Guest: Mike Wallace
Title: In Memoriam: Mike Wallace, 1918 – 2012
Original VTR Date: 9/29/84
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where occasionally we interrupt our regular weekly schedule of contemporary on-air conversations to present – In Memoriam – a past program with a distinguished guest who has passed.
Today we celebrate the much honored broadcast journalist Mike Wallace, who died in April, 2012 at 93 … always to be remembered as the legendary brazen and tough-minded CBS news interviewer most closely associated with the extraordinarily successful Sixty Minutes.
My own Thirty Minutes With Mike Wallace, shown now in its entirety, was broadcast first in 1984.
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Mike Wallace, who really needs no introduction beyond the fact that with Gary Paul Gates, he’s just authored Close Encounters, a truly terrific William Morrow book. Now, “terrific” isn’t exactly the most artful of gracious comment that one can make about this riveting account of one particularly intriguing broadcaster’s odyssey through the rise, and then the continuing rise of electronic journalist since the 1950s.
But for me, the experience of reading Close Encounters was just that, terrific, for I lived through it all. In fact, The Open Mind first went on the air just five months before Mike Wallace began his famous – or infamous, if you’re so inclined – Night Beat series, late in 1958. So this is geriatric time.
But I’m going to ask Mike’s indulgence not to spend too much time now on just how tough an interviewer he is on the air, whose toes he has mangled, et cetera, not just because by contrast I’m such a pussycat. I won’t ask him either about the nonsense of identifying 60 Minutes as entertainment, not journalism, just because it is television’s top-rated series. And since the Westmoreland case is in the courts, we’ll leave it there.
But I do want to ask Mike Wallace about media power, about faction, that damned elusive mingling of fact and fiction, and about a revealing 60 Minutes interview with European journalist Ariana Fallaci. Let me quote Close Encounters.
Here, some of the points Wallace made because this is a book that enables Mike and his colleague to comment on him and his programming:
“Some of the points Wallace made about Fallaci were clearly evocative of his own career and interviewing style. He noted that when she began plying her craft, it was mainly actors and entertainers. But today, she prefers heads of state.
He then named a few, all of whom, coincidentally, had also been interviewed by Mike Wallace. And, in what easily could have served as a self-appraisal, he contended that Fallaci turns her interviews into morality dramas. She plays the role of judge. The interviewee is on trial. And few are found innocent”.
- And here’s the exchange:
“Wallace: Power. Do you have power?
Fallaci: Oh, no. I have not power. How can you say?
Wallace: None whatsoever?
Fallaci: We are not one of those who think that we journalists have power.
Fallaci: Nah. We are like dogs. Bow-wow-wow. Nobody listens to us.
Wallace: You’re an entertainer?
Fallaci: I’m a historian.
Wallace: You’re not a historian.
Fallaci: Yes, I am.
Wallace: You’re a journalist.
Fallaci: No, sir. A journalist is a historian.”
And Mike Wallace says: “No. Now, wait”.
Mike, I wondered why you want her to wait. Isn’t a journalist a historian?
WALLACE: No, because it’s instant history, and you don’t have the opportunity to know what might have gone on in other corners of that episode or other corners of the world while that episode was taking place. So, what you’re doing is getting a quick take. Today’s take or this month’s take, but you’re not putting it into the context of other events.
HEFFNER: But I think you think that I’m asking whether Mike Wallace, historian Mike Wallace, Professor Mike Wallace, whether I would endow you with too much power, maybe. Indeed, I’m asking whether you don’t have the responsibilities of the historian. And I wonder what your answer is to that question.
WALLACE: The responsibilities of the historian are to, it seems to me, are to sit back, after the event, five years, ten years, 20, 25 years, and taking into account various accounts of what have taken place. Then, it seems to me, you try to put it into a sensible, historical context. When I do an interview with a Yasser Arafat, or an Anwar Sadat, or Menachim Begin, or the Shah of Iran, or Nixon, or Kennedy, or a Reagan, you’re doing it, really, only in the context, in a discrete hour, two hours, at a discrete time. You may find out later on that things were not what they were perceived to be at that moment, so that it doesn’t make it history, it makes it commentary on something that’s going on.
HEFFNER: Yes, but Mike, as I read “Close Encounters”, and as I read your involvements in interviews with Nixon all the way back, and then Nixon a little more recently, with the Reagans earlier on and the Reagans more recently, I know that you can, if you will, set your interviews into a certain perspective. And the question I’m asking is whether you don’t have an obligation to do so?
