Chris Wallace is an anchorman in more ways than one at Fox News. With Bill O’Reilly listing right and Sean Hannity listing righter, Wallace evens the keel as the able, stable host of Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace. Since taking over for the late Tony Snow in 2003, Wallace has elevated the program into a media mainstay, doing his best this-just-in, buttonedup routine to appear “fair and balanced,” as per the Fox News tagline.
Wallace surprised even liberals with what Newt Gingrich dubbed “gotcha” questions last year while moderating a Republican primary debate (among other things, he insinuated that Gingrich’s campaign was a “mess”). On his show he asked GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann if she is a “flake,” though he later apologized. Which is not to suggest that Wallace has gone all Rachel Maddow. Appearing as a guest on Fox News Sunday last summer, Jon Stewart, in I’m-not-gonna-be-your-monkey mode, practically throttled Wallace, telling him that “a designed ideological agenda…to effect partisan change” is “the soup you swim in.”
Born October 12, 1947, Wallace has always been an alluring target. The son of 60 Minutes legend Mike Wallace (the subject of a 1996 Playboy Interview) and stepson of former CBS News president Bill Leonard, Wallace tends to be dismissed by critics as, in the words of one, “the Fredo of the 24-hour news cycle.” But the Harvard-educated Wallace has proved himself over and over again during his 40 years on the job. After working in newspapers, he landed a reporting position at NBC, where he rose to chief White House badgerer during the Reagan years. At ABC he subbed for Ted Koppel on Nightline and relentlessly probed government and corporate weasels on Primetime. Wallace has won every major broadcast news award for his reporting, including three Emmys, the duPont-Columbia Silver Baton and a Peabody.
An insatiable political newshound, Wallace jumped at the chance to go to Fox News. “I was 55 and figured I had one big move left in my career,” he says. “And here was a network that was doing news day and night, not just at breakfast and dinner, growing audience, growing revenue. I had to go, and it was the best move I ever made.”
Contributing Editor David Hochman spent a couple of days with Wallace in the Fox News offices atop Capitol Hill. Wallace’s walls are dotted with photos of himself alongside presidents and playing basketball with Michael Jordan. Crisply dressed in custom shirts and expensive ties, he struck Hochman as “cautious at first, as any master interviewer would be. Chris measured his words, restated things. But a few hours in, the tie loosened; he kicked back and ended it all by saying, ‘Go easy on me. I’ve said way more than I should have.’”
It’s a presidential election year, time for the media to polarize every last statement, barb and twitch on the campaign trail. Can this be good for America?
I don’t think it’s bad for America. People talk about this being the most polarized time politically. I’ve read enough history to know what the Federalists said about the Republicans and the Republicans said about the Federalists during the founding of this country. Things are pretty tame compared with that. We haven’t seen one senator take a cane to another on Capitol Hill. Sure, there are divisions—heartfelt divisions. But I’d much rather see them on the airwaves or over the internet than in the streets.
Actually, the streets have been pretty crazy lately—certainly with the Occupy Wall Street crowds. Is that something we’ll still be talking about come November?
Whether it will grow or diminish, I can’t say, but there’s no question things are lousy in this country. To have 15 million unemployed and millions more who have given up or are underemployed, it’s no surprise there’s anger out there. A lot of people are frustrated and downright scared and desperate. On the other hand, as a child of the 1960s, I’m not sure Occupy Wall Street is much of a movement. To say things stink is not an agenda. It’s not easy to say what the solution is, but simply complaining is not the answer. At the same time, there’s a bit of a disconnect. Here they are, railing against huge corporations, and yet the whole endeavor is being organized via Verizon phones, Apple computers and Facebook, which, by the way, are huge corporations. But no, I don’t think this is our Arab Spring, as some people have said. Comparing this movement to that is a disservice to what happened in the Middle East.
Still, America is a nation divided. You’re either a Red American or a Blue American. How did this happen?
I don’t know. We have been talking about the 50-50 nation since Bush-Gore in 2000, when it came down to a handful of votes in Florida. There have been moments when that seemed to change. After Obama won there seemed to be a kind of national swing in his direction. He won a sizable victory. I don’t hold Republicans blameless for that. What surprises me is how it has swung back to a 50-50 split. If Obama had played his cards better, he could have continued to have, if not unanimous support, at least the solid majority support he came in with.
