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Remembering Mike Wallace, Legendary ’60 Minutes’ Interrogator

April 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A Mike Wallace interview was often harsh, unsympathetic even. The "60 Minutes" icon was never reluctant to confront the feared or the famous -- from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to Malcolm X to pitcher Roger Clemens. Wallace, 93, died Saturday. Morley Safer and Jeff Fager of CBS reflect on Wallace's career with Jeffrey Brown.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now: remembering television news legend Mike Wallace and his impact.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins with a look back at a storied career.

MIKE WALLACE, “60 Minutes:” I don’t understand. They must be ashamed of something.

MAN: What is this?

MIKE WALLACE: This is “60 Minutes.”

KWAME HOLMAN:  The Mike Wallace interview was legendary as the answers it elicited. And his career was indelibly linked to “60 Minutes,” the pioneering CBS News program he joined at its inception in 1968.

Aggressiveness, irascibility, the determination of a junkyard dog, a visible love for what he was doing. I think all of those things combined were Mike on the air, and, by the way, Mike off the air as well.Morley Safer, CBS

MIKE WALLACE: I’m Mike Wallace.

HARRY REASONER, “60 Minutes:” I’m Harry Reasoner.

KWAME HOLMAN:  Over five decades, Wallace became known as television’s toughest interrogator.

MIKE WALLACE: He was during what? With you. Why? Why? Why?

You demanded special treatment.

You needed money.

It’s almost an embarrassment, sir, to hear this from you.

What?

What do they want you to do?

Why are you so reluctant?

KWAME HOLMAN:  Wallace himself was never reluctant to confront the feared or the famous, like in 1979 with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

MIKE WALLACE: Imam, President Sadat of Egypt, a devoutly religious man, a Muslim, says that what you are doing now is — quote — “a disgrace to Islam.” And he calls you, imam — forgive me — his words, not mine — “a lunatic.”

KWAME HOLMAN:  With then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

MIKE WALLACE: How many blacks are there on your top campaign staff, Governor?

RONALD REAGAN, presidential candidate: I couldn’t honestly answer you.

MIKE WALLACE: Now, that speaks for itself.

KWAME HOLMAN:  Born Myron Wallace in 1918 in Brookline, Mass., he graduated from the University of Michigan and began a life on radio and television doing news and hosting game shows.

He developed his prosecutorial interview style at ABC on the program “Night Beat” in 1956 and later with “The Mike Wallace Interview.”

MIKE WALLACE: A good many people hated your husband. They even hated you.

WOMAN: Yes. A great many do still.

KWAME HOLMAN:  In 1963, he joined CBS News as a full-time newsman, here interviewing Malcolm X in 1964, the year before his assassination.

MIKE WALLACE: Are you the least bit afraid of what might happen to you as a result of making these revelations?

MALCOLM X, civil rights leader: Oh, yes. I probably am a dead man already.

KWAME HOLMAN:  Then came the years with “60 Minutes” and producer Don Hewitt. The news magazine became not-to-be-missed television and Wallace scored 21 Emmys with interview subjects as varied as Nancy Reagan and Shirley MacLaine.

MIKE WALLACE: What was your husband’s role in the Iran-Contra?

NANCY REAGAN, former first lady: Nothing. I mean it was. . .

MIKE WALLACE: Come on. He was president of the United States.

NANCY REAGAN: It was — I don’t know enough about Iran-Contra.

MIKE WALLACE: You really believe that you have lived lives before and. . .

SHIRLEY MACLAINE, Actress: Oh, yes, Mike. I don’t — there is no doubt in my mind about it.

MIKE WALLACE: And you really believe in extraterrestrial? Do they come visit you on the porch? “Now you’re being unpleasant, Wallace,” is what you’re saying.

SHIRLEY MACLAINE: Yes. This is what I was a little afraid of. You don’t have to be that unpleasant. It doesn’t become you.

KWAME HOLMAN:  But Wallace’s long tenure at CBS wasn’t without its low points.

In 1982, Gen. William Westmoreland sued Wallace and the network for libel over their documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.” It accused the general of deliberately falsifying enemy strength. Westmoreland dropped his libel suit in 1985 after a long trial.

In 1996, Wallace opened up about the trial and the toll it took on his mental health.

MIKE WALLACE: If there’s anything that’s important to a reporter, it is integrity. It is credibility. And all of a sudden to sit in a federal courtroom for five months in New York City with all those people from the press out there. . .

(LAUGHTER)

WOMAN: Now, now, we love the press.

MIKE WALLACE: . . . and asking you nasty questions and so forth, I didn’t realize myself how bad it was.

WOMAN: Right.

MIKE WALLACE: I was lower than a snake’s belly.

WOMAN: Snake’s belly, right.

KWAME HOLMAN:  Wallace suffered a nervous breakdown that left him in the hospital for a week. And he spoke candidly about his depression, appearing before a Senate committee to urge more funding for research in 1996.

Wallace officially retired from “60 Minutes” in 2006.

MIKE WALLACE: I cannot improve on those spoken for many years by a true legend who preceded me at CBS News. He would say, simply, “good night, and good luck.”

KWAME HOLMAN:  Even so, he was back several months later interviewing Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mike Wallace’s last appearance on “60 Minutes” was an interview with pitcher Roger Clemens in 2008.

The program plans an extended tribute next Sunday.

JEFFREY BROWN: This afternoon, I had a chance to talk with two of Mike Wallace’s colleagues, Morley Safer, the longtime correspondent for “60 Minutes,” and the program’s executive producer, Jeff Fager, who also serves as chairman of CBS News.

Morley Safer and Jeff Fager, thanks for joining us.

Morley Safer, what were the qualities that made Mike Wallace what he was as a journalist?

