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WALTERS IS A PARADOX AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

There are a couple of amazing things about Barbara Walters.

First, that she's still around - let alone successful - 20 years after she left NBC's "Today Show" to become co-anchor of ABC's evening newscast, a career decision that turned out to be an utter disaster.And, second, that anyone takes her seriously after all the hokey, smarmy stuff she's done.

This is, after all, the woman who was dancing like a stripper with Demi Moore on the most recent prime-time "Barbara Walters Special." The woman who has made a fool of herself with some frequency by sucking up to stars, dancing/singing/playing with them and by asking frequent silly questions.

Barbara Walters is indeed a paradox.

She's charming and intelligent. And you can't help but admire anyone who could overcome dismal failure to become a huge success.

Walters' story, by now, is familiar. And she relives it in the 90-minute special "Barbara Walters: 20 Years at ABC" (8:30 p.m., Ch. 4).

A pioneer in early morning TV, she was the first female to hold the title of co-host on "Today." She was the first woman to be allowed to do "serious" interviews on that top-rated morning show.

In 1976, she left NBC for ABC, where she was named co-anchor of the evening news. Not only was she not welcomed by the broadcast's other anchor, Harry Reasoner, but when ratings didn't improve she took all the blame.

"I was finished. I was failing," she told TV critics recently. "Not only did every newspaper and mag-azine say I was failing, but there was great delight in the fact that I was failing."

She describes that time as the low point in her life.

"I was working with a man who was a very nice man, who the last thing he wanted to do was to be in a studio with me," Walters said. "He didn't want a partner, and he didn't want a woman, and he thought it was a joke or a hoax."

When she was dropped from the newscast, Walters' television news career appeared over.

"I was finished," she said. "I had a 7-year-old daughter to support. I wasn't married. I had other obligations. And I was drowning. And I couldn't stop working because I had to support them, and the career was all done. All over."

But she battled back, producing highly rated celebrity interview specials and reporting for various ABC newscasts. She became a correspondent for ABC's first successful prime-time news magazine, "20/20," in 1981 and was named co-host in 1984.

Walters' contributions to the field of journalism are not inconsiderable. She's done any number of very good interviews over the years with genuine newsmakers, from heads of state on down.

The list includes Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, as well as Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.

And, most notably, she became an on-air personality at a time when there weren't many TV newswomen.

She led the way for everyone from Leslie Stahl to Maria Shriver to Carole Simpson to Jane Pauley.

"It makes me feel good," Walters said. "I did not deliberately pave the way for women. I'm not a great heroine. I didn't wave a flag, and I didn't burn my bra."

But, on the other hand, Walters was also a pioneer in the trivialization of the news and of the people who report the news. Twenty years ago, no one could be dancing with Demi Moore and still be considered a serious journalist.

Walter Cronkite wouldn't have done it. Neither would David Brinkley. And, certainly, you could make the case that television news was more responsible and less sensational pre-Barbara Walters.

Twenty years ago, Walters wouldn't have been hailed by her network for getting interviews with O.J. Simpsons' lawyers and with his prosecutors. As a matter of fact, 20 years ago the O.J. Simpson trial would not have received the massive television coverage that it received in the mid-1990s.

A serious newswoman wouldn't have been interviewing various "Charlie's Angels" at the same time she was interviewing world leaders.

And, like the woman herself, her special tonight is bizarrely two-sided. It's certainly unusual for a television personality to produce and host a tribute to herself.

At times the special is revoltingly self-promotional and outrageously boastful. At other times, Walters has the good sense to poke fun of herself. Her looks. Her questions. Her comments.

And some of those questions and comments are laughably bad. There's her sign-off on her very first ABC newscast, when she told viewers to expect "the best darn news program on the air."

There's the incredibly pompous and obnoxious moment when she closed a 1976 interview with then-President-elect Jimmy Carter.

"Be wise with us," she intoned. "Be good to us."

Gag us.

Walters also just can't resist making one more try at exonerating herself for one of her more egregious errors. She replays the tape of her infamous interview with Katharine Hepburn, demonstrating that - indeed - it was Hepburn who first compared herself to a tree.

Of course, what Walters can't seem to grasp is that that does not exonerate her for her follow-up question - "What kind of tree are you, if you think you're a tree?"

And, perhaps worst of all, Walters repeatedly lays the blame for her lightweight celebrity interviews on the viewers themselves - pointing out that the ratings for the celebrity portions of her specials pull in many more viewers than the world leaders.

Fine. No argument. If she had become simply a celebrity interviewer, Walters would be the best there is.

But her straddling of hard news and celebrity-driven pseudo news remains troubling, even after 20 years. And Walters' dual role has led the trend that has blurred the lines between the two.

Is Walters solely responsible for that? No. It's hard to assign her more than part of the blame.

But as much as she wants to be lauded for her triumphs, Walters also must take some responsibility for turning network news into the celebrity-driven, inferior product that it has become.