If that’s how you see it, what will it take for the Republicans to win in November?
Well, when a president is running for reelection, an awful lot of it is simply a referendum on his performance. Simply put, if the economy in November 2012 is where it is now, Obama is in serious trouble regardless of who the Republican nominee is. If he is somehow able to turn things around to a degree that no one seems to think he’ll be able to, including his own government forecasters, he’ll probably be in okay shape. It turns out to have been a big mistake for Obama to spend a year, for instance, on Obamacare when he really had one job: to fix the economy. That was why he was elected. Instead, he handed the economy over to Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic chairmen, who had a decade’s worth of social programs they wanted to put into effect. If Obama had come in with a different plan, one that focused on true economic stimulus—not just throwing a trillion dollars at America—we would all be better off. That’s going to hurt him in November.
At the same time, the Republicans need to nominate somebody who is credible, especially to independents. Voters need to look at this guy or this woman and say, “This person can be president.” Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are weak front-runners, in my opinion. Romney’s stronger, but every time somebody else comes on the horizon, whether it’s Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann or Perry, they blow by him until people find problems with the opponent. If a credible Republican candidate doesn’t emerge, Obama can still win, even if people don’t have much confidence in him.
The 2012 campaign introduces a new twist, the so-called Super PACs, which allow donations of any amount from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. How will this change things?
They’ll play a role, but I think their greater influence will be on downticket races more than the presidential race. The president is going to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. The Republican candidate is going to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t know that a few more hundred million being spent on a campaign will make that big a difference. If we see imbalances, it may be in the Senate or House races.
What happened to the Tea Party, by the way? A year ago Fox News had us thinking it would be leading the charge to the White House by now.
I don’t agree with the premise of the question. The Tea Party is still a big player in Republican politics. You can see it in the primaries. There may be polls that say people are somewhat disenchanted. I can understand where that comes from. I think people are fed up with Washington. The deadlock over the debt ceiling and the idea that this country for the first time in its history would default on its debt were a real turnoff to people of all political stripes. And to the degree that Democrats were able to portray that as at least partially the Tea Party’s fault, that has created a backlash against them—not the Tea Party as an entity but as a mind-set, which is antiestablishment, angry with Washington, fed up that government has gotten too big, that it spends too much money, that it’s out of control. I think that’s still a powerful strain in American politics, and the Republicans are still reaching out to that idea.
As is Fox News, right?
You want to get into the whole right-wing thing?
Well, doesn’t it make the oldfashioned newsman in you cringe when Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly waves the flag for conservative causes? And let’s not forget Glenn Beck.
I don’t cringe. I mean, Fox is what Fox is. There’s a prime-time programming side and a daytime newsgathering side. You’d be surprised at the degree to which there’s a firewall between the two. Was Glenn Beck a committed conservative? Absolutely. Is Sean Hannity a committed Republican? Yes. O’Reilly is a more complicated case. Bill is a hybrid who certainly is conservative but has different views on different issues and doesn’t toe the party line as much. I think that makes him better television. But that isn’t what my side of Fox News is about. I defy anybody to look at my interviews with the Republican candidates this year or with, for instance, [Obama senior advisor] David Plouffe and say I was pushing an agenda. It’s like what they used to say about Vince Lombardi: “He treats us all the same—like dogs.” I think I’m tough on everybody, and I’m fine with that.
Let’s talk about Plouffe. Critics said you cut him off every time he suggested that the rich should pay more taxes. You seemed to scoff at his arguments and even accused him of not telling the truth in showing that many millionaires pay a lower tax rate than the average middle-class household. Isn’t that a conservative position?
No, no, no. It was a good interview because we engaged. I was calling him on his facts. Did I just sit there and listen to his talking points? No. I got into it with him, and I think that’s why people enjoy my show.
Do you think the middle class should pay more taxes than millionaires?
Okay, this is a legitimate issue. The fact is, yes, as Warren Buffett made clear, some millionaires pay less income tax than their secretaries. Absolutely. But a guy like Plouffe and the president and the White House are portraying it as if the average tax rate of millionaires or people making more than $250,000 is 15 percent, and that simply isn’t true. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Buffett and his secretary are the exception to the rule. In 2011 those earning more than $1 million will pay on average 29.1 percent in federal taxes. Those earning between $50,000 and $75,000 will pay 15 percent.
