09 April 2012

Mike Wallace

Plenty of reporters had asked tough questions long before Mike Wallace ever did. The technique required thorough research and preparation, as well as a certain fearlessness, because sometimes tough questions get tough answers, or a fist in the nose. Thoroughly precedented though it was, Wallace’s style became branded as the 60 Minutes style, so widely copied now that “television newsmagazine” is a genre and not a revolution.

That’s one reason Wallace will be remembered for generations to come, no matter that superstar reporters are a rapidly vanishing species. In stature and influence (which are not the same as power), Wallace was a little below the President of the United States but far above any Senator, Secretary, or Justice. You won’t see that again, any time soon.

During my years at CBS, my view of Wallace was sharply circumscribed, and so others are better able to tell you about him. It’s a shame that Liz Dribben isn’t here to share her memories of Mike, with whom she worked very closely and whom she adored. She fretted more over his failing health than she did her own, it seemed to me.

Equally adoring was the late Frances Arvold, the makeup artist whom Mike used to tease with the dirtiest jokes he knew. “Oh, that Mike,” Franny would say. I’d like to have seen that side of him — but he worked in another building.

What I saw most often was a man ill at ease with the other superstars in our little galaxy. All of them had egos, and all of them clashed whenever their orbits crossed. For example, it didn’t seem from my vantage that either Wallace or Don Hewitt ever fully processed the fact that each owed the other his professional success; their destinies were inextricable, no matter how much each ego wanted sole credit.

And while Mike seemed to like Dan Rather well enough, he did have a habit of making thoughtless, hurtful remarks, not only in statements that got picked up by the press but even in a strangely discordant speech at the party for Dan’s fifteenth anniversary as anchor of the Evening News. Everyone else treated the occasion as a jubilant celebration — Mike seemed to think it was a Friars’ Club roast.

My longest conversation with him may have been over the telephone, shortly after the co-anchoring partnership between Dan and Connie Chung was announced. One print reporter had sniffed that “Dan would never kiss Mike Wallace the way he kissed Connie” at the press conference, and I suggested a snappy reply:

“A candlelit dinner, a little wine, some soft music, and who knows? I might kiss Mike Wallace.”

The line got picked up, and suddenly, Mike himself was on the phone to our office. Dan was on the air, I think, which Mike surely knew, but he couldn’t contain himself. For several gleeful minutes he detailed the many, many reasons he would never — despite Dan’s fondly cherished dreams — kiss my boss.

When Dan called him back, he shut the door to his Inner Sanctum, but I could hear the gales of laughter all the same, and that’s the way I’d like to think of them now. Sure, sometimes I’ve wondered whether dealing with the demons of his depression simply left Mike Wallace unable to deal more consistently and cheerfully with the teeming chorus of prima donnas of the News Division.

But perhaps getting along well with each and every one of his colleagues was not, in fact, his highest purpose; perhaps it’s enough that he reported so many important stories, over a long and uniquely influential career — and that he got on so well with Liz and Franny.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This piece is well done but I found it vaguely unsatisfying. You're an insider here. I would have liked to learn more about your first-person experiences with the late Mr. Wallace and about his influence on broadcast journalism, or at least your assessment of that influence.

-- Rick