In case anyone didn’t notice that Donald Trump represents the complete celebrification of American politics and policy, Barbara Walters drove the point home Friday night in what amounted to a Trump for President campaign commercial on ABC’s 20/20.
The hour-long celebration of all things Trump—his palatial penthouse, his Slovenian-model third wife, his hard-working kids, his adorable grandchildren, his 757, his gold-leafed bathroom fixtures—was so warm, breezy and fuzzy that it almost made one forget that this is the Republican frontrunner, a man who has a good chance of winning his party’s nomination, who has called for registering American Muslims on a government database and regularly insults his adversaries for their looks and alleged stupidity.
Walters, who is 86, supposedly retired from network television in 2013, but it turns out that the widespread skepticism for her announcement on The View, the daytime chat show she created, was entirely justified.
As her friend Dan Rather, another marvel of workaholic gerontology, told me at the time: “I’m tempted to say that I really can’t imagine Barbara retiring. Her whole life has been a triumph of the will.”
That may or may not have been a deliberate reference to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstal’s propaganda classic about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg; Rather is funny that way.
But judging by Friday’s broadcast network hagiography—and not to make any invidious comparisons to you know who—Walters in her dotage seems more than willing to serve as The Donald’s Riefenstahl.
Walters, who wore white during her chats with Trump and his family, and black while teasing each segment in the studio, asked any number of hard-hitting questions of the candidate, his spouse and his progeny.
“What do you dislike most about your appearance?” (“I like my appearance,” Trump shockingly replies.)
"You’ve offended women, Latinos, veteran. You’ve been called bigoted, obnoxious,” she declares at another point, affording Trump the opportunity to show his loveable side.
“The softer side of The Donald you’ve never seen,” as Walters puts it in a voiceover, channeling professional star-worshipper Robin Leach from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Meanwhile, the 45-year-old Melania Trump, who hugs and kisses her inquisitor before taking her seat beside her billionaire spouse, gets this question: “I don’t know how to put this, but, looking the way you do, is that a liability for your husband?”
“His beautiful and graceful wife, Melania,” as Walters calls the nation’s aspiring first lady.
A goodly portion of the program is devoted to the candidate’s adult children from previous marriages—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric (kids of first wife Ivana), along with a rare appearance by Tiffany Trump (daughter of Marla Maples, Wife No. 2)—and the program ends with the possibly future president parading and smooching his camera-ready grandkids.
They are, to be honest, an attractive, articulate, industrious lot—and Trump Sr. certainly seems a devoted family man of sorts, which may get him some votes from evangelicals in the Iowa caucuses.
“Do you ever make fun of your father’s hair?” Walters asks piercingly.
“Not surprisingly,” she narrates in voiceover, “they all think their father would make the perfect president.”
In one sense, Walter’s noisy moist kiss for the frontrunner—who never was challenged to answer a serious question about policy and substance, because policy and substance, apparently, are increasingly irrelevant in the 2016 election cycle—made it difficult to hang on to one’s dinner.
But in another sense, the show was testament to the human capacity for forgiveness. Because Walters and Trump have a history.
More than eight years ago, when Rosie O’Donnell was moderating The View and mocked The Donald’s casino bankruptcies, and Trump fired back by calling the popular comedian a fat slob, an animal, a loser and other sweet nothings, Walters was awkwardly caught in the middle.
O’Donnell eventually prevailed upon her to take her side. “That poor, pathetic man,” Walters said on the air.
Trump for his part, announced that Walters’s time had come and gone.
“Barbara’s had a long career, but she’s never had anything like this,” Trump told me then, when I was writing about the unseemly dustup for New York magazine. “She was always supposed to be above the fray. This affair has been traumatic for Barbara because it just looks like it has passed her by. I’ve seen great boxers become old in one night. It happens to every one of them, and they never expect it to happen. The guy gets knocked out or knocked down. You see it, and you say, ‘Wow. It’s over for that fighter!’ ”
But Dan Rather had a more accurate take, saying that Walters “has the exterior of a debutante but the heart of an assassin.”
“She can brush off slights,” Rather said then, “but if you do damage, real damage, to Barbara, it can be twenty years later, and you may have forgotten what it is, but she will find a way to get back at you. Conversely, if you do something nice for Barbara, she’ll never forget that either, and twenty years later, she’ll come out of nowhere and will do something incredibly good and kind and helpful. Barbara has demonstrated that she believes revenge is a dish best served cold. If I were Donald Trump, I would take out extra life insurance.”
By all appearances, Trump must have purchased a solid gold policy.