Perhaps, but according to the IRS, 131 of the richest 400 households in America, about a third of that group, had an effective tax rate of less than 15 percent in 2008. In 2009 a full 22,000 households that made more than a million annually paid less than 15 percent of their income in taxes.
It’s possible to use statistics to support almost any argument. The point is, if you were to go back and look, you would see that people at the upper income level pay the highest effective tax rate. And as I said, it averages around 29 percent for millionaires.
By the way, do you have a wire in your ear with someone feeding you facts and figures?
[Laughs] Not now and not on the show. I’ve sometimes wondered about doing that, but it’s part of the fun of the job, frankly. You’re on a high wire without a net. I do a lot of research. I’m a political junkie, and I love all this stuff. You have to have a certain confidence in your knowledge in a job like mine; otherwise, you would be shipped off to the farm. Every Sunday I’m sitting there debating the secretary of state about Mideast policy. I’m sitting there talking to the Treasury secretary about tax policy. I’m sitting there talking to Mitt Romney about how many people he laid off when he was head of Bain Capital. You always know less than the person you’re interviewing, but I’ve been interviewing people for 40 years, so I’m comfortable in the territory.
Who is someone you hate to interview but like personally?
The most irritating guest is not somebody who argues or disagrees with you. The most irritating is somebody who just won’t get off the talking points, who is going to say what they’re going to say and won’t engage in actual conversation. That’s somebody I feel wastes our viewers’ time. Chuck Schumer is a good example. I like him; I went to college with him, but he won’t budge beyond his notes.
What about the opposite —someone you may not click with personally but love to interview?
I’m not going to say who I don’t like personally. To me it boils down to who’s a good guest and who’s a bad guest. The best guests are straight shooters. Chris Christie—back when he was being pushed to run, you’d say, “Are you going to run for president?” He’d say, “What do I have to do, commit suicide to convince you I’m not?” That’s great talk-show talk. Sarah Palin was always the same way. Amazing.
Is that why you gushed about her in a radio interview last year? You said you were “dazzled” by her, that she’s “smart,” that she’s “very attractive,” that she’s got a “dynamite personality.”
I was talking about her only as a TV personality. It had nothing to do with her policies or her qualifications for being president. Look, we’re a business, so somebody who attracts an audience is an attractive guest. Sarah Palin is an American original. She has captured a mind-set, a set of concerns and a set of beliefs in this country better than anybody else. She helped create and then rode the Tea Party wave before any other mainstream politician. Do I think she would have made a good president? Not really. Do I think she’s the future of the Republican Party? No, not at all. Is she fun and exciting to watch? You betcha.
On Fox News Sunday last summer, Jon Stewart called you “insane” for insisting you’re not biased. Was there a moment when you regretted inviting him on the show?
Not at all. First of all, I think he’s an interesting political player. I also think he’s funny. Even when he’s criticizing me, I usually laugh. He’s wrongheaded sometimes, but I think he’s a genuinely clever, smart guy. Frankly, I thought it would be entertaining for our audience to see him on the show.
It was a unexpectedly confrontational interview.
I was honestly surprised by his demeanor. I’ve been on his show three or four times. He tweaks me and it’s all kind of good-natured. I expected to do the same thing back at him. But then, to get as angry as he did, it astonished me. Then it became a viral phenomenon. I’ll never forget that afternoon looking at the Huffington Post and seeing the headline you’re insane! in World War III lettering over pictures of the two of us. What’s interesting is he called me in the middle of the whole deal to say, “Hey, it’s nothing personal.”
He said your role at Fox is to “bring credibility and an integrity to an organization that might not otherwise have it without your presence,” adding that a partisan ideological agenda is “the soup you swim in.” On The Daily Show afterward he mockingly said the beauty of your news network is how it has managed to achieve “a narrative of conservative victimization” that is “airtighter than an otter’s anus.”
Well, I assure you Jon knows more about otters’ anuses than I do. I also think Stewart lives in far too transparent a house to be throwing stones. The thing I’ve noticed about him is this: He rightly points out that he criticizes Democrats as well as Republicans, but he criticizes conservatives for being conservative. He criticizes Democrats for being ineffective. It isn’t that their ideas are wrong; it’s that they’re not carrying them out sufficiently. It’s that they’re not liberal enough, not tough enough, not Democratic enough. He criticizes Republicans for being too Republican.
