**Editor’s Note:* Hailed as the pioneer of magazine-style television journalism, Mike Wallace was as revered and respected as they come. His 40 year career as the host of “60 Minutes” saw him handle the most controversial interviews, from Malcolm X to Roger Clemens and tackle the most daunting and dividing issues of the late American Century. On Sunday Morning, CBS announced that the famed newsman had died at 93. The following is the 1996 Playboy interview with the man who revolutionized the word.*
“Sometimes I have a foul mouth, but people in the office respect that. They say, ‘He may be a pain, but that’s Mike.’ Anyway, I’m such an old bugger by now that they figure, What the hell. Let him do whatever he does.”
“Connie Chung did the right thing. Gingrich’s mother is hardly stupid. She was used to scrutiny. There were cameras in the room. Were she a little old lady who didn’t know her way around, it would have been different.”
“It triggered a clinical depression. When you pick up the paper every morning and read that you are a thief, a liar, a murderer, it makes you feel lower than a snake’s belly. Every insecurity I ever had took over.”
Mike Wallace scoops a handful of water from a washbasin at his vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Running it through his silver-streaked hair, he says, “There, you see? Doesn’t it look black?”
“Darker,” admits his visitor.
The water trick is Wallace’s little concession to a senior citizen’s vanity. At 78, the master interrogator of American television has only recently begun to turn gray. He swears on the heads of his four wives, three children and ten grandchildren that he has never dyed his hair, something some friends find hard to believe.
Then again, there’s much about Wallace that taxes the imagination: that he’s been on television for nearly half a century; that he’s appeared on 60 Minutes since the day it started in 1968; that he is still considered by some to be America’s toughest interviewer, as he zigzags the globe, grilling politicians and entertainers, saints and sinners, kings and con men. Over the years, Wallace has parried with the likes of Malcolm X, Luciano Pavarotti, Louis Farrakhan, Barbra Streisand, Yasir Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Horowitz, Martina Navratilova, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Oprah Winfrey. He has also gone head-to-head with various heads of state, including the Shah of Iran, King Hussein, Deng Xiaoping, Anwar Sadat and presidents Reagan and Carter and their wives.
Wallace doesn’t chase only the well known. He’s as comfortable busting a shady Texas businessman as he is calling Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic a “war criminal” to his face. He practically invented hard-hitting investigative TV journalism, thanks to his willingness to put any question to anyone at any time. The hidden camera and so-called ambush interview were staples of Wallace’s early 60 Minutes segments.
“Most interviewers have an embarrassment ceiling,” said the late CBS News executive Bill Leonard. “But Mike is totally unafraid.” Today, with more than a year left on his CBS contract, Wallace sees no reason to slow the frantic pace of helping to create, week after week, the network’s top-rated broadcast and the world’s most popular public affairs show (60 Minutes ranks in the top ten).
Of late, however, the road has gotten bumpy for Wallace. In recent years he has been upbraided, embarrassed or both for staging a hidden-camera interview in his own office (the taped encounter was with a camera-shy journalist who was actually trying to help him), for semipublic dustups with colleagues and for an intemperate tirade against former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who had written unflattering remarks about him in his autobiography. But, most famously, Wallace took the fall for CBS’ decision in late 1995 not to air his exclusive interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco company vice president who blew the whistle on his ex-bosses. The embarrassment to Wallace and 60 Minutes was compounded when the New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal ran detailed stories about Wallace’s unused interview. Playing catch-up, 60 Minutes finally ran the piece—three months later.
In the aftermath of the incident there was speculation that the show had lost its edge. The network’s previous loss of NFL football plus eight key affiliates to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television Network convinced some critics—and competitors—that the show’s quarter-century lock on the Sunday night prime-time audience was at last weakening.
Last spring, NBC shoved its successful Dateline NBC magazine show into Sunday’s seven P.M. slot. With Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips anchoring, the peacock network hoped to peel off the younger end of Wallace’s audience. Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes and the show’s iron hand, counterpunched by bringing in outside correspondents and fresh summertime material, instead of airing the usual reruns. The changes paid off. By the time the fall season approached, Hewitt’s indefatigable cash cow (Wallace says the show earns $50 million a year for CBS) was once again holding firm in the top-ten position it has occupied for 18 years.
