May 31, 2012

Mike Wallace, R.I.P.

About Mike Wallace, three memories:

First: in our household, Mike Wallace’s very name is something of a code word. It means, I don’t know, something very much like, “you’ll get yours.” An example: there was a movie of the week, one of those lachrymose efforts that networks like Lifetime and We do so well (or so awfully, depending on your point of view), about a man who comes home to find his wife and children gone, spirited away by the government as part of the witness protection program. It only took a bit of imagination to create a commercial that was the perfect antidote.

[Ticking sound in background. Male narrator’s authoritative voice.]

“Imagine you’ve come home from work to find your entire family has disappeared without a trace. Now imagine the police know all about it - and they won't tell you a thing. That’s what happened to this man: see what happens when they try it with Mike Wallace – this week on 60 Minutes.”

See how well this works?

A related joke: when I was running for the state legislature and harboring dreams of the presidency, I used to imagine another teaser involving my friend and campaign manager, Gary, who would be pictured on screen walking through the Rose Garden while the omnipresent voice intoned, “Do you recognize this man? Most people have never heard of him, but he just might be the second-most powerful man in America. And while you may not know him, Mike Wallace does. Meet him tonight on 60 Minutes.”

Finally, a Frank & Ernest cartoon many years ago, during the Watergate era, that ran on Washington’s Birthday. President Washington is sitting behind the desk in his office, his pen frozen in midair and a startled expression on his face, as an aide says to him, “Mr. President, there’s a Mr. Woodward and a Mr. Bernstein to see you. Something about a cherry tree.” And while that's funny, it would have worked better if it had been Mike Wallace.

Now, I’m not sharing these anecdotes to make fun of Mike Wallace, but as something of a tribute to him, and his style. For there was something about Mike Wallace. He may not have been the prototypical blow-dried television reporter, but there was still a certain charisma about him. Richard Nixon had had a soft spot for him since Wallace had showed a kindness to Pat Nixon, and offered him the job as his press secretary. (Would history be different today if he had accepted?).He counted the Reagans as friends dating back to their Hollywood years. He was often accused of bias of one kind or another, but through it all there was that something about Mike Wallace: the idea that here was one newsman the guilty couldn’t escape from, one who would get the story no matter what.

He'd been an actor and a game show host (including doing the pilot for To Tell the Truth), a radio announcer and a commercial pitchman, and he’d hosted one of the milestone programs in early television news (The Mike Wallace Interview), but it was 60 Minutes that really cemented his reputation, with his ambush interviews of hapless white-collar crooks, his unrelenting grilling of sweating interviewees (even though Mike often wasn’t the one asking the actual questions), and the feeling (thanks in part, no doubt, to skillful editing) that he just wouldn’t let you get away with it, whatever it was. Indeed, nobody ever enjoyed hearing that he was sitting in your waiting room. If Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, then Mike Wallace may well have been the most feared.

He was far from the perfect journalist. There were controversies about supposed racial slurs he’d once uttered, a libel suit brought by General William Westmoreland over a Vietnam story he’d done, and a controversy about killing a story on the tobacco industry after receiving pressure from sponsors. His private life had its downs as well: the death of his oldest son in an accident, and a years-long battle with depression.

But through it all, Wallace persevered, and when he retired from 60 Minutes in 2006, it was the end of an era. I liked Mike Wallace, and most of the time I enjoyed watching his work. It was hard then to imagine who would take his place, and even harder now.

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