05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barbara Walters: My Night of Regret With Ricky Martin!

Nearly 30 years of Oscar-night grillings and guess which question Barbara Walters most regrets? And, no, it's got nothing to do with trees.

Walters feels just awful about asking Ricky Martin, you know, that.

"In 2000, I pushed Ricky Martin very hard to admit if he was gay or not," she says, "and the way he refused to do it made everyone decide that he was. A lot of people say that destroyed his career, and when I think back on it now I feel it was an inappropriate question."

Let's put aside the word choice (admit?) and the hubris (everyone - along with their grandmothers, accountants and middle-school children - had no trouble reaching that particular decision without any guidance). What's most striking about Walters' remorse is how thoroughly it typifies old-school journalism's fussiness with homosexuality.

Here's how Walters pushed Ricky Martin very hard: "There have been rumors that question or talk about your sexual orientation. Do they hurt? How do you handle them?" As Martin fidgeted, Walters intoned "You could stop these rumors."

Martin's response ("Barbara, for some reason I just don't feel like it") was a bit more forthright than I'd remembered. Hardly a pivotal moment in political empowerment, but more graceful than Walters' squeamish performance, which even then made her seem less like a hard-charging journalist than a fretful aunt whose favorite nephew has once again arrived for Thanksgiving dinner without a date.

Walters today is correct about one thing though: The audience made a decision that night, and Martin's career never completely recovered. The gorgeous-looking singer whose sensual powerhouse performance at the 1999 Grammys made him an overnight superstar seemed evasive, cautious, fearful. Never a great singer, Martin's appeal was his bravado, his la vida loca moves. After Walters, the swagger seemed a sham.

But Walters needn't apologize for broaching the topic - that's her job, and she gets paid plenty for prying. Her failure was in denying her guest the dignity of a direct question. Are you gay? Not so hard really, now or then. I don't think for a minute that Martin would have thrown wide that closet door, but at least he wouldn't have come off like a cat's shredded squeak toy.

Maybe you're thinking, ancient history. Neil Patrick Harris opened the Oscars and Ellen is front and center on TV's most popular show. But Hollywood's When Asked/Don't Tell dies hard. A few weeks ago, actor Matt Bomer, the handsome leading man of USA's White Collar, did the sidestep in Elle magazine. "My favorite actors are people who I don't know anything about, and I can project any character onto them."

Elle didn't press Bomer on just who those ultra-private show folk might be, but whoever they are they have another fan in actor Ben Whishaw. "I think it's essential for there to be some distance and privacy," he told The New York Times in a profile last month. "It's hard for it to remain an imaginative engagement if you know you're watching a guy onstage who's sleeping with -- whoever. I find that puts up a wall."

Whishaw currently costars as Hugh Dancy's lover in an Off Broadway play called "The Pride." In real life, of course, Dancy is married to, and presumably sleeps with, the actress Claire Danes. Audiences don't seem to hold it against him.