He is a comedian, let us remind you. It’s not Jon Stewart’s job to be fair and balanced. Incidentally, do you ever want to strangle that tagline?
I know our critics wink at it, but it really does mean something. I take it seriously. When I was interviewing Stewart, I said we were the counterweight to the liberal mainstream media. What I should have said, because I’ve thought about it a lot, was that we’re the balance. That doesn’t mean I skew right because the other guys skew left. It means I aim to provide the full picture.
You were certainly more contentious than expected when you moderated the Republican debates last year, cutting people off, calling the candidates out on inconsistencies. Afterward, Rush Limbaugh said you were angling for approval from the mainstream media.
Nonsense. I was doing my job. Rush’s job is different. He’s a believer, a cheerleader. I’m a reporter. At that point, there were eight people running for president. You want to test them, test their ideas, test their mettle, test their policies, all to help voters decide who should be running the country. I was asking hard questions, not looking for approval from the quote-unquote mainstream— or anyone.
Speaking of hard questions, why did you feel the need to apologize to Michele Bachmann last year after asking her, “Are you a flake?” [Editor’s note: Wallace asked the question on Fox News Sunday and apologized in a video that later ran online.]
Because it was the right thing to do. I had meant to phrase the question differently. I wanted to ask her to respond to people who were calling her a flake, but I shorthanded it and simply said, “Are you a flake?” I fully expected her to push back and talk about her credentials as a member of the Intelligence Committee and as a tax lawyer and on and on, which she did a little, but the takeaway for viewers was that I, in effect, was calling her flaky. I came back to the office after the show and saw the e-mail, and I can truthfully say in eight years of doing the show I never got such an outpouring of intensely negative mail. I didn’t get a call from the boss. I simply saw that I had insulted her and thought an apology was due.
Is it wrong to assume that with a father like Mike Wallace and a stepfather like Bill Leonard, you chose your profession to satisfy your two dads?
I can’t say they didn’t influence me. You have to understand, I grew up with television. It’s all I ever knew. I was nine when my mother married Bill Leonard, who was then a correspondent for WCBS-TV in New York. I can remember talking to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been on his show. Even as a kid, I thought it was extraordinary to hear her tell stories about Franklin and Winston on a boat together off the coast of Canada during World War II. Another time, I was walking the halls at CBS, and my stepfather pointed into an office. There was an older man in suspenders and a tie who was working on a script. My stepfather whispered, “That’s Edward R. Murrow.”
Likewise, with my dad, there was this rush of excitement around his job. I remember when he was anchoring The CBS Morning News, he told me to come down to work one day. I was a teenager and grumbled about it because it meant getting there before seven in the morning. But when I walked into the studio, my father was sitting there with Malcolm X. It was an amazing perspective growing up like that.
The big breakthrough for me personally was my first job. I was 16 years old, and Bill at that time was the head of the CBS News election unit. They hired a lot of the children of the executives and correspondents as gofers at the conventions—go for coffee or cigarettes or whatever. And so at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, I was assigned to be Walter Cronkite’s gofer in the anchor booth. It was the most exciting, intoxicating atmosphere in the world. I remember thinking, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
What do you remember most about working with Cronkite?
What I remember most is his daughter Nancy, to tell you the truth. I fell madly in love with her. She was my first girlfriend. She didn’t look at all like Walter, thankfully. She was this beautiful 15-year-old blonde. That was when my dad was anchoring The CBS Morning News and Walter, of course, was doing the evening news. The correspondents all loved seeing Nancy and me together. They said it was like a merging of the two divisions.
Are you implying that Walter Cronkite’s daughter was your first sexual conquest?
I know this is Playboy, but you’ve got to be kidding!
We are merely interested in chronicling this untold story from media history.
Right, sure. She was my first girlfriend. That’s all you’re going to get.
Okay, fine. Let’s talk about your dad. You didn’t have much of a relationship with Mike Wallace until you were 14. What brought him back into your life?
I had an older brother, Peter, who died in the early 1960s in a mountain-climbing accident. In the years before that, Peter had been putting pressure on my father to see me. My brother had carved out his own relationship, but I hadn’t. In the beginning it was pretty awkward for me. My father was a stranger, and he used to sort of force me to go for the weekend to his house out in Snedens Landing, across the Hudson from New York. I never wanted to go. At a certain point he tried winning me over by taking me to this watering hole in New York called Toots Shor. It was a big roast-beef place where famous athletes would hang out. My dad knew I was a huge sports fan. I still am. Frank Gifford would be there, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Arcaro, Howard Cosell. I loved seeing these people. And slowly my dad and I got to know each other over slabs of meat. He really became my father after that.
