The Extraordinary (and Ordinary) Mike Wallace

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The legendary newsman took advantage of his third or fourth "second chance"—and proved that good journalism starts with tough questions of the right people.

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I met Mike Wallace only once or twice, and many years ago at that, so I have no great personal stories to share about his extraordinary life and career. Don Hewitt, the all-time uber-mensch of television news, used to call Wallace a mensch, if that means anything to you. To me, it's as good a word as any to describe an unforgettable man on the morning after his death, at the age of 93, after years of suffering from dementia. Ever the showman, he even gave his colleagues at 60 Minutes (and everyone else) a long head-start on his obituary.

Wallace was a mesmerizing presence on camera, excelled at virtually everything there was to do on radio and television, and doggedly transformed himself from a lightweight pitchman and entertainer to a formidable journalist, one of the best interviewers of his or any other era. That transition is an awfully difficult thing to do—most journalists go in the other direction, from reporter to pitchman or public relations—but Wallace just crushed it. America loves a second act? By the time Wallace got to 60 Minutes in 1968 he was on his fourth or fifth or sixth act.

In 1999, in the foreward to Salant, CBS, and the Battle for the Soul of Broadcast Journalism, Wallace wrote:

Dick [Salant, former CBS News President] saved my professional life back in 1963 when he took me on—ignoring the wisdom of some of his confreres—as a CBS News correspondent. I'd already been at CBS from 1951 to 1955 doing a variety of chores, including both news and entertainment, at a time when such was permissible. Bu then, impetuously, in 1955 I departed the CBS premises in search of greener field, including a stint on Broadway, some television commercials, and a local telecast and interview series.
But when I turned serious about getting back to a network... only the unlikely Salant, the lawyer, the nonjournalist, the purist, who had himself overcome the initial skepticism of colleagues like Cronkite and Sevareid and Collingwood—only Salant was willing to give this prodigal a second chance.

A second chance. But not necessarily 60 Minutes. Wallace wasn't even a shoo-in five years later when the show was being formed. At the time, Salant still wasn't sure Wallace was "hard news" enough. Can you imagine? Indeed, one of the many lessons of Wallace's life, aside from the promise of making good on second or fourth or sixth chances, is that he proved that anyone at any time of their life can be a good journalist so long as they have the courage to ask good questions of the right people. That was the essence of what Wallace did, isn't it? That's what he'll be remembered for, anyway.

I look forward to 60 Minutes' tribute hour to Wallace next Sunday. In the meantime, on the law beat, from his earlier work, here is the link to Wallace's interview with then-attorney Thurgood Marshall, in that epic period of the civil rights movement between the United States Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and Marshall's transcendent leap to the judiciary. Marshall's answer to the very first question is, literally, the sight and sound of history as it unfolds. President Dwight Eisenhower, indeed, could have and should have done more to more quickly enforce the mandate and meaning of Brown.

Wallace connected with viewers because he asked questions they would only think about asking, in their braver moments, when they daydreamed about sitting in front of the world's most famous or infamous people. Imagine the balls it took to ask Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini (in 1979) what he thought about being called a "lunatic" by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Wallace did this because his ego allowed him to do it. He did this because he had the network backing him up. And he did it because he wanted to see how the religious leader, a mere mortal like the rest of us, would react.

The Wallace style wasn't for everybody. He sometimes got away with questions that lesser lights, then and now, probably couldn't. Moreover, because of who he was, who he knew, and where he worked, he often had access to people who would never deign to be interviewed by anyone else. In Wallace's case, at least, the eternal chicken-and-the-egg debate in broadcast journalism had an answer. He was a celebrity before he was a journalist, not the other way around. He took what he could from the first career to enrich and then revolutionize the second. And he did it all while suffering, intermittently, from severe depression.

During the course of it all, like the rest of us, he made mistakes and enemies. There was the Westmoreland lawsuit, for example, and the Wigand tobacco story. Wallace also earned the emnity of Daniel Schorr and even, for a while anyway, managed to tick off Walter Cronkite, CBS News' legendary anchorman. Speaking of balls, my working theory is that only Mike Wallace could have mentioned Cronkite in a 1974 story about journalists who went on press junkets—and subsequently survived at the network. Much later, in retirement, Cronkite told interviewer Don Carleton that he both admired and abhorred Wallace's confrontational style:

I admire Mike's pure ability to do the adversarial kind of interview as well as he does it. I could never do it. I don't believe that it's the best way to get information. My technique is absolutely the opposite from Mike's. For that reason, I'm not terribly good on a live interview, because I like to develop an issue, chew around it, let a person ponder on it. I think you get more that way of real, lasting value. But it takes a while, and it takes a lot of editing, It may not be quite as honest in some ways as what Mike does, because it's all in the editing, and you've got to be very careful with that.

Wallace pushed because he knew he could, and because he knew he was good at it, and because he knew that the pushing made for great television no matter the extent to which his target was willing to push back. And even his prissiest subjects took Wallace seriously, and allowed themselves to be directly challenged by him on camera, because they both wanted access to his audience and thought they could best him. Very few people ever bested him, however, and when they did it made for even better television. Wallace, the showman, understood earlier than most that primal truth about the essence of a "news" interview.

Ultimately, though, it was Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, who helped channel the iteration of Mike Wallace the world will most remember. It was Hewitt who cajoled Wallace into turning down an offer to become a spokesman for President Nixon ("a press spokesman is a nobody trying to be a somebody," Hewitt reportedly said at the time). It was Hewitt who for decades helped insulate Wallace from the suits. But for many years it was also Wallace who stole the show—churning out "must see TV" long before the phrase was invented (by another network).

That's surely part of what Jeff Fager meant Sunday when the current executive producer of 60 Minutes, who is also the chairman of CBS News, said sadly of Wallace: "Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn't be a 60 Minutes." Conversely, without 60 Minutes, the world today would have a very different impression of this courageous, raucous, charming and ultimately trenchant man. Good journalism starts with good questions. And for decades no one asked more good questions than Mike Wallace. For a guy who once pitched Golden Fluffo shortening, he sure did come a long way.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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