WALLACE: You look back at what has gone before in framing your question. Of course you do. And you try to have the interviewee do the same thing. But I’m not sure that I fully understand, Dick, what you’re after here.
HEFFNER: Well, I guess what I’m after is the question of what the responsibilities of the news person are, and what his responsibility is to go as far behind the scenes as he possibly can, today.
WALLACE: Look, Yasser Arafat, second time I had interviewed him, his headquarters, Beirut, we had just gotten through with a chicken dinner. It was the day, I believe, in which the father of Waly Jumblat, Gamal Jumblat…I believe it was the first anniversary of his death. Don’t hold me to it, but I think that’s what it was. And he, Arafat, like you today, had a cold, and was not feeling very good. But he came in and he was jovial, and we had a chicken dinner, and then we sat down to do the interview.
And in the course of the interview, there had been a little piece about so big in The New York Times, which I had just stuck in my notes, and wasn’t sure that I was going to use it or not. But he brought up the subject of human rights. Human rights, obviously, struck a nerve with me, as it does with people around the world, particularly as far as this item in the Times was concerned.
It turned out that a PLO military training mission had gone to Uganda and was working with Idi Amin, under the direction of Idi Amin. PLO/Idi Amin. And so, I said to myself, “Wait a minute. Human rights, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Arafat, do you really…” It’s in Close Encounters.“ …do you really … man you respect?” “Yes.” “But you talk about human rights. The butcher Amin is a man you respect?”
Now, suddenly, you can see this fellow out beyond the cliff and looking down and you can see what’s going on in his head right now, that he doesn’t want to be faced with that. In any case, we went through this for a period of about a minute, a minute and a half, and he finally said, “Yes. Idi Amin is a man with whom I can work. He is for me; therefore, I am for him. And forget human rights”.
He got through doing the interview, the whole long interview, and Machmud Labadi, who was his press secretary, who has now going over to the rebel side, that is, the Syrian PLO side, said, “Well, of course, you’re not going to use that, Mike”. I said, “What?” He said, “You’re not going to use that”. I said, “Machmud, what you’ve done really now, probably is reconfirm the fact that we have to use it by your asking that we don’t”. He said, “But that’s not fair”. I said, “Why isn’t it fair? Here is the chairman. He is a man in charge of himself. He told me what he felt”. In any case, Barry Landover, the producer, and I went back to London over the weekend, put the piece together. It was on Sunday night, and obviously it was on the air. Question: Journalism? History? Power? Heat for heat’s sake? Heat for light sake? Understanding of Arafat?
HEFFNER: Or all of the above?
WALLACE: Or all of the above? I think probably a little of all of the above.
HEFFNER: Power? You mentioned power.
WALLACE: Well, power, in this respect, Richard. The PLO – and I must say, I was brought to an understanding of the Palestinian cause by a man whom I admired, indeed loved, the late Faez Saig. I grew up in a Jewish family which was traditionally Zionist. Franklin Roosevelt was the hero of the family, and Israel, which was not then in existence when I was a kid, was something, the dream.
And the story of the Palestinian was something that was totally unknown to me. And during the time of Night Beat, in 1956-57, I interviewed a man by the name of Faez Saig. Palestinian, Christian, with whom I became friends, and my late partner, Ted Gates, and I, and we spent a lot of time together. And little by little I began to understand the Palestinian cause.
Now, the PLO, it seems to me, in some of its activities surely, over the last 20 years, has been less than admirable in the way that it has gone about its work. Terrorists. By the same token, there were activities undertaken by the Jews in their fight for a homeland, in their fight for independence, which were, face it, terrorist.
There was a letter in 1948 to The New York Times written by, as I remember it, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt, and so forth, saying that if Menachim Begin ever came to power in Israel, fascism would have taken a big step forward. I’m paraphrasing, but that letter was in the letters to the editor column of The New York Times. We had the power – I’m going on at great length here – We had the power, if you will, to expose the hypocrisy, or the self-serving quality of Yasser Arafat in a very specific way when we pointed out his respect or friendship for Idi Amin. You call that power? I call it simply the job of the journalist.
HEFFNER: Mike, have you ever not played something because someone didn’t want you to? Asked you not to?
WALLACE: Nothing comes to mind.
HEFFNER: Would you?