Your dad is legendary for asking tough questions. Would he interrogate you about homework and girls and all that?
He was always amazingly direct and probing. I remember when I went to college, I had to basically present to him how much money I thought I needed for the semester. It was a silly exercise. I knew he was going to give it to me, but it was as though he wanted to put me through my paces. “Why do you need that? Why can’t you do this instead?” Part of it was he was cheap. But I think he enjoyed the back-and-forth. He likes people who can talk back and engage with him.
How is he now, by the way?
Well, thank you for asking. My dad is 93 and showing it for the first time. He’s in a facility in Connecticut. Physically, he’s okay. Mentally, he’s not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family— me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.
Your critics like to say you wouldn’t be anywhere without nepotism. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t bother me at all now. I mean, it’s silly at this point. I’ve been in the business 40 years. You succeed or fail on your own. If there was ever a business of “What have you done for us lately?” it’s television news. But yeah, in the beginning it hurt like hell. You know, “You’re Mike Wallace’s son. That’s why you’re here.” I’d hear that a lot in the beginning. Or even as I went on, occasionally somebody would say, “Hey, Mike—I mean Chris.” That would sting. You think to yourself, Jesus, how long is it going to be? How many Emmys do I have to win before I’m not Mike’s kid anymore? At some point— and I know this sounds crazy—I just came to terms with it. I remember thinking to myself, You are never going to be Mike Wallace. But you know what? Neither is anybody else. He is one of a kind. There is nobody like him. There never will be anybody like him. But there is still a lot of room to be yourself and to achieve a lot.
When did you have that realization?
Last Thursday? Friday? [laughs] No, probably in my 30s or early 40s.
You were almost 40 when you famously confronted Ronald Reagan during a White House press conference and got him to admit to Israel’s role in selling arms to Iran in exchange for releasing the American hostages. That doesn’t happen at press conferences now. What changed?
It was kind of a free-for-all when I started out as a White House correspondent under Reagan. We used to be able to walk right into the White House with our bags. We never got searched. I could have been carrying anything. You had much more access to the president. Sam Donaldson, Lesley Stahl and I would shout questions at Reagan wherever he went, and he would answer. For a reporter, the White House was the premier beat. You weren’t just a journalist, you were the president’s foil. You were the person at the other end of a meaningful conversation. That elevated you. Today, things are 100 percent scripted. Nobody gets to shout a question. Nobody really gets to have any interaction with the president.
Whose doing was that?
It started with George H.W. Bush. He saw the degree to which we would go into an event and trash it by asking questions. Sometimes it would be on the subject. Sometimes it would not. The president would make news that was completely off the point of what the White House wanted to emphasize that day. Bush 41 came in and said, “No shouted questions, no interaction. We’re going to run our White House and you’re going to cover our White House.” That level of control increased with each successive administration. Clinton didn’t let up, Bush 43 certainly didn’t let up, and Obama has continued it. Frankly, I would go out of my mind if I were covering the White House today. Everything is staged now. Everything.
You sound like a man whose network isn’t exactly favored by the current administration.
Things got a lot tougher for Fox when Obama came in, for sure. Interestingly enough, the Bush team was much nicer to us, not surprisingly, but they weren’t as nice as you would think. As a rule, Democrats are tougher than Republicans on the media. When they’re in power, they use it more aggressively. For our network, the rollercoaster ride began with Clinton, whose administration wanted to snuff Fox out in the cradle. Then the Obama administration declared war on Fox News and tried to delegitimize us and for six months wouldn’t put a guest on any of our programs.
Republicans tend to be a little more polite. For instance, of all the Sunday shows, Fox News Sunday was the last to get an interview with George W. Bush. It wasn’t Meet the Press, Face the Nation or This Week. The last was Fox News Sunday. There’s no way that would happen to Meet the Press in the Obama administration. In fact, Tom Brokaw got an interview with Obama right after the election, before he took office. But Obama certainly wasn’t going to come on Fox. It took me 770 days of asking before Obama caved and finally came on my show in spring 2008. But who knows? He may need us again.
