Forward Magazine speaks to ABC’s Barbara Walters

While walking into to meet her for coffee at the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, I saw young girls peeping in from a distance, trying to see if their eyesight was failing them, too shy to walk up and introduce themselves. Excited, they were speaking to each other in Arabic, saying, “It’s Barbara Walters!”

I smiled to myself, pleased that Barbara was recognized by such a young generation of Syrians, who were never officially exposed to American television. I offered to introduce them to her; they declined, and confessed that they would look bad with their poor English. These young girls had grown up, however, at a time when satellite TV and the Internet were part of day-to-day life in Syria. They instantly recognized the face of Barbara Walters, a strong-minded and determined woman who has enforced herself on the media world, with talent and character, since 1962. She is best known for morning television shows like Today, ABC’s evening news magazine 20/20, on which she worked as co-host for 25-years, and on ABC World News Tonight and on her daily program The View.

Educated in New York, and the daughter of a producer, she first made a name for herself on NBC’s The Today Show, as both writer and researcher, in 1961. One year later, she became a reporter and host, developing, writing, and editing her own reports and interviews. She then rose from peak to peak with ABC’s 20/20, covering various presidential campaigns and the infamous 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In June 2007, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2008, released her memoirs, Audition: A Memoir. She has interviewed political heavyweights who have left a hallmark on history, like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, China’s Jiang Zemin, Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King Hussein of Jordan, Indira Gandhi of India, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

She also interviewed Monica Lewinsky in 1999, in a show that attracted 74 million viewers, the highest rating of any journalist interview. Other interviews with ‘giants’ include Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn and the ‘king’ of pop, Michael Jackson. This time, the tables were turned with FW: with whom she spoke about her visit to Damascus.

Barbara, you just wrapped up a visit to Syria. Can you tell us more about it; what were the impressions you got, and what actually brought you to Damascus?

I had been to Syria several years ago, when the king of Jordan was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary. While I was there I received an invitation to meet with the First Lady of Syria. I went to Damascus; it was an un-publicized event, for two-days, with no cameras, no interviews. We had a very lovely meeting. I thought that she was charming and intelligent. When Syria’s Ambassador to New York, Bashar al-Jaafari, asked if I would like to come to Syria again; I said yes, but that that I could not come as a guest of the (Syrian) government. It was agreed and I came. It was really in a way, an unofficial visit.

ABC knew that I was coming. I was told that the President did not want to do an interview at this point. It was unofficial. I saw more of Damascus this time, and I was traveling with a friend who is a businesswoman from New York who has traveled extensively. We were impressed by what a lively city Damascus was, especially the Old City, with all the ancient and important religious sites, mosques and churches. I think that some in America think that Syria is a country with nothing but cobblestone streets and is what we sometimes think of, as a Third World country.

We were impressed by how modern the city was, with the beautiful shops, European brands, wonderful restaurants. It was a modern and seemingly up-to-date city. We also traveled to Palmyra, and having traveled and seen other ruins; found these ones marvelous. We also went to the Golan; I had seen it from the Israeli side. The man in charge of public relations showed us around Qunaytra (the main town in the Golan Heights) and although we could certainly understand the grief and the anger that the Syrians feel, we were given printed information saying that the Israelis had used the Quran as toilet paper. I think that no matter whose side you are on, this kind of extremism is offensive. Its hard to believe that Israelis or anybody would use the Bible and Quran as toilet paper. To go to that extreme and provoke that kind of anger and hysteria is not the way to move ahead for a peaceful solution.

Speaking of peace, you were the first and only journalist to interview both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after signing the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978.

I interviewed Sadat both before and after Camp David…

What remains of his legacy, at a time when peace is being discussed between Syria and Israel?

I think Anwar Sadat was a brave man; someone who risked his life and reputation because he had a vision and took charge by trying to promote ways to achieve peace. In his own way, so did Begin. I am extremely impressed with Sadat. I did many interviews with him; including his first interview with American television. I met him before and after Camp David, and also did the first joint interview between him and Begin. I also sadly reported on his funeral. I had a warm relationship with the Egyptian President and still have a personal one with Mrs. Sadat.

One of the sources I recently read said that since you grew up surrounded by celebrities and spent your life with them, being a celebrity yourself, you have never been impressed by big names around and never held anybody in awe…

That’s not true; I have never said that…

So you were impressed by somebody like Sadat?

That is correct.

And…?

I think that I would like to say something here about your President and First Lady, whom I found thoughtful and welcoming. We talked about his father and about (former US Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger’s relationship with the country. I would look forward to coming back to Syria not only because it is such a beautiful, fascinating, and historic country, but because it would also be my pleasure and honor to interview the President, and possibly the First Lady. It would be extremely important for Americans to know them better.

Forward Magazine, August 2008