Mike Wallace was born Myron Leon Wallace on May 9, 1918, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was, as Wallace calls it, an “O'Connor and Goldberg town,” an Irish-Jewish enclave of the newly arrived and upwardly mobile. The Wallaces’ neighbors down the street were Joe and Rose Kennedy, whose second son, John Fitzgerald, was born one year before Wallace. Another neighbor, Harry Dickson, who later became conductor of the Boston Pops and the father-in-law of future governor Michael Dukakis, was Wallace’s violin teacher.
A decent fiddler and a fair tennis player (he was concertmaster of the Brookline High School symphony and captain of its tennis team), Wallace was nonetheless drawn to a career in broadcasting. Severe acne made him seek the darkened solitude of the radio studio, where he could be heard but not seen. It didn’t take long for Wallace to discover that his voice was more of a gift than his forehand. Graduating in 1939 from the University of Michigan, he landed his first radio job in Grand Rapids, then Detroit, where he was used as an all-purpose announcer to read the news, bring on The Green Hornet and occasionally summon up The Lone Ranger. He married Norma “Kappy” Kaphan when he was 22, and his first son, Peter, was born in 1942, shortly before Wallace joined the Navy and shipped out for the Pacific.
After the war, Wallace divorced, but not before having a second son, Chris (now a chief correspondent on ABC’s Prime Time Live and substitute host on Nightline). Knocking around the burgeoning Chicago broadcasting scene, Wallace met and interviewed—then courted and married—a stage star named Buff Cobb, with whom he launched a husband-and-wife TV interview show, Mike and Buff. Lured to New York, the couple was broadcast nationally on CBS, but the marriage began to crumble. After a short stint on Broadway—Wallace played an art dealer in a comedy called Reclining Figure—he finally found the niche that would forever define his broadcast persona. Ensconced on an all-black set—suited more to a police interrogation than to an interview program—Wallace waved a fuming cigarette at his guests and soon became TV’s first tough-as-nails cross-examiner. The show, Night Beat, earned its host the reputation as a guy who would ask any question—no matter how insulting. Among his earliest guests was a budding young magazine publisher named Hugh Hefner. On that segment, Wallace called Hefner’s star vehicle, Playboy, a “high-class dirty book,” adding that its presentation of sex was “sniggering,” “lascivious” and “certainly not a healthy approach to sex—you wouldn’t suggest that?” (This time Wallace got as good as he gave. “I would not only suggest that,” Hefner responded, smiling, “I would say it rather strongly: We consider it a pretty healthy attitude.”)
Wallace also took on freelance broadcast assignments and made a handsome living. But when his son Peter was killed in a 1962 hiking accident in Greece, the grief-stricken father decided to change his life. Despite a significant decrease in income, Wallace stopped doing commercials and entertainment work and implored CBS to give him a news job. By 1968 he was a senior correspondent for the network, covering the resurrected presidential ambitions of Richard Nixon, who tried—unsuccessfully—to hire Wallace as his press secretary.
Wallace’s reputation as a pit-bull interviewer endured, and shortly after the 1968 election he was recruited for a new “magazine show” called 60 Minutes. The show’s rambunctious executive producer, Don Hewitt, needed a tough guy to play against the easy going charm of the show’s other correspondent, Harry Reasoner. The show debuted on September 24, 1968. More than 1300 broadcasts later, it’s still a hit.
We sent Peter Ross Range, a veteran of seven Playboy Interviews,“ to catch up with Wallace, first in New York, then at Wallace’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Wallace is no stranger to the "Playboy Interview,” having previously been both a subject (the 60 Minutes team, March 1985) and an interviewer (Jimmy Hoffa, November 1963). Here is Range’s report:
“When Mike Wallace first came down the hall toward me in his apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, I was struck by his slimness—quite different from the sometimes frumpy figure he cuts on TV. It also became apparent why he’s still ticking so loudly after all these years: He’s a disciplined eater who plays tennis every day in the summer, weekly in the winter. His restless energy makes him a pacer in the office as well as on the court. He credits his healthful diet to his third wife, Lorraine, who 'fed me nuts and raisins for 28 years.’