The conservative political blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote that during an interview you did with Dick Cheney in 2009, you behaved like “a teenage girl interviewing the Jonas Brothers,” noting that while critics were accusing the former vice president of war crimes and of authorizing torture techniques perfected by the Khmer Rouge, you were asking him fluffy questions like “Do you think this was a political move, not a law enforcement move?” Sullivan wrote, “Now look: There are softball interviews; and then there are interviews like this. It cannot be described as journalism in any fashion.” Isn’t the job of a journalist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
Come on. I’ve asked Cheney plenty of tough questions. Take a look at the exit interview I did with him in December 2008 about the decisions he made in the war on terror. That was a tough interview. He was ticked afterward. Nobody likes being roughed up. Obviously, when I’m interviewing a guy like Cheney, I watch other interviews so I can ask what other people aren’t asking. That’s why I ask the questions I ask. The other thing you should know about Cheney is that it’s like interviewing a Sherman tank. He is relentless and he is going to make his statement. You aren’t going to interrupt him and you aren’t going to drive him off his point. That is just the sheer force of his personality. It has nothing to do with ideology.
There’s a weird YouTube video called “Is Hillary High?” that features an interview you did with then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She laughs maniacally at questions of yours that aren’t particularly funny. What was going on?
Yeah, that was a little bizarre. I think it was the first interview of all the Sunday shows in her presidential race, and she was laughing uproariously at everything. I definitely don’t think she was high. I think someone had said, “Hey, you need to appear warmer and chummier.” She did the same thing in a few follow-up interviews, so it looked like a strategy.
How would America be different now under President Hillary?
It’s a question a lot of people are asking. The smartest move Barack Obama made was appointing Hillary secretary of state. With his poll numbers as bad as they are, if Hillary were the junior senator from New York and not the secretary, I think there would be a huge draft movement to get her to run an insurgent campaign. Now I don’t see any chance of that. One of the things people who know Hillary say—and I can’t say I know her well—is what a team player she is, how loyal she is. It’s impossible to say what type of president she would have made. But had he not appointed her, a “Draft Hillary” movement would have been the biggest story in American politics right now.
What is the biggest story in American politics right now?
How disappointed the country is with Obama. His presidency is exactly the opposite of what everybody thought it would be. If he’s reelected, there will be a tremendous amount of time to write a different ending, but if it ends in November—and it’s heading in that direction—he will go down as one of the great disappointments in history. So many people put their hopes in him that he was going to be different, that he was going to change the discourse in this town, the way politics get done, and he hasn’t. He’s been a tremendous disappointment on the economy. Obamacare has been a huge disappointment and will probably be repealed if he loses. And perhaps most surprisingly, in foreign policy he has followed many of the same core policies and principles in fighting the war on terror as George W. Bush. Guantánamo is still open. He’s stepped up drone attacks. Who is this guy exactly? We’ll see if he can define himself by November.
Just an observation: Nobody in the Obama White House would use the word Obamacare. It’s a term usually used by conservatives who are anti-Obama.
Okay. I use it for several reasons, and I know it drives the left crazy. That’s not one of the reasons, by the way. The left thinks it’s a conservative slur. To me, it’s simply a shorthand phrase for the president’s health care reform plan. Oddly enough, I never heard anyone on the left complain about calling them the Bush tax cuts. We called it Reaganomics and nobody complained. What’s wrong with Obamacare? It’s simply connecting the author of the plan with the plan.
On your show last year, you said it was improper to label those who question global warming as “misinformed.” Do you believe global warming exists?
I believe that the earth is warming, yes. I believe that man has something to do with it. How is it possible that our pouring tons of crap into the atmosphere isn’t having some impact? Plus, even if we’re wrong on global warming, why wouldn’t we want to stop the pollution? But I don’t think someone is misinformed if they don’t believe in climate change. That’s like saying “Do you believe taxes help or hurt the economy?” People can have a political view without being misinformed.
What’s your political view on gay marriage?
I’ve changed on this issue. I’ve thought about it a lot. I think same-sex marriage should be legal. I can see no good reason why not. They’re committed couples. They’re not hurting anybody. They bring love and stability and raise children. I can understand people who have problems with it. I had problems with it. But times have changed.
What changed your mind?
