now, late in life, she did an interview with Bette Davis that was important to her. And in this interview - Bette Davis, of course, was famous for the phrase, what a dump. This was something she had said in an early movie. And Bette Davis told her, the thing you really need to have is something that people caricature about you - that that means you've really arrived and that means they'll remember you, and so that's a really good thing that people call you Baba Wawa.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest today is journalist and author Susan Page. She's written a new biography on the life and career of the late television journalist and talk show host Barbara Walters, titled "The Rulebreaker." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, we're talking to Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief of USA Today and author of "The Rulebreaker: The Life And Times Of Barbara Walters." Walters died in 2022 at the age of 93. Page has also written two other biographies, including "Matriarch: Barbara Bush And The Making Of An American Dynasty" and "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi And The Lessons Of Power."

I want to talk a little bit more about Barbara's style. Let's talk a bit about one of her most-watched interviews that brought up this controversial idea of checkbook journalism. So in 1999, Barbara interviewed Monica Lewinsky, the young woman who had an affair with President Bill Clinton while he was in office. Let's play a clip from that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

WALTERS: Monica, are you still in love with Bill Clinton?

MONICA LEWINSKY: No.

WALTERS: Sure?

LEWINSKY: Mmm hmm.

WALTERS: Over?

LEWINSKY: Sometimes I have warm feelings. Sometimes I'm proud of him still. And sometimes I hate his guts, and he makes me sick.

WALTERS: What will you tell your children when you have them?

LEWINSKY: Mommy made a big mistake.

MOSLEY: That was Monica Lewinsky talking to Barbara Walters, who was interviewing her in 1999 for 20/20. It was Walters' biggest, most-watched interview ever. Susan, this was very fascinating, of how it all came together, how everyone - national and international press, Oprah, everyone - was vying for Monica. But what I found most fascinating were the questions. Both of those questions - how will you explain to your children that you had an affair with the president of the United States, and do you still love him - you write that both Monica and Barbara practiced those questions for months before the interview. Can you explain that?

PAGE: That's right, practiced them separately.

MOSLEY: Yes.

PAGE: Barbara Walters was working on asking the questions. But at the same time, Monica Lewinsky was working with her team on how to answer the questions. And the question that gave the Monica Lewinsky team the most trouble was that question, do you still love him? Because at the beginning of their practice sessions, she said yes, and then she said she couldn't say no because she did love him, and she loved him some of the time. And they warned that that was not an effective answer to have.

So you hear her in this interview giving the answer they had worked out, which was no. But then, in her follow-up, she does acknowledge that sometimes she does still have warm feelings for him. On the Barbara Walters side, they worked a long time on what the closing question would be because that's a powerful position in an interview like this - that last question - and they settled on, what will you tell your children?

MOSLEY: Hmm. How did Monica Lewinsky feel about that interview afterward?

PAGE: She appreciated the chance to do the interview, and she thought Barbara Walters did what Barbara Walters promised to do, which was to present her not as some kind of freak or as a slut or somebody - temptress of President Clinton, but rather as a young woman who made some questionable decisions but still had this very human side. Monica Lewinsky, I think, was happy with how the interview turned out, although, I think, you know, she has moved on in her life in such an interesting way that, when I reached out and wanted to interview her about it, she declined.

MOSLEY: We started to see less and less of Barbara around 2016. What were her last years like?

PAGE: They were pretty lonely and isolated. She fell on the steps inside the British embassy in January of 2013, and the injuries that she suffered were more serious than were acknowledged at the time, and she developed what is sometimes called water on the brain as a result of the fall that she took. This is associated - a condition associated with cognitive decline and problems with mobility, and she suffered both of those, and as she declined, she began to push away even her closest friends.

MOSLEY: She worked for so long. And I know that fall was so - such a pivotal point for her. Was this what made her stop working, or something else?

PAGE: Well, of course, to be fair, she kept working longer than anybody else had ever done, right? She worked into her 80s - anybody on TV. I mean, once she was in her 70s, she was working at a time most women had been involuntarily retired. So she worked as long as they would keep her on the air. But as she started to sometimes miss a step, there was concern that she would embarrass herself or undermine some of the professional work she'd done. But, you know, even on that last...

MOSLEY: There was an intervention with those behind the scenes who really cared about her.

PAGE: That's right. The people at ABC convinced her it was time to retire. And then CNN came in with a secret offer to put her on the air at CNN, which she was considering when her friends came back and said, no, it's time. It's time to put it up. But, you know, in this - there was a grand finale on "The View" where two dozen women prominent in journalism came and paid tribute to her on her last big show on "The View." And when she was backstage afterwards, one of them came up and said, you know, what do you want? Meaning, what do you want to do in your retirement? And Barbara said, I want more time, meaning, I want more time on the air.

MOSLEY: You've spent a lot of time inside of Barbara's life and her world. How are you reflecting on her legacy?

PAGE: I feel like I owe something to Barbara Walters. You know, it never occurred to me when I was looking at a career in journalism that I couldn't do big interviews with important people because Barbara Walters did. And it never occurred to me that I should be paid less than a man because Barbara Walters wasn't. And even though I was in - I've been in print journalism, not TV journalism, I benefited from the battles that Barbara Walters fought. And what's, I think, important to recognize is not only what she contributed in that way, but also in the price she paid.

MOSLEY: Susan Page, thank you so much for this conversation and this book.

PAGE: Tonya, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

MOSLEY: Susan Page's new biography on the life and career of late television journalist and talk show host Barbara Walters, titled "The Rulebreaker."

Coming up, Ken Tucker has the word on the new Taylor Swift album, The Tortured Poets Department. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY")

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.