Weiner writes: "Mike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of the nation's best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on '60 Minutes,' died on Saturday. He was 93."
Mike Wallace in his CBS office in 2006. (photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)
Mike Wallace, CBS Pioneer of '60 Minutes,' Dies at 93
08 April 12
ike Wallace, the CBS reporter who became one of the nation’s best-known broadcast journalists as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on "60 Minutes," died on Saturday. He was 93.
On its Web site, CBS said Mr. Wallace died at a care facility in New Canaan, Conn., where he had lived in recent years. Mr. Wallace, who was outfitted with a pacemaker more than 20 years ago, had a long history of cardiac care and underwent triple bypass heart surgery in January 2008.
A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for the moment when "you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other," he said in an interview with The New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature "The Last Word."
Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked "a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity."
His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.
"Perjury," he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon’s right-hand man, John D. Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. "Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."
Mr. Ehrlichman paused and said, "Is there a question in there somewhere?"
No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television.
Both the style and the substance of his work drew criticism. CBS paid Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman $100,000 for an exclusive (if inconclusive) pair of interviews with Mr. Wallace in 1975. Critics called it checkbook journalism, and even Mr. Wallace conceded later that it had been "a bad idea."
For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show’s producers set up a phony health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became a cliché and no longer good television.
Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace’s unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt "calls you, Imam - forgive me, his words, not mine - a lunatic." The translator blanched, but the Ayatollah responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.
"Forgive me" was a favorite Wallace phrase, the caress before the garrote. "As soon as you hear that," he told The Times, "you realize the nasty question’s about to come."
Mr. Wallace invented his hard-boiled persona on a program called "Night Beat." Television was black and white, and so was the discourse, when the show went on the air in 1956, weeknights at 11, on the New York affiliate of the short-lived DuMont television network.
"We had lighting that was warts-and-all close-ups," he remembered. The camera closed in tighter and tighter on the guests. The smoke from Mr. Wallace’s cigarette swirled between him and his quarry. Sweat beaded on his subject’s brows.
"I was asking tough questions," he said. "And I had found my bliss." He had become Mike Wallace.
"All of a sudden," he said, "I was no longer anonymous." He was "the fiery prosecutor, the righteous and wrathful D.A. determined to rid Gotham City of its undesirables," in the words of Michael J. Arlen, The New Yorker’s television critic.
"Night Beat" moved to ABC in 1957 as a half-hour, coast-to-coast, prime-time program, renamed "The Mike Wallace Interview." ABC, then the perennial loser among the major networks, promoted him as "the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition."
The show came under attack after a guest, the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, called Senator John F. Kennedy "the only man in history I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten." The book was "Profiles in Courage." The Kennedys’ lawyers forced ABC to retract, though in fact the senator’s speechwriter, Theodore C. Sorensen, was the book’s undisclosed co-author.
Mr. Wallace’s career path meandered after ABC canceled "The Mike Wallace Interview" in 1958. He had done entertainment shows and quiz shows and cigarette commercials. He had acted onstage. But he resolved to become a real journalist after a harrowing journey to recover the body of his first-born son, Peter, who died at 19 in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962.
"He was going to be a writer," Mr. Wallace said in the interview with The Times. "And so I said, ‘I’m going to do something that would make Peter proud.’ "
He set his sights on CBS News and joined the network as a special correspondent. He was soon anchoring "The CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace" and reporting from Vietnam. Then he caught the eye of Richard Nixon.
Running for president, Nixon offered Mr. Wallace a job as his press secretary shortly before the 1968 primaries began. "I thought very, very seriously about it," Mr. Wallace told The Times. "I regarded him with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hard working."
But Mr. Wallace turned Nixon down, saying that putting a happy face on bad news was not his cup of tea.
Only months later "60 Minutes" made its debut, at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1968. The trademark ticking of the Tag Heuer stopwatch marked the moment.