To tell you the truth, I went to a gay wedding. There’s a fellow here in D.C., Art Smith. He was on Top Chef Masters. He used to be Oprah Winfrey’s chef. He has a restaurant here and in Chicago. I got to be friends with him. He invited my wife and me to his wedding. I was a little squeamish about it, like, What’s this going to be like? But it was wonderful. It was two really nice people who were in love. When I went to it, I couldn’t help but think, I just wish all the critics could come to this and see this, because what’s the big deal? Who is it hurting? It makes them enormously happy and it doesn’t hurt anybody.
You’re sounding like a Democrat.
I am a registered Democrat, but that doesn’t mean anything.
Did you vote for Obama?
No comment. I’m a registered Democrat because I live here in Washington, D.C., and the Republican Party is moribund. The only way you can have any say in who the mayor or the city councilman is, is by voting in the Democratic primary. So I’m a registered Democrat.
How would you describe your politics?
I’m a classic independent moderate. I have voted for Republicans; I’ve voted for Democrats. I probably would surprise you with some of the people I’ve voted for, both on the left and the right.
Okay, surprise us.
In 1984, when Mondale was running against Reagan and I was the White House correspondent for NBC News, that bastion of liberal media, I voted for Reagan’s reelection. I certainly had some problems with some of his issues, but I thought he was a powerful, strong leader who was moving the country in the right direction. In 1988—I shouldn’t be doing this, but I will—I covered Dukakis and liked him enormously. But I came away thinking he wasn’t the right man to be president. I voted for Bush 41. Four years later—this is where I’m going to stop—I had soured on Bush and voted for Clinton.
You did a famous interview with Bill Clinton a few years back. How scary was it when he wagged his finger and accused you of doing a “conservative hit job” with “that little smirk on your face”? [Editor’s note: Wallace asked the former president why he didn’t “do more to connect the dots” and put Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business.]
It was surreal. I went in there in good faith. I wasn’t trying in any way to sandbag him, but this question totally set him off. I didn’t want to get into a fight with a former president, but on the other hand, I knew it was a hell of a story. We had all heard about the purple rages. Here it was, playing out live on TV. Look, in the end, I thought it was great. What are we trying to do? We’re trying to provide insight into the policies and personalities of these figures who are leading us. I think I did that big-time. I just didn’t expect him to go crazy on me.
When news began surfacing about phone hacking at News of the World, in the U.K., did you worry this could affect Fox News or your boss Rupert Murdoch?
No. I thought it was a terrible thing, but so did Rupert Murdoch. There hasn’t been a scintilla of evidence that he knew about it. He has condemned it. There certainly is not an atom of evidence that it came to this country and especially that Fox News was involved in any way. I will be shocked if we find out Fox was involved. I’ve seen no evidence in any way, shape or form.
What’s your relationship with Murdoch like?
He’s Mr. Murdoch and I’m that fellow on TV on Sunday mornings. I see him at social functions in Washington occasionally. I’ve seen him at a couple of company events. He seems to like me fine, but I can’t say I have any relationship with him. He hasn’t told [Fox News president] Roger Ailes to fire “that guy,” so I guess that’s a good relationship.
We’ve read that Ailes tried to have bombproof windows installed in his office. Do you ever worry about the powerful emotions cable networks stir in liberals and conservatives alike?
No. The only time I wondered was in 2008 when Obama spoke outdoors at a big speech at the football stadium in Denver the closing night of the convention. I was the person closest to the stage. I had been the podium correspondent for Fox during the whole convention indoors. So I was surrounded by the most rabid, committed Democrats. I wondered, Is this going to get ugly? But it was a wonderful night. Obama gave a great speech, Sheryl Crow performed, and I must have been asked for my autograph or to have my picture taken by a hundred people an hour. It just goes to show that in the end, if you’re on TV, that trumps anything. People are just excited that you’re famous. But fame doesn’t mean much to me. I grew up with a famous father and everyone saying “Hey, Mike” to him, so I’m used to the attention. It turns the world into a small town, so I can’t complain.
How much time do you spend watching your competition on, say, MSNBC?
Have I watched MSNBC? Yes. Do I watch it? No. I watch Fox News, and I watch the Today show in the morning and at least one network newscast at night. Yes, I’m the one person who still does that.
But you know who Chris Matthews is.
