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NEW YORK — So there I am, sitting in Barbara Walters' black car heading to her favorite sandwich place on Madison Avenue, when she gets a phone call.

Someone has to talk to her right away!

In an instant, the veteran of broadcast journalism goes from reflecting on her historic career into full newswoman mode. "I can't talk now," Walters, 84, says firmly into the phone. "I've got a reporter in the car. I'll have to call you back."

Who's on the line? Vladimir Putin, perhaps? Some hot "get" is coming through, and she sure isn't going to share her scoop with me.

Walters ditches me, in a very gracious way, and heads back to her office.

WALTERS IN ONE WORD

"Relentless," says veteran CBS News journalist Bob Schieffer, 77. "She's amazing. But relentless would be the one word I would use to describe her."

MORE: Walters can sniff a great interview out of anyone

RELATED: 5 TV women who could replace Barbara

He recalls with a smile: "She is the toughest competitor I ever went up against. Back when I was the White House correspondent, and we'd go on these White House trips, you had to always be on your toes with old Barbara. She plays fair, but she's just a great reporter."

Walters broke through the TV news glass ceiling more than once — as the first woman on Today in 1962 and the first woman co-anchor on the Evening News (with Harry Reasoner) in 1976 — even though it famously did not go well. As she rose through the ranks, she supported her aging parents and disabled sister and raised her adopted daughter, most of the time as a single mom.

Was the decision to retire difficult? "I don't think there was a long walk. I felt it was time. I created The View, so it will last when I leave. I will continue to be the executive producer, so I will still care about it."

But beyond that, she'll appear occasionally, "whenever I want."

She adds, "Nobody was pushing me, (and) there was not somebody newer, younger, funnier. At some point, I just thought it was time. If I stayed yet another year, I'm not sure what that would have given me. It's been 18 years."

Ask her to pick the most exciting time in her career, however, and she goes back to the 1970s. In 1977, she landed a joint interview with Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, and Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin. That same year, she interviewed Fidel Castro. But one of her most-watched interviews came much later: Her 1999 talk with Monica Lewinsky drew a record 74 million viewers.

"I'm not out for the great get. We don't have that now," she says, "and we don't have the space to put those programs on."

Social media and fractured viewing habits have watered down the big "gets" of yesteryear.

She says an interview hasn't really wowed her since the one with Syrian President Bashir Assad in 2011. Walters adds a bit grumpily, "It was on for four minutes! So if I do an interview, it's four minutes."

Two days later, it turns out, that phone call in the car was a "get," although maybe not exactly along the lines of a Fidel Castro. Walters' exclusive: V. Stiviano, the former mistress of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who backed out of a sit-down last week. The talk with Stiviano aired for more than 19 minutes on 20/20.

The big one she would still like to land? "I think the pope is a get. I would like to do an interview with the pope, but he doesn't do interviews. And when he does decide to do one, it won't be with me."

The art of the celebrity interview has changed, too. Her pre-Oscars and 10 Most Fascinating People specials were must-see TV through the 1980s and '90s. Now, they're both gone.

"Television viewing has changed. People have a short attention span, and they have an iPad and a phone, and you have reality shows."

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Some of her best days, she says, go back to the beginning of her career in the 1960s and her early days on Today. Long before Matt and Al and Savannah and Natalie, there was Barbara.

"I think Barbara Walters, for me, was a groundbreaker for all women in journalism," says Today news anchor Natalie Morales, 41. "And to think, she worked on our show back in the day when they called us the Today Gals. I mean, could it be more sexist? Now, she has proven that women deserve a place at the table. She is the original."

One word to describe her? "Fearless."

Two other words — luck and timing — describe her start in the business, moving from a behind-the-scenes researcher on Today to her first on-air role in 1962.

"I will tell you the story. I was a writer on the Today show when Lyndon Johnson was being honored in Atlantic City and Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's mother, was an actress they had hired, and they didn't realize that being an actress doesn't necessarily mean you can do this. I didn't sing, I didn't dance, and I didn't pronounce my R's. They used me in desperation. They hired me for 13 weeks, and I stayed on 13 years!"

She says she wasn't asking to be put on camera; she didn't think she was pretty. "I was not beautiful. I wasn't a dog. But no one has said, 'She's so beautiful.'"

HER LEGACY, HER 'VIEW'

Fast-forward to her baby, The View.