It was something new on the air: a "newsmagazine," usually three substantial pieces of about 15 minutes each - a near-eternity on television. Mr. Wallace and Harry Reasoner were the first co-hosts, one fierce, one folksy.
The show was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a producer who was "in bad odor at CBS News at the time," Mr. Wallace said in the interview.
"He was unpredictable, difficult to work with, genius notions, a genuine adventurer, if you will, in television news at that time," Mr. Wallace said of Mr. Hewitt, who died in 2009.
The show, which moved to Sunday nights at 7 in 1970, was slow to catch on. Creative conflict marked its climb to the top of the television heap in the 1970s. Mr. Wallace fought his fellow correspondents for the best stories and the most airtime.
"There would be blood on the floor," Mr. Wallace said in the interview. He said he developed the "not necessarily undeserved reputation" of being prickly - he used a stronger word - and "of stealing stories from my colleagues," who came to include Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer in the 1970s and early 1980s. "This was just competition," he said. "Get the story. Get it first."
Mr. Wallace and his teams of producers - who researched, reported and wrote the stories - took on American Nazis and nuclear power plants along with his patented brand of exposés.
The time was ripe for investigative television journalism. Watergate and its many seamy sideshows had made muckraking a respectable trade. By the late 1970s, "60 Minutes" was the top-rated show on Sundays. For five consecutive years it was the No. 1 show on television, a run matched only by "All in the Family" and "The Cosby Show." In 1977, it began a 23-year run in the top 10. No show of any kind has matched that.Mr. Wallace was rich and famous and a powerful figure in television news when his life took a stressful turn in 1982.
That year he anchored a "CBS Reports" documentary called "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." It led to a $120 million libel suit filed by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. At issue was the show’s assertion that General Westmoreland had deliberately falsified the "order of battle," the estimate of the strength of the enemy.
The question turned on a decision that American military commanders made in 1967. The uniformed military said the enemy was no more than 300,000 strong, but intelligence analysts said the number could be half a million or more. If the analysts were correct, then there was no "light at the end of the tunnel," the optimistic phrase General Westmoreland had used.
Documents declassified after the cold war showed that the general’s top aide had cited reasons of politics and public relations for insisting on the lower figure. The military was "stonewalling, obviously under orders" from General Westmoreland, a senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst cabled his headquarters; the "predetermined total" was "fixed on public-relations grounds." The C.I.A. officially accepted the military’s invented figure of 299,000 enemy forces or fewer.
The documentary asserted that rather than a politically expedient lie, the struggle revealed a vast conspiracy to suppress the truth. The key theorist for that case, Sam Adams, a former C.I.A. analyst, was not only interviewed for the documentary but also received a consultant’s fee of $25,000. The show had arrived at something close to the truth, but it had used questionable means to that end.
After more than two years General Westmoreland abandoned his suit midtrial, CBS lost some of its reputation, and Mr. Wallace had a nervous breakdown.
He said at the time that he feared "the lawyers for the other side would employ the same techniques against me that I had employed on television." Already on antidepressants, which gave him tremors, he had a waking nightmare while sitting through the trial.
"I could see myself up there on the stand, six feet away from the jury, with my hands shaking, and dying to drink water," he said in the interview with The Times. He imagined the jury thinking, "Well, that son of a bitch is obviously guilty as hell."
He attempted suicide. "I was so low that I wanted to exit," Mr. Wallace said. "And I took a bunch of pills, and they were sleeping pills. And at least they would put me to sleep, and maybe I wouldn’t wake up, and that was fine."
Later in life he discussed his depression and advocated psychiatric and psycho-pharmaceutical treatment.
The despair and anger he felt over the documentary were outdone 13 years later when, as he put it in a memoir, "the corporate management of CBS emasculated a ‘60 Minutes’ documentary I had done just as we were preparing to put it on the air."
The cutting involved a damning interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a chemist who had been director of research at Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company. The chemist said on camera that the nation’s tobacco executives had been lying when they swore under oath before Congress that they believed nicotine was not addictive. Among many complicating factors, one of those executives was the son of Laurence A. Tisch, the chairman of CBS at the time. The interview was not broadcast.