WALLACE: I can’t see the circumstances under which I would. I myself, in the case of Haiti, asked my colleague, Morley Safer, please not to do a piece, because my wife’s family is Haitian. My wife’s family, her cousin is married to a Haitian. And her husband’s father had been a political prisoner under Papa Doc Duvalier for two years. I had done a piece in 1971. There had been no repercussions, but the family said, “Okay, you’ve done it; please lay off”. And there were three boys in the family. They were afraid. And so, when it was suggested that maybe Morley was going to undertake that – and I shouldn’t have done this – I walked in and said, “I’d rather that you didn’t do this”. Inappropriate … (laugh) … but I wanted to make my wife content.
HEFFNER: Why shouldn’t you have done it for that reason?
WALLACE: Because if you presume to tell the audience that you let the chips fall where they may – and I don’t know that I would necessarily do that for somebody else – why should I ask somebody to do it for me?
HEFFNER: You didn’t ask him, as I understand form the time of the story, and from rereading the story, you didn’t ask him to change anything. You didn’t ask him to modify anything.
HEFFNER: You raised a question about doing the story, if I remember correctly.
WALLACE: That’s correct. That is correct.
HEFFNER: Well, now, what in the world was wrong with that very human action?
WALLACE: I’m not suggesting that we reporters should not be human.
HEFFNER: Then what are you suggesting?
WALLACE: What I am suggesting is that probably – No, not probably – I shouldn’t have asked. And he should have gone ahead and done the story.
HEFFNER: You mean Mike Wallace should’ve been above all that? Concern…
WALLACE: You’re putting it in that context. It’s not that I should’ve been above all that, Dick. It’s that I, particularly, who am perceived as, I am perceived as being, how can I say this adequately without sounding like a darned fool? As being straightforward and honorable, and let the chips fall where they may. You should not ask for special privileges.
HEFFNER: Okay. We’ll pursue that further.
HEFFNER: Mike, a question that I did want to ask. You and I were talking about 60 Minutes. I wondered always why does a guy, or a gal, who knows that there is such a huge possibility that he or she is going to be skewered, not because you’re mean of spirit, but because of their own background, what there is to report on, why do they come?
WALLACE: Well, it’s apparent that we don’t have subpoena power. So they have to agree.
WALLACE: And those who don’t agree, you know, back maybe five, six, seven, ten years ago, we used to stop them on the street after we had sent them letters and made telephone calls and sent telegrams and tried every way to get to do the piece, but if they simply said no, or didn’t answer, then sometimes we used to stop them in the street. And all that did, really, oh, on one or two or three occasions you really did get something unexpected and revealing, but by and large, what you get is embarrassment. And if it turns out to be embarrassment for embarrassment sake, what’s the point of doing it? Because you can stand in front of their place of business or place of employment and simply say, “Look, he didn’t want to talk to us, but these are the questions that we intended to ask”, and let it go at that, and say he declined.
Why do they do it? Because, I think, I mean, we’re 16 years old now, the broadcast. I think people know that they’re going to be treated fairly, they’re going to get an opportunity to get their message across to our audience. They are on their own home turf. They don’t know what kind of material that we have. And then, finally, and, you know, Safer said this once and I think he may be right, “There are some crooks who don’t feel that they are properly confirmed as crooks until they’ve been on 60 Minutes”.
HEFFNER: That’s a very funny…You know when I watched Big John Connolly on 60 Minutes…
WALLACE: I remember that one very well.
HEFFNER: …and the next day received a telephone call from someone we both know, a Texan, said, “You know, what are those guys doing?” And my only response was, “How in the world did he get himself there?” Why, as you suggest, didn’t have subpoena power. That’s the sort of thing I’m asking.
WALLACE: Well, that is perfectly understandable. We had done a profile of John Connolly before, some years before. He had been treated absolutely fairly. He was treated fairly in the interview that we did. He was treated fairly. There was not any question that he should not have been prepared to answer, except that this time he was running for the presidency.
He wanted the exposure on 60 Minutes. There is a quid pro quo. We’ll give you, if we are fortunate, perhaps 50 million people to look at you; but, by the same token, what we ask from you is that you, unrehearsed, answer our questions. And what we were able to do is to suggest that perhaps he had an anti-labor background. Perhaps that he wasn’t all of that devoted to issues of civil rights. Perhaps he had said some indiscreet things about Mr. Kennedy and Senator Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And you put all of these things together in one piece; he was not expecting this kind of approach. And he was uncomfortable with it. There was certainly nothing the least bit unfair in that.
HEFFNER: Mike, about how many years before had you done the first show?
WALLACE: About five, as I remember it. Maybe six or seven.
