T.S. Eliot used to wow college audiences by reading from his poetic masterpieces. Last night, Barbara Walters did it by reading from transcripts of her television interviews -- poetry of a sort.
With Jihan Sadat, the widow of Anwar Sadat, sitting right behind her, and a crowd of 800 from American University gathered raptly around her, the ace of ABC declaimed from an exclusive she did with Jihan Sadat after her husband died in a shower of bullets during a military parade in October 1981.
" 'Even in his death, he stood up,' " Walters read, quoting the widow on her husband's assassination. " 'He had his hand up like this.' " Walter raised her hand. " 'He didn't bow. He didn't bend. He didn't go under the chair . . . He stood up and said NO!' "
Pausing to glance back at Sadat's wet-eyed widow at the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, just off campus, Walters added, "I think her husband was one of the few great men that we've had in our generation. I miss his saying 'For sure!' I miss his calling me 'Barb.' I miss the whole force of his personality."
"I really tried to control my tears," Sadat, still misty-eyed, said afterward. "It was very hard."
"That was an astonishing talk," AU president Richard Berendzen told Walters. "You are the ultimate communicator -- never mind the man on Pennsylvania Avenue."
"She's improved greatly, don't you think?" said a woman in the audience. "She used to talk kind of funny -- you know, saying 'Baba Wawa' and all that sort of thing."
Last night, she said "Baba Wawa" again. It was in answer to a question from the audience about Gilda Radner, who once did the vaunted Walters impression on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
"I used to watch her doing 'Baba Wawa,' " said Barbara Walters, a vision in pink with a strawberry blond fringe. "And I would hear people say, 'Oh, look, there's Baba Wawa' -- not realizing that this might hurt me. But she sat like me, she had the same mannerisms. And I thought, how does she do it? I finally learned that we shared a makeup person -- I had the same one on the 'Today' show."
Jihan Sadat, a distinguished professor in residence at AU, had introduced Walters as "an old and trusted friend." She invited her to AU as part of a continuing symposium on "Women in the Changing World," a series that has already featured Jeane Kirkpatrick, Betty Ford and Sadat herself.
"Barbara has the gift of the born journalist," Sadat said in her effusive introduction.
"If you work long enough and hard enough," Walters confided to her largely female audience, "with a little bit of luck, maybe someday you can have the joy of the kind of introduction I just received."
She went on to regale the crowd with stories of her scoops in the Middle East, beating Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor to a dual interview with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and her revelatory televised encounters with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ("It was the first time she publicly declared her love for her husband") and Farah Diba Pahlavi, the former empress of Iran. "She had a better sense of public relations than the shah."
And she called Jihan Sadat "the loveliest woman I ever met." The two kissed before the speech, and hugged after.
At one point, Walters commented on the size of the crowd, which spilled into the choir stalls surrounding the lectern.
"I'm used to looking at a screen," Walters said. "I never expected to see so many people. And with all of you on either side, it means I have to hold my stomach in."