[Laughs] Yes, I know who Chris Matthews is. And he’s free to tilt left just as some people think that, particularly in prime time, we tilt right. The failure of MSNBC is a testament to Roger Ailes’s genius. It’s not that liberal politics are inherently less interesting than conservative politics. It’s that Fox News is better television than MSNBC. We have better shows, better anchors. It’s much more watchable.
So you’re saying Rachel Maddow isn’t watchable?
I find her smart-alecky.
CNN is certainly making a big fuss over Anderson Cooper lately. What’s your take on him?
I think he’s fine. I don’t get what all the hype’s about. I just wouldn’t tune him in. They’ve spent millions of dollars promoting him. I think he’s a serious guy. I think he’s an attractive guy. He’s just not somebody I have any desire to watch.
What about online? I suspect you’re not a fan of Arianna Huffington.
I don’t like her on TV because I have trouble understanding her. I think she’d have more credibility if she didn’t have such a thick accent. She’s been in this country for how many decades? It’s like Henry Kissinger. Lose the accent already! The Huffington Post, I read it. Sometimes I’m curious to see what it has to say. It has a fellow who does a live blog of all the Sunday talk shows. I routinely look at that. Given its political bent, it roughs me up, but I find it entertaining.
Are you a Twitter man?
I wouldn’t even know where to find it.
Google co-sponsored one of the debates you moderated. How often do you Google yourself?
If I’ve done a particularly controversial interview, I’m curious to see the reaction. What’s amazing to me is what anonymous commenters will go out of their way to say about you. It’s horrible. Some of them are very smart and they’ll say, “Well, why didn’t you ask so-and-so this?” My reaction is usually, “Because I didn’t know about it.” But some of it is just terrible, and you think to yourself, Why would they sit there and write these screeds while you’re on the air? I mean, in my entire life I’ve never sat with a computer while watching a TV show and fired off things to the show.
My wife recently wrote a book about soup that did pretty well. I come home on Sunday mornings and there’s soup waiting for me. She wrote a recipe book. Anyway, some guy writes in and says, “I’m fed up with you and I’m fed up with your wife’s soup, so I’m off the show and I’m not eating soup anymore.” I actually wrote back and said, “Hey, it’s fine if you want to boycott me. But don’t boycott the soup.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Another observation: You’re really kind of a square. Did you ever have a rebellious period?
Well, I’ve had one cigarette in my life, which was at a Harvard-Dartmouth football game. I was so cold I thought maybe it would keep me warm. I’ve never had a full cup of coffee. Drugs never interested me. I am probably the only person in the history of Harvard in the 1960s who never took drugs.
So you’ve never inhaled?
I didn’t at Harvard. A few times thereafter I did. And when I say a few, I mean less than the number of fingers on one hand.
How were those few?
They didn’t suck. It was okay, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to pursue it. I’ve always been a very light drinker and a cheap drunk. Even now, if I have a gin and tonic, my wife is like, “Oh my God!”
What’s wrong with you?
I don’t know! I’ve always been a good boy. The bad stuff never tempted me. When I was in grade school, I got a little medal for being the honor boy every year from fifth grade to ninth grade, except for one year when the teachers didn’t give it to me because it would have caused a riot if I got it again.
So you have zero vices?
Look, I got divorced from my first wife after 20 years, so obviously I wasn’t perfect there. I don’t think I was entirely at fault, but I certainly played a role. I have been enormously happily married to Lorraine for 14 years and have learned a lot. I did a lot of work on myself, went to see a therapist.
What was the takeaway from therapy?
Boy, that’s a tough question. There wasn’t one simple takeaway. One of many was to like myself more. Maybe that sounds odd, but I think a lot of successful people would say the same thing. My father has talked a lot about being depressed. I’ve never been depressed, knock wood. But I have suffered a lot of anxiety and a lot of insecurity. I came away from therapy feeling there’s value in taking it easier on yourself. Be nicer to yourself. If you like yourself more, what flows naturally from that is that you’re nicer to other people. That’s been a big change. What makes me a good interviewer is that I can be sharp and incisive. But the flip side is that I can be cutting and sarcastic. I used to think to myself, What would I pay to be able to take back all those stupid remarks I made in my marriage and elsewhere to mend the garment? But you can’t. You can’t put it back together again. So instead I became much more mindful of the circuit breaker in my head that goes, Hey, be nice. Stay even.
Fair and balanced?