HEFFNER: Did you do the same kinds of digging and the same kinds of asking then?
WALLACE: No, as a matter of fact, because he wasn’t running for president the first time around.
HEFFNER: But the questions would have been just as germane. Civil rights?
WALLACE: Could have been just as germane, but when a man is running for President, you treat your interview in a totally different way, really, because you are trying to go to the nub of the character and how he might respond, and to put him under some pressure so that an audience can, you’re proxy for an audience who wants to know some of these things.
For instance, Ronald Reagan. His wife and I are dear friends from 40 years; her mother before, in Chicago. And I had done a couple of interviews with Ronald Reagan before. And they were calculated to be interesting, useful. But he wasn’t really a presidential candidate in either of those two. He was a major political figure.
Now he was going to be nominated for the Presidency of the United States. And a week before the presidential convention, the Republican Convention in Detroit four years ago, I interviewed him and Mrs. Reagan and their daughter Patty. And, in the case of Ronald Reagan, there were certain questions, it seemed to me, that I had not asked before that needed to be asked of a president about the perception of him as a Neanderthal Conservative who was quoted during the Vietnam War as “Why don’t we bomb the North, and we could make it a parking lot, paint parking stripes on it and be home for Christmas”. Tell me, Mr. Reagan, what was it that you had in mind back then? Or the fact of whether he had Blacks, any Blacks, on his staff. And it turned out that he really was incapable of answering whether he had, either on top staff or below. What I was trying to do was to run a gamut of half a dozen or eight or ten questions which would, perhaps, help him draw a profile of himself.
HEFFNER: Two questions, then. Would your advice to Presidential candidates be “Stay away from 60 Minutes?”
WALLACE: It certainly didn’t hurt Ronald Reagan. He was nominated. Some of his pals were mad at me for having done it for a period of a year or so.
HEFFNER: Was he happy with it?
WALLACE: I don’t think that he was particularly happy, but I have seen him since, and he has been cordial since, and he and his wife and I – I mean, and his wife and I – remain very good friends, despite…Look, they’re realists. Politicians are realists, and they know that there are tough questions that are going to be asked. He wanted the presidency at that time. Now he has the presidency. How many one-on-one interviews has he held within the last whatever time?
HEFFNER: Not with Mike Wallace.
WALLACE: With whom?
HEFFNER: Okay. Do you think he is a Neanderthal man?
WALLACE: No. no. I think he’s – I was about to say a simple man, but that’s not, he is not by any means a simple man – he’s a complex man. I think that he’s learned an immense amount in the presidency. I think he’s a much more intelligent man that a good many people give him credit for. He is not the captive of those three-by-five cards that we hear so much about. A man does not get to be elected Governor of California and reelected Governor of California, and go after the presidency, once mildly, second time hard, third time again and get elected – and he’s going to be, apparently, reelected. A stupid man, or an unqualified man does not get that.
HEFFNER: Then why do so many people talk about the three-by-five cards?
WALLACE: Because that is a stereotype, and that is part of the frustration. They’ve been saying that about Ronald Reagan for the last 15, 20 years that I know of. I used to cover the governors. I covered the governors’ conferences, and so I saw him at work. And I’ll never forget the first news conference that he held, when there was a governors’ conference, as I remember it, I think, out of the Century Plaza Hotel. And the whole crowd, the eastern crowd, came out. I remember, Mark Child and David Broder, and so forth. And how surprised they were at the man’s remarkable capacity to take whatever question and answer it sensibly. Look, he’s…His first wife, Jane Wyman, said that one of the reasons they got divorced was because he was always studying and thinking and reading the paper and wanted to talk ideas at the breakfast table. He’s obviously a very thoughtful man. And he made his change from Democrat to Republican. Why is he…
HEFFNER: As an indication of how thoughtful he is?
WALLACE: (Laughter) No.
HEFFNER: No. Okay.
WALLACE: Thank you for being gentle with that. No, no, no. And I’ve made not change from one to the other. I’m, myself, an independent. And I don’t speak, I speak with some affection of his wife – I want to make this perfectly clear –
HEFFNER: It’s perfectly clear, Mike.
WALLACE: I speak with some affection of his wife and my friend, and with respect for him, but not necessarily because I’m going to vote for him. I’m not necessarily going to vote for Fritz Mondale, either.
HEFFNER: But you know, let’s get back to the image of the stereotype of the three-by-five cards. What does that tell us about the media generally? The eastern establishment? Agnew’s friends and enemies?
