How an interview with Barbara Walters helped Americans understand their presidents


For half a century interviewed American presidents, Barbara Walters interviewed the world’s most powerful men about their regrets, their mothers, their marriages – even how they sleep with their wives.

“Double bed,” Jimmy Carter told a journalist in 1976. – Always was”.

Perhaps more than anyone else in the recent history of the American presidency, Walters helped uncover the men in the White House as human beings, using remarkably intimate questions during the heyday of television to help Americans understand their leaders on a human scale. pioneering television journalist died Friday at the age of 93.

Walters made news and held presidents to account, although she was sometimes criticized for being too soft. She moderated presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Carter, Carter and Ronald Reagan. In moments of national crisis, including during wars and recessions, she asked important questions that shed light on policies and approaches.

Jimmy Carter during an interview with Barbara Walters around December 14, 1978.

However, it was her persistence in searching for the President’s character and mining everything she found there that helped usher in a new era of personality in politics, lifting the veil over the inner lives of the men who lead the free world.

“Which do you mean? Do you have a cold, hard, mean streak? Are those blue eyes going cold?” she asked Carter before inquiring about his bedroom decor.

“People say you look more like your mother,” she asked Reagan during a 1981 visit to his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. “Do you think it is?”

Do you discuss these things with your father? she asked George W. Bush during a conversation about global threats in the first months after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

She has interviewed every sitting president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. Donald Trump and Joe Biden years before they entered the Oval Office.

“Barbara Walters has always been an example of courage and integrity in breaking down barriers and moving our nation forward. Her legacy will serve as an inspiration to all journalists,” Biden said. said Saturday on twitter.

Many of Walters’ presidential interviews included their wives, giving her the opportunity to question the first couple about their ambitions, tastes, and marriage.

“You wanted him to give up politics. And you talked about it openly. It has affected your marriage. You wanted him to leave, she asked Michelle Obama in 2010. – Is there a moment when you say to yourself: one term is enough?

Instead of keeping her presidential subjects at arm’s length, she visited their ranches, climbed into their jeeps, and sat next to their Christmas trees, bringing with her prepared pages of questions.

She interviewed her first sitting president in 1971, settling into the Blue Room with a nervous Nixon, who asked if her knee-high boots were comfortable.

After discussing Vietnam, Walters was looking for something more: “An opportunity to learn more about this secretive and withdrawn man,” she recalled in her memoirs.

“There was a lot of talk about your image and how the American public thinks you are a rather boring and inhuman man,” she asked. “Are you worried about this image, Mr. White? The president?”

Thus began the decades-long process of clarifying the dispositions of successive commanders-in-chief.

“I am fascinated by the personality of our leaders. Who are they? What do they believe?” she said during an episode of Oprah’s Masterclass in 2014.

She joined the traveling press on Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972, one of the few women among a group of men to walk off a Pan Am charter plane wearing a long sheepskin coat with a wrist camera.

Her most famous interview with Nixon took place after he resigned over the Watergate scandal, a few years later on a live special he asked him the question: “Do you regret not burning the tapes?”

“Maybe I should have done it,” he admitted.

Walters seemed fascinated by the President’s regrets. She asked George W. Bush, whom she called the president she knew best “on a personal level,” whether he regretted his “Read my lips: no new taxes” campaign slogan after he was effectively forced to raise taxes.

“It caused credibility issues at the time,” Bush admitted. “I would rate it as a non-howling success.”

In 2005, she asked her son George W. Bush if he regretted the US invasion of Iraq.

“But was it worth it if there were no weapons of mass destruction? Now that we know it was wrong. Was it worth it?” she asked. (Absolutely, Bush said.)

Walters also had her regrets. She “didn’t muster up the courage” to ask Ford about the fall from the steps of Air Force One. She cringed as she watched herself, seriously asking Carter to be “kind to us” at the end of the interview. And she said she made a mistake by not airing an interview with Betty Ford when the first lady showed up drunk.

“If I were interviewing the first lady today and she was obviously drunk, I would definitely broadcast it,” she wrote.

Sometimes her questions seemed to foretell future events. In 1996, she asked Bill Clinton how important it was for a president to “be a role model.” A few years later, she interviewed Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern who became a household name in the 1990s when her affair with then-President Clinton became public, in front of a television audience of 70 million.

“I never felt like I really got through to Clinton,” Walters wrote in her book. “I never experienced his known sex appeal. He never shone with me.”

Reagan was a different story. Like many Americans, Walters seemed enamored with his movie star charisma, although in an interview she expressed some skepticism that his ability to make connections was genuine.

“You think it’s all acting experience?” she asked.

In the decades since she began interviewing presidents, personal questions have become the norm for politicians and their spouses. Voters are accustomed to having an idea of ​​the personalities of their leaders, or at least of those they cultivate for public consumption.

“I used to be criticized for questions like this: it doesn’t matter what we care about what he or she thinks? Most importantly, this is only a difficult news issue. I don’t think so,” Walters said after her retirement. “I think it’s important to know what’s important to them. You have to find out, if you can, what makes someone tick.”

This story has been updated with additional details.