MORLEY SAFER, CBS News: There’re so many that it’s hard to tally them all, but certainly aggressiveness, irascibility, the determination of a junkyard dog, a love, a visible love for what he was doing. I think all of those things combined were Mike on the air, and, by the way, Mike off the air as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Off the air as well, eh?

Well, Jeff Fager, I heard your colleague Steve Kroft today refer to Mike Wallace as — quote — “the first great television news performer.”

I was interested in that word performer. What does that mean?

JEFFREY FAGER, chairman, CBS News: Well, I think that Mike knew he was on camera. He was a great performer on camera.

But he was really himself as well. One of the amazing things about Mike, I think, that really resonated, it’s almost as — if his interviews were so good, it’s almost as if it didn’t matter what the story was. You just couldn’t wait to hear what he was going to ask next.

So, he did that extremely well. And I think, on television, that is a performance. You need to have those skills.

MORLEY SAFER: We all have a kind of sense of decorum when you’re doing an interview. Mike created his own decorum, which was that kind of relentless probing.

And what is remarkable in the first place was how he charmed people to go and sit in that chair, people who knew that they were going to be eviscerated sooner or later.

JEFFREY FAGER: And, by the way, don’t try — don’t try to hide something from Mike Wallace, because he was going to get it out of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: He once described it as walking — quote — “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.”

Morley Safer, which side of that do you come down on?

MORLEY SAFER: Certainly the sadism.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY FAGER: It’s a scary thought, going up against Mike Wallace.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Fager, we think of the early gotcha style or the sting operations, of course. And not everyone loved that. It caused a lot of discussion in the journalism world. But Mike Wallace also evolved from that as well, right?

JEFFREY FAGER: Yes, he did.

It was — I think it was a difficult period, because he actually did enjoy doing it. And it grew the audience significantly. It became such a feature and a signature of the broadcast.

But I think, in later years and actually during it, he realized, you know what? We’re doing this more for the drama than for the news value. And that’s not appropriate.

So the idea that someone was going to be sweating in front of a Mike Wallace interview or that he was going to be chasing some bad guy down a hall, I think they realized was much more about performance and drama and wasn’t really of any value.

JEFFREY BROWN: Morley Safer, you said earlier that he was a tough guy outside of work.

I gather he was a tough guy at the office as well, right, very competitive.

MORLEY SAFER: Precisely.

I mean, the Wallace you saw during one of his toughest interviews is precisely the same guy off-camera. And he would ask the same rude, if you like, or embarrassing questions of me and of all of his colleagues.

There’s a tale that won’t — goes around — and I won’t go into detail — of one of his colleagues in the men’s room where essentially they almost reached — came to blows over Mike’s questioning and Mike’s comments. That’s what he was. And there was nothing that was going to change him.

JEFFREY FAGER: He didn’t know how to sugarcoat anything. He just didn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this was a hugely competitive environment. Right? I’ve heard talk of correspondents stealing each other’s stories.

(LAUGHTER)

MORLEY SAFER: Oh, that — that was highway robbery almost every week.

(LAUGHTER)

MORLEY SAFER: And I was usually the victim, by the way.

JEFFREY FAGER: You know, someone asked me about his own son going into the news business and what that meant to Mike. And I know for a fact it meant that, don’t worry, if we’re up against him for a story, I’m going to get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Morley Safer, I’v heard you speak of Mike Wallace having a sense of uncertainty or even insecurity about his work. That surprised me.

MORLEY SAFER: Well, it’s an insecurity that actually stayed with him I think a good part of his life.

Mike, because he came from a background of entertainment and commercials and fun and games, and then decided that he wanted to put all of that behind him and become a reporter, he felt that because he’d never had the kind of basic training that most of us who have been at this all our working lives had, that he had to go out and prove himself every day, that he was for real, that he was a journalist.

So there was a certain insecurity accompanying all of that bravado that he showed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Fager, we can’t talk about all the successes without bringing up the huge controversies, most of all of course the libel suit brought by Gen. Westmoreland.

Tell us about the impact that had on Mike Wallace both professionally and personally.

JEFFREY FAGER: Well, I think that it’s pretty well known at this point that it really did set off a major depression. You know, Mike became quite famous and I think he gets a lot of credit for taking depression and his own depression very public.

And that case, which was a very difficult suit based on a “CBS Reports” documentary produced by the great producer George Crile, really took it out of him. And he said so to Morley. It’s part of our tribute to Mike that’s going to air on “60 Minutes.” And I think Morley could expand on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Morley Safer.

MORLEY SAFER: Well, it’s no secret that Mike attempted suicide. And he talks about it, as Jeff said.

But I think that coming out with his own depression was in itself tremendously therapeutic for him. And you can see those — us who were friends could see the difference in him once he opened up about it. And I think that it was a very brave thing for him to do and very effective as well.

JEFFREY FAGER: And, you know, Jeffrey, I think one of the things that shouldn’t be lost in that discussion is that Mike, however feisty he would get and ferocious around — around the office, he always had a twinkle in his eye.

And he was a hard guy not to love. You couldn’t stay mad at him. And I think that’s just such an important part of why it’s a big hole for us. We miss him because we loved him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a final word from you, Morley Safer. How would you describe his legacy and importance to TV journalism?

MORLEY SAFER: The main contribution to TV journalism was to “60 Minutes.”

I think that, without Mike, we would not have the longevity that we’ve had. We have been on the air now approaching our 44th year, and — which is remarkable in itself. But it was those early, say, first 20 years where people were tuning in to see what Mike Wallace was up to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Morley Safer and Jeff Fager on the life and legacy of Mike Wallace, thanks so much.

JEFFREY FAGER: Thanks.