WALLACE: Well, I plead guilty to having been one of Ted Agnew’s friends.
HEFFNER: Yes, I note in the book you have a very interesting group of people you did or do admire.
WALLACE: Well, admiration, I don’t think, I think is probably too strong a word for my feeling for Spiro Agnew. What happened was that he was, of all things, a kind of liberal Republican, running against a conservative Democrat for the Governorship of Maryland. There was a third man in the race by the name of Hyman Pressman, who was an in-between. And George Mahoney, I believe is the name of the Democratic candidate, whose slogan was to the tune of the Bells of St. Mary, “Your home is your castle; vote to protect it”.
Agnew was a kind of liberal Republican, and a lot of the people, the civil servants from Washington, who lived across the border in Maryland, voted for him. A lot of Democrats voted for him. And suddenly, and suddenly, this man who was really not prepared to be the Vice President of the United States, and conceivably the president, was propelled into a job for which, in my estimation, he was totally unprepared. What I liked about Ted Agnew is the fact that in those governors’ conferences he was a superb source. Because I had been with him at the beginning. We had gone to small rallies together, and I was the only guy there. And he and his wife, Judy, naturally liked a reporter who spends some time and learns. At that time I was covering the eastern states for CBS news on election night on the governors. And so I got to know him; liked him, didn’t know that he was, how shall I say?
HEFFNER: I don’t know how you should say.
WALLACE: Subject to…
HEFFNER: Later disciplinary action.
WALLACE: That’s correct.
HEFFNER: Right? But, Mike, I want to come back to the question, and it’s a pointed question: President Reagan, the three-by-five cards, the picture of him as a rather vague and unknowing old man. You say that’s not an accurate picture?
WALLACE: Well, I don’t…My boy, Chris, my son, Chris, covers him. I don’t have that much first-hand knowledge of what goes on inside the White House.
HEFFNER: Okay, but you have enough of a negative thing about that picture of him to state it here, that it really isn’t true?
HEFFNER: Question again: Do we have a corps of people in the electronic and print press who are given to skewering the President?
WALLACE: Given to skewering the president?
HEFFNER: Yes. Given to…
WALLACE: You mean the three-by-five card business?
WALLACE: No, I don’t. As a matter of fact, I think he’s had a remarkably good press, all things considered. I get the feeling…I don’t know when this is actually going to be played on the air. We’re doing this in…
HEFFNER: Probably after the election, Mike.
WALLACE: Not ‘til after the election?
HEFFNER: Yeah. So you can predict now. And we can hold you to it.
WALLACE: Well, I would think then that if this is going to be played after the election, that in the last six weeks of the election campaign, that there is going to be much more serious scrutiny of Ronald Reagan, a much colder scrutiny of Ronald Reagan, than there has been during the first three years, three-and-a-half years of what they call the Teflon Presidency, that nothing sticks to. I sense that the press is getting fed up with the cocoon around the President.
HEFFNER: Okay. It’s the very end of September now. Maybe we will be on the air with this before the election. But, your perception is my perception, and it scares the hell out of me.
WALLACE: What scares the hell out of you?
HEFFNER: The fact that, at a certain point, the press begins to examine more carefully, and perhaps more critically, the President of the United States. My concern is not that they’re doing it now; but that they haven’t done it.
WALLACE: What they do, or what we do, doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. Look, were Jimmy Carter or Fritz Mondale in the Presidency right now, and 260 marines were killed, if the building in East Beirut was blown, do you really believe that they would’ve gotten away with it the way Ronald Reagan has gotten away with it?
It isn’t because he hasn’t been called to account by the press. There is something in the man’s personality. There is something in the fact that the country feels itself prosperous. There is something in the Olympic rings. And I know this sounds asinine on its face, but, and there are probably a lot of our Americans who don’t feel this way, undoubtedly a lot of Americans who don’t feel this way, but there are a huge number of Americans who feel that they have it, we have it pretty good right now, and he is the steward to which they look, to whom they look.
HEFFNER: Yes, but what I’m talking about is what the press does with him, not how they react to what the press does. You said the press is changing now.
WALLACE: I sense that the press is going after him harder now, yes.
HEFFNER: That’s an interesting phrase. And I’m getting the cut sign, with which you are very, very familiar. Maybe I can get you back here before or after the election. Thanks for joining me today, Mike Wallace.
WALLACE: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today … in Memoriam. I hope you’ll be with us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
For other past programs, do visit The Open Mind website at www.thirteen.org/openmind.