Source: USA TODAY
This is about Barbara Walters — who, after many decades of dominating television news, is retiring at 83 — and power. Not just about her power, which is considerable, but about the galaxy of powerful people who have been her friends and subjects.
Actually, this is about the dinner parties of powerful people, where Walters most conveniently and dazzlingly conducted her relationships with celebrities, politicians and plutocrats, seducing them and being seduced by them — or, really, where each held the other in a trance of mutual self-congratulation and useful-ness.
In today’s climate of suspicion and social polarization, it’s hard to write about the private gatherings of the über-privileged and influential without implying conspiracies and cronyism. Certainly, if the full nature of Walters’ remarkable social schedule was exposed, it would seem absolutely to prove that the media was in the pocket of the super-rich and powerful.
But now, we’re in a different world. First, I’m not sure there are that many dinner parties anymore. When the powerful do have an intimate soirée, they are understandably reluctant to invite journalists. Frankly, there are not that many journalists who have the bearing to pull off a luxe event.
The journalist as society fixture and social hobnobber doesn’t really exist anymore — who has such an expense account?
Likewise, the journalist who has direct access to the powerful, rather than having his or her access filtered through handlers and communications professionals, is also largely a thing of the past.
However, there was once an unfiltered inner circle that invited and enveloped journalists. Walters aspired to it and reached it.
But instead of merely becoming part of it, she used it.
I have had the odd-man-out experience of attending a few such gatherings also attended by Walters. I would have said these were forced and uncomfortable occasions except for the familiar and strategic way that Walters moved among the actors, billionaires, moguls, Kissingers (once practically carrying a lost-looking Kissinger across the room to the seat next to her), royalty and the wives of various foreign despots.
I have never quite seen anything like it — the way fierce and desperate egos seemed to relax and coalesce around her; the obvious pleasure she took in the company of the celebrated, and the sense that her pleasure could shift away at any moment. I would give a lot to see it again.
At many points in her career, Walters has been the subject of ridicule. The more successful she became, it seemed, the more ridicule. Her co-host on the ABC Evening News, Harry Reasoner, a man of the old school of correct, unemotive behavior, could famously not contain his contempt for her. She became the Baba Wawa of Saturday Night Live.
For many years, she was the sine qua non of media criticism. The rap against her, emerging once again in the coverage of her retirement announcement, is that she was principally an entertainer rather than a journalist; she was not serious.
This seems to me a vast misunderstanding of what she was about.
She understood the powerful. Most journalists of the old school accepted power as a given, a fixed and fairly one-dimensional attribute. She, on the other hand, got it that the powerful were a distinct, compelling, needy and often broken breed.
She understood the voyeuristic value of star power — exposing it to the rest of the world. She used her intimate access to reveal quite a vast range of the foibles and personalities of this new elite — and to promote them, as well. She rose as they rose.
She conflated all power. The politician, the billionaire, the celebrity, were all similar entities in her telling. Largely following her lead, the media began to see them all as one.
She revolutionized how we see the public world. That world, or the media’s view of it, became a reflection of the tics, eccentricities, desires and self-promotion of the famous.
For more than 50 years, she’s hardly had an evening without an event — often two or three. Even in her 9th decade, you could set your clock by when she leaves her Fifth Avenue apartment for the evening’s first engagement.
No doubt, she sacrificed much of her private life. But along the way, in part merely by showing up, then by becoming the Nijinsky of showing up — by becoming the main draw herself — she came to know everybody. Everybody. A dinner party of anyone who was anybody would be incomplete without her in the middle of it, as the glue.
I don’t think you can put too fine a point on this: There came a moment when there was nobody of importance or influence she did not know, or could not get to know, and who would not do her bidding — and share some of their secrets.
This is journalism the likes of which, for better or worse, we won’t see again.