"While Wallace lives and works in New York, his heart—and future resting place—is on Martha’s Vineyard, the island he’s been visiting since he was a boy. There he spends languid summer days with his best buddies: humorist Art Buchwald, writer William Styron, theater director Robert Brustein, academic Sheldon Hackney. Together this East Coast rat pack have bought plots for themselves and their wives in a beautiful, tiny cemetery just 200 yards down the road from Wallace’s sprawling summerhouse overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor.
"Naturally, I was nervous about interviewing the ultimate interviewer. Suppose he turned the tables? Suppose he barked at me? But the true impact of facing Wallace dawned on me one day at a New York tennis club, when, between games, one of his friends asked me what it was like to interview the master. For a second I was at a loss to answer—but then found myself saying, 'It’s easy.’ That’s when I realized that Wallace, whose personal manner is much gentler than the one seen on TV (except when he’s arguing a line call in tennis), had put me so much at ease that I’d forgotten to be daunted by him. "We did, however, begin our conversation with a discussion of his notoriously hard-hitting style.”
Playboy: You’re a tough interviewer. Where did that come from?
Wallace: When Don Hewitt thought up 60 Minutes in 1968, he got Harry Reasoner as his correspondent. But since Harry was such a nice guy, Hewitt realized he needed someone to play “black hat” to Harry’s “white hat.”
Playboy: Why you?
Wallace: I had already gained a reputation on a show called Night Beat as a guy who wasn’t afraid to ask the abrasive question.
Playboy: But you seem like a sweet guy in person. Where does the bulldog come from?
Wallace: This is a role, truly. It’s a role I enjoy—a reportorial role.
Playboy: So it’s all a performance?
Wallace: No, it’s not a performance. That’s like saying that your writing style is a performance. It’s not a performance. It’s my style.
Playboy: Does the bulldog emerge in personal situations?
Wallace: Sure, I can be difficult and demanding and brusque. Some of the comments I make in the editing room are cutting, and my colleagues know me for that. Sometimes I have a foul mouth, but I think people in the office respect the fact that I’m a little noisy. They say, “Oh, that’s just Mike. He may be a pain, but that’s just Mike.” Anyway, I’m such an old bugger by now that they figure, What the hell. Let him do whatever he does.
Playboy: Have you ever regretted your brusqueness?
Wallace: Yes. I once interviewed the guy who ran Hooker Chemical about toxicity in the water. And I indulged in overkill. I really exceeded common sense. The story got past the producer. It got past everyone. When I saw it on the air, I thought, Why you pious, self-righteous horse’s ass!
Playboy: If your persona on 60 Minutes is just a role, as you say, why shouldn’t viewers consider it acting rather than journalism?
Wallace: You’re fixating on the business of role-playing. We’re reporters, not actors. Maybe you’re role-playing right now. Look at yourself: You look like a college don, with your glasses up on your head and your eyes sparkling whenever I give you something you think will make good copy. You’re playing a role; I do the same, and it has worked over the years.
Playboy: And the role is?
Wallace: The reporter who asks the irreverent or confrontational question. And after Harry Reasoner left the show and Morley Safer came on in 1970, that’s when the character of the broadcast really began to develop. We started the investigative stuff that became the hallmark of the show.
Playboy: The show also invented the ambush interview, for which you were sometimes criticized.
Wallace: We haven’t done an ambush interview in a long time. Perhaps at the beginning we made our reputation with it. But then people came along and began to ape it, and it turned into a caricature of itself. We asked ourselves, “What are we after: light or heat?”
Playboy: How do you get company executives—or anyone else—to cooperate with you and go on camera?
Wallace: You know, it’s funny. In recent years it’s actually gotten easier to get high government or business figures to appear on “60 Minutes.” Almost all of them are now sophisticated and savvy enough to understand: What’s going to be better? To stonewall and take a hit, or take the chance that we can give ourselves a good defense?
Playboy: We noticed on your office wall a photograph of you and Yasir Arafat with your arms around each other’s shoulders. Are you friends?
Wallace: No, no, no—not at all. That was after our most recent interview. I’ve interviewed him maybe half a dozen times over the past 20 years. The first time must have been around 1977.
Playboy: What was that like?
Wallace: It was the usual routine. We fly to Beirut, Arafat moves from building to building to building. He finally invites us to dinner, a chicken dinner in his own digs—or, at least, what were his digs for that night. Things were very tough in Beirut at the time. There were all kinds of armed PLO guards standing around.
