"I'm not going to cry," Walters says, from her corner office at ABC News in midtown Manhattan. She recalls watching Jay Leno's misty final appearance on "The Tonight Show" in February. "I think Jay felt that he was pushed out," Walters says. "I don't feel like I'm being pushed out. This was my decision." Walters says she settled on a timeline for her departure three years ago, as rumors about her retirement began to swirl.
Katie Couric or Brian Williams.)
As she prepares to leave, Walters admits she doesn't feel sad. "I should really be depressed, but I'm not," she says. "So maybe there's something wrong with me. What's wrong with this woman that she's not depressed about leaving television?"
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Walters has been a broadcasting fixture for so long, it's hard to remember all the glass ceilings she shattered. She was the first woman to co-host NBC's "Today," paving the way for others who used the post as a springboard. In 1976, she accepted a $1 million-a-year contract with ABC, a record at the time for a news personality. She became the first woman to co-anchor the evening news (although her shotgun marriage with Harry Reasoner was fraught with tension), and she later launched her namesake primetime specials with world leaders and celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. While still hosting weekly newsmag "20/20," she debuted "The View" in 1997, a daytime talk show that shook up the conventions of femme-focused yakkers with its blend of politics, entertainment and opinion.
This last act has given Walters a new generation of fans, stay-at-home parents and others who tune in to hear about the day's headlines in the show's dishy Hot Topics segment.
"I think there was a time when I was considered too serious and without a sense of humor, because I was always in charge, especially asking very strong men questions," Walters says. "It was considered rude or pushy." For 17 seasons, she's been able to show her tart wit on the "View," cracking jokes about sex and dating -- even planting a peck on the cheek of Vice President Joe Biden during a recent appearance. Was it the first time she's done that? "I haven't kept track of the number of times I've kissed the Vice President," Walters quips.
Walters' friends say they didn't think she'd ever retire. "I still don't believe she's going to," says Diane Sawyer, her longtime colleague at ABC. "I think we're going to be able to knock on her door and say, 'We need you,' and it will be like on one of those great Western movies, where she and I get on our horses and ride back into action." Sawyer, like Waters, acknowledges how much the news business has changed. "It's impossible to look back and remember you used to do a show called 'Primetime Live' and think, 'Dang, why did we only get a 29 share?'"
Anne Sweeney, the outgoing president of Disney/ABC Television Group, met Walters as a college page answering phones at ABC in 1978. The unwritten rule for the underlings back then was: "Never ever talk to Barbara Walters, because she was the absolute star of ABC," Sweeney recalls. "She was the first because she was bold and fearless."
Star Jones, who co-hosted "The View" from 1997 to 2006, says: "There is no woman that does what we do that won't say Barbara Walters is her idol. She took the arrows that were shot her way, and women were able to advance in that field because of Barbara." Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the "Fox and Friends" co-anchor who sat next to Walters for a decade on "The View," credits her former boss with teaching her how to be a journalist. "I attended the Barbara Walters University," Hasselbeck says. "I could not feel more prepared to interview anyone."
But Walters' persistence also makes her an unlikely candidate for retirement. "I thought Barbara was a forever person," says friend Larry King, who left his long-running gig on CNN in 2010. "I thought she and television were like ham and eggs."
When she announced her departure, Walters said she was hanging up her microphone for good. As her last day draws nearer, she's become less sure. "I don't want to say I will never come back," she says. "If the president came on, depending on the circumstances, I might come back. If Fidel Castro said I will do an interview with you, which he has not in 25 years, I would go off and do it." She says these rare assignments would be on a case-by-case basis. "I'm not going off into the sunset."
Besides, she'll remain executive producer of "The View," the show she created with longtime producing partner Bill Geddie. She co-owns the series with ABC through her Barwall Prods. banner. Over the years, the gabfest has spawned its share of imitators, including "The Talk," which launched in 2010 with Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert and a "View"-like panel of other co-hosts. Only recently has "The Talk" been nipping at the "The View's" heels with its younger demographic.
Walters says she's never seen a full episode of "The Talk," though she's friendly with Chen and her husband, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves. Her competitive streak shines through as she sizes up her rival. "We are not at all affected by 'The Talk,'" Walters says. "I don't think the success of her show diminishes us, nor do I think the success or failure of 'The View' affects them. The only thing I'll say is if you're married to the president of the network, you get more promos."