"I think The View changed the game," Walters says. "I see all different programs now with a cast that's talking together and laughing together. I feel very fond of the fact that I was able to create this program and this atmosphere. When I look back, that gives me great pride."

This season has seen the exit of Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck and the entrance of Jenny McCarthy. Walters says the fall will bring more change, and it may be time for an injection of testosterone.

"I think we may very well have a man. I think the program will change as the participants change. I've been the one steady on it. Now we can make other choices, take other chances. It doesn't have to be women." She also would like to have a new conservative voice now that Hasselbeck is gone.

Throughout her career, Walters' hard news reports made her famous, but so did her celebrity interviews. "She was one of the first people I ever watched," says Entertainment Tonight's Nancy O'Dell, 48. "She was the first one who did the long-form interviews with celebrities where you felt like you got to know them as people. She and Oprah humanized them."

The one word O'Dell would use to describe Walters: "Trailblazer."

Even though women's wage gap is still a hot topic in the news now, Walters says women have it better than when she started out. "I don't think women today are having the same difficulty I did. I was the 'million-dollar baby,'" a record sum in 1976. "They offered me $1 million to do the news and five specials. They were getting a bargain."

Now, CelebrityNetWorth.com estimates hers at $150 million.

"I don't know anyone who has had a career like mine. I've worked very hard, but I've been blessed."

For all the kind words that will come as Walters leaves the TV scene, her career has not been without its critics.

When Gilda Radner mocked her as "Baba Wawa" on Saturday Night Live, she was "hurt" until daughter Jackie told her to "lighten up." And she took heat from her role as the first female evening-news anchor because co-anchor Reasoner's disdain for her was obvious on-air. In 2013, when she announced her retirement, Salon.com bid her "good riddance," writing a story that said "her entire public life has been an extended exercise in sycophancy and unalloyed power worship."

Says Walters, "My feelings get hurt, but the one advantage of getting older is you have older critics. Some of them have hurt me a lot, but I don't dwell on them."

About that long-standing rivalry with Diane Sawyer, she says, "I have affection and admiration for Diane."

And after well-publicized run-ins with View co-hosts Rosie O'Donnell and Star Jones, she has made up with both. "I don't hold grudges. I forget and I forgive."

She seems at peace. "I am. Isn't that funny? People say, 'What are you going to do next? How am I going to feel on May 17?' I don't know."

FACE-LIFT? NO. BOTOX? YES.

Does she think about aging and death?

"I think about both. I want to enjoy these days. I know how old I am. I think the only way we can combat it is by trying to make each day count."

In her book, Audition, she said once she'd like to live to 100.

"I don't know that that's going to happen."

Would she want to? "If I felt the way I feel now? Sure. Not if I didn't feel good."

How old does she feel? "I don't think that way. I'm in very good health. I'm having a good time. Obviously, I don't feel the way I did when I was 30. I don't scamper the same way. I'm not an athlete, so it's not like my tennis game is gone. My tennis game never existed."

What's her secret to aging? "I have good genes. My mother had good cheekbones, so do I. My mother had good legs. The legs are the last to go."

Does she worry about losing her memory?

"So far, so good. It's like asking me, 'Do I think about dying?' Sure. Do I think about when I can't remember things? Sure. Mostly I get up in the morning and think, 'Hey, I'm still here.'"

Her skin doesn't show many wrinkles.

"I don't do anything that anybody else doesn't do," she says. "Do you know what a filler is?"

Botox?

"Like Botox. I've done some of that."

No face-lifts? "No. And I wouldn't now. I think I'm too old."

Then she says, "Look," and pulls the sides of her face. "This would help with the jowls."

She's growing old alone, although she has had many romances. She wrote in Audition of her failed marriages to theatrical producer Lee Gruber, with whom she adopted Jackie, her only child, and Merv Adelson, the CEO of Lorimar Television. She dated Sen. John Warner and Alan Greenspan and said she fell hard in the 1970s for married Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke.

"I was no good at marriage," she says. "I don't think there's a marriage I could have succeeded in. I was ambitious, and I did have to support my family."

Is she dating anyone now? "No," she says.

Is she lonely? "I'm alone but not lonely."

BRANCHING OUT

It seems only fair to turn the tables on Walters and ask her the same question she infamously asked Katharine Hepburn about what kind of tree she would be.

"I can ask the questions but not answer them!" she says. "Katharine said she was a great oak. I may be a flower. An anemone. I like that they are are very colorful, but if you open them up, they have a black heart. They're mysterious."

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