Anyway, we’re sitting there having a good, civilized time, and the interview follows dinner. Arafat begins to talk about human rights and about President Jimmy Carter. I had seen a little item in The New York Times just before I left that said the PLO had a military mission working for Idi Amin in Uganda. So I said, “Why, if you have such a feeling for human rights, would you have a Palestinian training mission working with Idi Amin?”
Arafat replied, “I am not helping him, as you know, training. That’s all.”
I said, “You, who talk of human rights, are a friend of the butcher Amin?”
“Oh, well, you know… .”
That’s the only time I’ve seen him so embarrassed. He didn’t know what to do. He was like Donald Duck out over the cliff, and all he could see was the drop below him. It was quite apparent that he was angry because he’d been caught.
Playboy: How did you persuade him to do another interview?
Wallace: It was ten years before he would speak to me again. Finally his people decided they would receive me for dinner. He had assembled the strangest group of people: various aides, William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, a Baltimore rabbi, a Jewish woman from the U.S. and me. And, meanwhile, Arafat didn’t have his headgear on, and his head looked waxed. It’s so bald and shiny and smooth. And he’s got wonderful eyes, deep, dark, brown-black eyes. In a strange way, he’s quite a good-looking man. And he says, “Mr. Wallace, you know what happened the last time. This is off the record. Agreed? Everything?”
I said, “Agreed.”
There’s sheep in the middle of the table. So with his hands, he’s serving everybody. And we had an absolutely fascinating discussion.
Playboy: As a Jew, aren’t you troubled personally by Arafat? He is, after all, a man who has a lot of blood on his hands, no?
Wallace: Of course he does. But so did [former Israeli prime minister] Menachem Begin. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Arafat was a story. Listen, I’m sitting down with you.
Playboy: Hardly the same thing, it would seem, but let’s move on. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill and Hillary Clinton went on 60 Minutes to respond to reports of Clinton’s alleged 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers. Your colleague Steve Kroft did that interview. Why didn’t you, with your reputation as the grand inquisitor, get the assignment?
Wallace: I don’t know exactly how that worked. I was told that two people in the Clinton organization said, “OK, we’ll do 60 Minutes, but only if —- ”
Playboy: “If it’s not Wallace.”
Wallace: Exactly right.
Playboy: How did that make you feel?
Wallace: Frustrated, I confess.
Playboy: Do you think you would have pressed Clinton harder on the infidelity question?
Wallace: I think Steve did a fine job. But I would have liked to ask Clinton if he thought a leader’s behavior in his private life necessarily diminishes his political effectiveness. All kinds of democratic countries have had leaders whose private lives have in no way diminished their public lives. It was well known in France, for example, that President Mitterrand had a mistress. I think we Americans are excessively puritanical about that.
Playboy: What’s the most important thing to remember when doing a high-profile interview?
Wallace: You have to understand the people you’re interviewing and why they are doing the interview. You’re giving them an opportunity to make their case. And you’re not there to hit them—I mean, I have no desire to hit or shock somebody. Rather, you have to establish a chemistry of confidentiality. They become almost co-conspirators with you along the way.
Playboy: Let’s say you have something explosive about a person’s business, or contradictions he’s made in public statements. How do you decide when to drop the bomb?
Wallace: It depends how things develop between us. For example, you and I have been meeting for hours. Have you asked all the nasty questions you have in mind?
Playboy: Probably not.
Wallace: Probably not. So in other words, you’ve been working me for hours. You have me on the hook now. This interview’s going to be completed. At some point, you figure, Well, what the heck—he’s not going to back off now. So let’s go.
Playboy: OK. As it happens, we made a list of things you’ve said over the years. Here’s one: “Folks tend to talk when they shouldn’t.” What’s an example of that?
Wallace: Right now.
Playboy: Wrong—please keep talking. Here’s another one: You said you have to “relax the interviewee to the point where he thinks he can level with me.” What does that mean?
Wallace: I’ve probably said some things over the past few hours that, if I had a look at them, I’d say, “Well, I’m not sure I want this on the record.” But we have established a chemistry of confidentiality, I think. I respect you, and you me. I respect the fact that you did a lot of work on this before getting here. And that frequently happens with me when I have an interviewee who is a little leery. He or she wants to do it but is a trifle wary. Well, if you establish that chemistry we’re talking about, the person will want the interview to look good on the screen. To look substantial.