Mr. Wallace remained bitter at Mr. Tisch’s stewardship, which ended when he sold CBS in 1995, after dismissing many employees and dismantling some of its parts.
"We thought that he would be happy to be the inheritor of all of the - forgive me - glory of CBS and CBS News," Mr. Wallace said. "And the glory was not as attractive to him as money. He began to tear apart CBS News." (Mr. Tisch died in 2003.)
Mr. Wallace officially retired from "60 Minutes" in 2006, after a 38-year run, at the age of 88. A few months later he was back on the program with an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I hear this is your last interview," the president said.
Mr. Wallace replied: "What do you think? Is it a good idea to retire?" He won his 21st Emmy award for the interview.
And he kept working. Only weeks before his 2008 bypass surgery, he interviewed the baseball star Roger Clemens as accusations swirled that Mr. Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs. It was Mr. Wallace’s last appearance on television, CBS said.
Myron Leon Wallace was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 9, 1918, one of four children of Friedan and Zina Wallik, who had come to the United States from a Russian shtetl before the turn of the 20th century. (Friedan became Frank and Wallik became Wallace in the American melting pot.) His father started as a wholesale grocer and became an insurance broker.
Myron came out of Brookline High School with a B-minus average, worked his way through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and graduated in 1939. (Decades later he was deeply involved in two national programs for journalists based at the university: the Livingston Awards, given to talented reporters under 35, and the Knight-Wallace fellowships, a sabbatical for midcareer reporters; its seminars are held at Wallace House, which he purchased for the programs.)
After he graduated from college, he went almost immediately into radio, starting at $20 a week at a station with the call letters WOOD-WASH in Grand Rapids, Mich. (It was jointly owned by a furniture trade association, a lumber company and a laundry.) He went on to Detroit and Chicago stations as narrator and actor on shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "The Green Hornet," along the way acquiring "Mike" as his broadcast name.
In December 1943 he enlisted in the Navy, did a tour of duty in the Pacific and wound up as a lieutenant junior grade in charge of radio entertainment at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Mr. Wallace married his first wife, Norma Kaphan, in 1940; they were divorced in 1948. Besides Peter, who died in the mountain-climbing accident, they had a second son, Chris Wallace, the television journalist now at Fox News.
Mr. Wallace and his second wife, Buff Cobb, an actress, were married in 1949 and took to the air together, in a talk show called "Mike and Buff," which appeared first on radio and then television. "We overdid the controversy pattern of the program," she said after their divorce in 1954. "You get into a habit of bickering a little, and you carry it over into your personal lives."
Ms. Cobb died in 2010.
His marriage to his third wife, Lorraine Perigord, which lasted 28 years, ended with her departure for Fiji. His fourth wife, Mary Yates, was the widow of one of his best friends - his "Night Beat" producer, Ted Yates, who was killed in 1967 while on assignment for NBC News during the Six-Day War in Israel.
Besides his wife and his son, Chris, Mr. Wallace is survived by a stepdaughter, Pauline Dora; two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates; seven grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.
Mr. Wallace and Ms. Yates were married in 1986 and lived for a time in a Park Avenue duplex in Manhattan and in a bay-front house on Martha's Vineyard, where their social circle included the novelist William Styron and the humorist Art Buchwald.
All three men "suffered depression simultaneously," Mr. Wallace said in an interview in 2006, "so we walked around in the rain together on Martha's Vineyard and consoled each other," adding, "We named ourselves the Blues Brothers." Mr. Styron died in 2006 and Mr. Buchwald in 2007.
Mr. Wallace said that Ms. Yates had saved his life when he came close to suicide before their marriage, and that their marriage had saved him afterward.
He also said that he had known since he was a child that he wanted to be on the air. He felt it was his calling. He said he wanted people to ask: "Who's this guy, Myron Wallace?"
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