Friday, March 5, 2010

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein on “Pointedly Vulgar” Barbara Walters)


“No one listens to Barbara Walters to learn about the delicate balance of power in Europe, the fate of the economy, or the rise of Islamofascism. They watch her in the hope that she will ask the not-necessarily-outrageous, but the pointedly vulgar, question. And she does not let her viewers down.”—Joseph Epstein, “The Yenta: Barbara Walters Asks the Questions Celebrities Want to Answer,” The Weekly Standard, November 30, 2009 (article available only to subscribers)
This coming Sunday, Barbara Walters says, will be the last of her Oscar-night interviews with celebrities. I, for one, am wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that she means to fulfill her promise, not just tease us.

Ms. Walters told The New York Times’ Bill Carter in an interview that she came to her decision after viewing the current celebrity-studded environment. “What could I do that was going to be special?” she asked.

Well, that shouldn’t have stopped you, Ms. Walters. What have you ever done that has been special?

True, television is a banal medium, and Walters has not markedly lowered the bar, as, for instance, Rupert Murdoch and Howard Stern, in their different ways, have done. But neither did she raise it, nor even, like Oprah with her book club, attempt to do so.

Ms. Walters regards herself as a trailblazer, someone who has proven to today’s feminist sisterhood that tenacity will get you “The Get”—the interview with the current celebrity-flavor-of-the-moment (see Monica Lewinsky, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Sanford). But, as the title of her recent memoir, Audition, demonstrates, that tenacity might owe as much to raging insecurity, or even the need to show up the sexist naysayers who dogged her career from the start, as to the simple desire to excel.

That struggle has led, in the 11th hour of her career, to an unseemly desire to take potshots. Her Today Show co-host Frank McGee, she writes, left his wife for a young black production assistant. Not only is the assistant named, but she’s described as not “particularly pretty.” Others who come in for editorial skewering, or for retailing of gossip: Maureen O’Sullivan, John Wayne, Joan Braden, Angie Dickinson, Princess Grace of Monaco.

Read that list of names again in the above paragraph: They’re all (with one exception) dead, unable to defend themselves. Pretty unseemly stuff, if you ask me.

Ms. Walters has disclosed her own three-decade-old affair with Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, as if this will somehow immunize her from criticism. It doesn’t. These days, all that a confession to a run-of-the-mill extramarital relationship gets you is a great big yawn.

Ms. Walters seems to have forgotten that there are all kinds of other personal foibles besides illicit sex that can lower a reputation: prejudice, selfishness, general diva-dom. She’s also forgotten that if you wish the spirit of charity and forgiveness extended to yourself, it helps to extend it to others. How, for instance, has she been behind the scenes to colleagues and underlings? In the climate she has helped perpetuate, on the small screen and in her memoir, every frosty glance, every impossible demand will be remembered and regurgitated.

As for her on-air legacy: Tell me, faithful reader, are you really going to miss Babwa Wawa ritualistically wringing tears on cue from Oscar night celebs remembering deceased relatives? Are you going to miss her advising incoming President Jimmy Carter to “be gentle with us”? Are you going to miss her asking Katharine Hepburn, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

The veteran TV personality is correct: the men on the morning shows and evening news during her rise were shameless sexists. Yet, though they were pigheadedly wrongheaded, they also were essentially correct about the limits of her ability. (Has The View--which she co-created and where, of course, she still holds court--really changed TV as a medium, at least for the better?)

The nature of her achievement is summed up best by Epstein, near the end of his review of her autobiography: “Week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were foolish and tasteless enough to answer her.”