- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
For those born after a certain year, Barbara Walters may be best known for her banter with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on her talk show The View — or her interviews with the likes of Monica Lewinsky and Michael Jackson. But with the 83-year-old Walters officially retiring next summer, we wanted to remind the whippersnappers among us to show some respect: Before The View, Walters snagged interviews with some of the most defining world leaders of the late 20th century.
Walters, after all, rode in a jeep with Fidel Castro, picking his gun up off the floor when they forded streams so it wouldn’t get wet. She sparked a fight between the shah of Iran and his wife over whether women were capable of ruling countries. She asked Jiang Zemin whether he knew what happened to Tiananmen Square’s tank man. More recently, she spoke with Bashar al-Assad about the Syrian military’s brutal campaign against its own citizens.
Below is a selection of some of Walters’s most noteworthy sit-downs with world leaders in the more than 50 years she’s been on television.
Walters first met Fidel Castro in 1975, but had to wait two more years before she was able to nab the first American TV interview with the Cuban president. During her time on the island, Castro brought her to the mountains where he had been a guerrilla fighter (Walters and her production team spent the night at his camp). Her interview with him lasted five hours and, "in an unprecedented action," almost all of it aired on Cuban television. "The only part he deleted," Walters wrote, "was my question about whether he is married and his evasive answer. ‘Formally, no!’"
Shah Reza Pahlavi
In the interview below, Walters asks the shah about how much support the CIA was providing to the Iranian regime. "Does the CIA play any part in this country today?" she asks. "Sure — gathering information. We don’t mind," the ruler replies.
The interview also included questions about the shah’s views on women. "So you don’t feel that women are in that sense equal, if they have the same intelligence or ability," Walters inquires. "Not so far," the shah replies. "Maybe you will become in the future. We can always have some exceptions."
"I give the shah credit," Walters later said. "He was certainly not politically correct … he said what was on his mind."
Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin
It was an historic milestone in November 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel since its founding. While he was there, Walters got him to agree to a joint interview with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Begin told Walters that he convinced Sadat to do the interview together "for the sake of our friend Barbara"). In the video below, Walters describes how she arranged the interview (footage of the interview itself wasn’t available).
Walters later spoke of her admiration for Sadat. "He had such courage," she said.
During his interview with Walters, the new Chinese premier displayed what the New York Times called "a stunning cynicism" about the bloody crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square, which had taken place just a year earlier. The army behaved "with great tolerance and restraint," Jiang told Walters. "I don’t think any government in the world will permit the occurrence of such an incident as happened in Beijing."
"It takes a lot to stop Barbara Walters in her tracks," New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield wrote. But even she was stunned when Jiang called the incident "much ado about nothing."
"We feel it’s a great deal to do about something," she eventually retorted.
As late as 2011, Walters was still going after big names, scoring an exclusive interview with President Bashar al-Assad after the protests in Syria had begun (Walters later took some heat for assisting an aide of Assad’s who she admitted helped her get the interview).
"Do you feel guilty?" Walters asks Assad toward the end of the conversation. "I did my best to protect the people, so I cannot feel guilty, when you do your best," he responds. "You feel sorry for the lives that has been lost, but you don’t feel guilty — when you don’t kill people."