Playboy: Give us an example.
Wallace: Probably the best was Philip Barrish, a crooked accountant we taped in Chicago in 1978. Barrish eventually agreed to talk with 60 Minutes. At first he denied doing anything wrong. But then we confronted him with his phony bookkeeping records. That gave me a chance to be the nice guy—somewhat sympathetic to his denials—and he relaxed. Soon he admitted that cooking the books and tax fraud were “common knowledge” in Chicago. So I said, “Look, between you and me, I know you do it. Everybody does it.” When I said “between you and me,” Barrish momentarily forgot that millions of people would be watching. He said, “I presume everybody does it to some extent.” We had him.
Playboy: So Mike Wallace, the great interviewer, used the “between you and me” trick almost 20 years ago? That’s the same gimmick Connie Chung pulled last year with Newt Gingrich’s mother. She said, “Just between us, what does Newt say about Hillary Clinton?” and Mrs. Gingrich whispered, “She’s a bitch.” Chung caused a huge scandal at CBS with that. How was your doing it with Barrish any different?
Wallace: It’s no different, really. I thought Connie Chung did exactly the right thing. So many of our colleagues were shocked that she would do a thing like that, but it really is standard operating procedure.
Look, Gingrich’s mother is hardly a stupid woman. She was used to scrutiny from the press. She understands that her son is scrutinized by the press. There were cameras in the room. There were lights in the room. Were she a little old lady who didn’t know her way around the corner, that would have been a different story.
Playboy: Still, the incident cost Chung her job.
Wallace: I don’t think that’s what cost Connie her job. The whole thing was handled badly by CBS News. Connie got a bad rap.
Playboy: Do you think we’ve gone too far with the star system in television news? Are Chung, Diane Sawyer, you and others paid so much that you’ve become disconnected from the rest of the culture?
Wallace: If you’ve become disconnected from the rest of your culture, that’s your fault. We reporters should not let that happen to us. The journalists I know at CBS and NBC and ABC are still motivated the way a good reporter has always been motivated. They’re after a good story and they get behind the facade. If anything has changed, it’s that reporters are no longer middle class or just barely upper middle class. Many are now upper class. I’m talking money, I’m talking financial.
Playboy: How much money do you make?
Wallace: None of your business.
Playboy: Do you make more than $2 million a year?
Wallace: I’m not about to tell you. I’m paid very generously—what the market will bear. I’ve worked half a century to get here, and deserve every penny of it.
Playboy: Would you describe yourself as a rich man?
Wallace: Uh, yeah. By the standards of my family, I’m rich. I have an apartment in New York and a house on Martha’s Vineyard.
Playboy: When President Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, The New York Times ran an editorial called “Among the Swells,” suggesting the island is a rarefied enclave of the rich and privileged—and out of touch with America.
Wallace: That’s utter bullshit. It’s true that it’s filled with people from the arts and media. There’s a community of interests. But it doesn’t really matter who you are. Sometimes I’ll go to a party where I know hardly anyone.
Playboy: You have been married four times. What does that tell us about you, about marriage and about your relationships with women?
Wallace: Oh, Jesus… .
Playboy: Is this a difficult topic for you? Do you want to come back to it later?
Playboy: OK. Your son Chris Wallace is very much out of his father’s mold—a hard-charging correspondent on ABC’s Prime Time Live and occasional substitute for Ted Koppel on Nightline.
Wallace: Yes, but the truth is, I wasn’t around much when Chris was growing up. My first wife, Kappy, and I split up soon after Chris was born. I moved from Chicago with my second wife, Buff Cobb, to New York, where we had a TV show together. Chris was in Chicago and, as a little kid, had no idea who I was. I was wrapped up in my work and my new marriage.
Playboy: Were you a good father, nonetheless?
Wallace: No. I was an absent father. How can you consider yourself a good father if you don’t have a lot to do with your children? But Chris and I have become much closer. We talk on the phone sometimes two or three times a day. We’re very, very good friends. I think he loves me deeply now, and he knows how much I love him. To some degree, it was my daughter Pauline who helped bring the two of us together.
Playboy: You were married to Pauline’s mother, your third wife Lorraine, for 28 years. What happened?
