The Heat and Light of Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace
Courtesy CBS News
Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace of CBS News had not done an interview for four years—Roger Clemens, the famed Boston Red Sox pitcher accused of using steroids got the honors for that last one—but all those living whom he interviewed for "60 Minutes" probably feel not enough time has passed for them not to get goose bumps just thinking about the experience.

Sadly, it’s goose bump time, because everyone in the media and the objects of their attention is thinking about Wallace. Wallace, whom some said was the most feared, if not loved, television journalist who ever donned a trench coat, was back on the air, in the form of tributes, news stories and fond remembrances by the people he worked with and by some who didn’t.

Wallace passed away at the age 93, and now politicians who’ve escaped the Wallace treatment—more like an interrogation some said, while others used the word inquisition—can breathe a little easier.

Wallace was the mainstay and star of "60 Minutes," probably the best and most popular news magazines show ever on CBS, a show still going strong but without many of its most stellar reporters (Ed Bradley, Howard K. Smith, Andy Rooney) not to mention producer Don Hewitt, all of whom have passed away. And now: Mike Wallace.

As late as 2006, Wallace received an Emmy for an interview with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinjad. Years earlier, he had interviewed the Ayathollah Rubollah Khomeini, to whom he quoted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat calling him an “idiot.”

Right off, you could say he feared nothing, and if you encountered Wallace accidentally in a parking lot, with a microphone in his hand it was not accident and you were in trouble. While conservatives see mainstream television media as being liberal, you couldn’t say that about Wallace, who described himself as moderate in his politics, if not his temperament. He was an equal-opportunity investigator, interviewer and pursuer, going after such luminaries as Barbra Streisand and Malcolm X. He could be respectful and polite, but his forte was “finding the truth.” Almost every obituary you can run across will state in some form or another that the most feared words in a potential interviewee's world were “Mike Wallace is here."

Wallace was a man of many wives (four) and many jobs—he was an actor on radio and television, a quiz show host and a reporter and finally he was: Mike Wallace.

Although he attracted and created controversy, including an exhausting, dragged-out and complicated law suit and trial in which General William C. Westmoreland, who was the chief of U.S. forces in Viet Nam sued him and CBS for $120 million involving enemy troop estimates. The suit was settled out of court but haunted Wallace. Wallace would later admit that he suffered from depression and had even tried to kill himself with sleeping pills after the trial.

The Viet Nam piece and its results in the end showed that Wallace was human and not invincible.

His career—especially at "60 Minutes" since its beginnings in 1968—showed a stature that is hard to diminish. He made trench-coat journalism—he was often seen wearing one—chic but also respectable and honored. Those early "60 Minutes" reporters were the journalistic offspring of Edward R. Murrow, and it’s not hard to imagine Wallace alongside Murrow during the London Blitz, unruffled and solid.

In the age of the instant video, of “if it bleeds it leads,” of slap-dash, beat-the-other-guy-by-60 seconds journalism, of bloggers and reality television, which blurs reality, Mike Wallace still looks uncommonly real. Indeed, in "Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists," which he co-wrote with Beth Knobel, formerly with CBS News, he offers advice that young social media-imbued reporters should take to heart.

Upstairs, there’s a knock at a heavenly gate. “Mike Wallace is here,” the gatekeeper announces. “Should I be worried?” his boss asks. “Perhaps,” the gatekeeper says.

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Wed, 30 Jul 2014 13:12:28 -0400

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