Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek
What’s the difference between interviewing someone and being interviewed?
When you’re interviewing someone, you’re in control. When you’re being interviewed, you think you’re in control, but you’re not.
How do you put people at ease when you’re interviewing them?
The most important thing is to do your homework. It used to really annoy me when someone would come to interview me and say, “I’m sorry. I’ve never seen you on the air.”
When you started, you did what the press called “girlie interviews.” How did you get out of that?
When I was on the Today show, which was in the Middle Ages, they did what we would call the tea-pouring interview. But what I remember most about the Today show is that I worked for many years with Hugh Downs and Frank McGee. And Frank died. In my contract, we had written—because we never thought it would happen—that if anything happened to Frank McGee, I would automatically become co-host. I became the co-host, which has stayed the same in all the morning shows.
Frank McGee did not want you to ask the first questions on any major interview, right?
He didn’t want me to participate at all. Ordinarily, I never objected to anything. But I did to that. And the compromise was that he could ask three questions. And then after the third, I could come in. I worked very hard on that fourth question.
Did you view this as blatant sexism?
Who knew from sexism? Now if somebody says, “I like your sweater,” you can go to human resources, and the person could get fired. It was a very different time.
Were you angry?
No. I felt I had to just do my job. And I have said this to other women: “Just do your job. Get in early. Stay late, and don’t complain. Fight the big fights.”
At what point did you decide you were going to go out and get your own interviews?
If the interview was done in the studio, Frank McGee would automatically do it. But if I went out and got it, then the interview was mine. So I was considered a pushy cookie, because I would get the interview.
I’ve noticed that you ask questions that are friendly and very probing at the same time.
You can get away with it if you say, “What’s the biggest misconception about you?” That’s easier to do than saying, “Tell me why you married your sister.”
How did you get Richard Nixon to discuss his feelings?
Nixon wanted you to like him. It was almost pathetic. He would tell off-color jokes to the camera crew. He would try to be warm and friendly. He was such an uncomfortable person that he didn’t know how to do it.
You do some celebrity interviews, and you do political interviews. What do you enjoy more?
Probably the political. But people today want more of the programs with celebrities.
I remember with Donna Rice …
The boat was called the Funny Business, right?
Monkey Business. You asked her, “Did you sleep with Gary Hart?”
Yes, I did. How can you do an interview with Donna Rice, who was accused of sleeping with Gary Hart, and not say, “Did you sleep with Gary Hart?”
But did you expect her to answer that? I mean, would you answer if I said, “Did you sleep with Alan Greenspan?”
She was on a boat called the Monkey Business. I have never been on a boat with Alan Greenspan called the Monkey Business.
I’m going to ask you two very Barbara Walters questions.
Why are you preparing me in advance for it?
Maybe I shouldn’t. What do you want your legacy to be?
I have affected the way women are regarded, and that’s important to me. If I have done stories and interviews that have in the past been done by men, and I opened the door a little bit, and now it’s taken for granted, that would be a legacy I could be proud of.
And do you have regrets?
Every day. But I’m a wonderful editor. That’s what I do best. I know exactly what I want. If I have to decide whether to wear the red dress or the blue dress or what should I have said, I am constantly changing my mind.
How did I do as an interviewer?
Oh, you were terrible. It’s obvious that you’re totally drunk.