Wallace: She became a casualty, I think, of my work schedule. Too many missed dinners, too many abrupt trips. I remember Thanksgiving dinners—one in particular, but it wasn’t the only one—when I had to leave in the middle to go to Tehran.
Playboy: This was not appreciated.
Wallace: Oh, no, no, no. As a result of this, she began to seek solace in tranquilizers. She was a painter, a very spiritual person. But her painting didn’t seem to be so fulfilling as it had been. She finally left, moved to Fiji, and has since died.
Playboy: Do you have any remorse about this?
Wallace: Why remorse? Here at the age of 78, I look back and say, “OK, I made some mistakes.” Having been married four times does not give me a sense of pride or accomplishment. But, by the same token, I have honored my obligations to all of those individuals. I’ve always, to some degree, been a creature of the women I’ve been with. Apparently, I need the guidance of the women with whom I spend time.
Playboy: How? Run them down for us.
Wallace: With Kappy, I was cast mainly in the role of husband and father. I married too young—I was only 22. I never had time to sow my wild oats. It was not a particularly physical marriage.
My relationship with Buff Cobb, who was an actress I met in Chicago, was much more physical. She was fun. I fell in love with the glamour, her family background, their knowledge of New York and Hollywood. But after eight or nine years, we grew apart. Our lifestyle values were different. Hers were more show business. Mine were more conservative, middle class, Jewish.
And my marriage to Lorraine civilized me. I met a group of people I might not otherwise have met, because she was a painter. There was that spiritual quality to her, utterly different from anyone I had known.
Playboy: How did you meet your current wife, Mary?
Wallace: She was married to Ted Yates, the producer of Night Beat. But he died young. So we knew each other all those years, knew each other’s children. One summer I invited her up to Martha’s Vineyard, and we became very close. She stayed the whole summer, then we moved into my New York apartment together. She stuck with me through some tough times. Two years later, we were married under an apple tree by the water on Martha’s Vineyard. Everybody wants to be around Mary; she makes everyone so comfortable. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather be spending these years with.
Playboy: By the way, did you finally sow your wild oats?
Wallace: No, they never got sown. Every time I became involved with somebody, I got married!
Playboy: The Sixties were a time of great cultural upheaval in the country, both in personal lifestyles and in the media. What impact did feminism have on you?
Wallace: I was, and to a certain degree remain, a male chauvinist.
Wallace: Well, I’m not really a male chauvinist anymore. But I was years ago. What would now be called sexual harassment was par for the course back in the Fifties and early Sixties. And I would indulge in it… .
Playboy: In what way?
Wallace: Jokes. Snapping of a bra.
Playboy: When was the last time you did that?
Wallace: I would say 25 years ago. But it was no big deal. It was a matter of some hilarity. It sounds sophomoric as you look back at it. But everybody seemed to get along. No one ever put me up on charges. I have nothing but respect for women professionally. But vive la difference! I’m impatient, I suppose, with militant feminism.
Playboy: Drugs were another big issue of the Sixties, particularly among entertainment and media people. How did you weather those years? Did you get involved with drugs?
Wallace: I tried pot. I was curious, so I smoked a joint from time to time. I didn’t find it especially interesting, though it had aphrodisiac overtones that were not unpleasant. But that’s the only drug I’ve ever tried. I’ve never tried cocaine or anything else.
Playboy: Mike Wallace smoked dope? That’s pretty hard to fathom.
Wallace: I remember one time with my daughter Pauline. We were with friends of hers from Haiti—they were her age. When we went to her apartment after dinner, I don’t know what the hell they were smoking, but it wasn’t just pot. I think it was hash or something. I took a drag or two, to be a good sport, and I really got —-
Playboy: A rush?
Wallace: Oof! I got sick. Really sick. And I had to leave for Paris the next morning. As far as I was concerned, I overdosed. I tried to leave but made the taxi take me back to Pauline’s. We called my doctor, who told Pauline, “Give him water. Lots of water. Make him lie down.” I made it to Paris the next day, but I was in bad shape for two or three days.
Playboy: Let’s get back to journalism. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll showed that today only 21 percent of the public believes journalists are honest. Why?
Wallace: We are a polarized society. Vietnam did that. Civil rights did it. Watergate did it. Journalists have fed a lot of bad news to the American public over the past quarter century, and the public doesn’t like it.
Playboy: How does this affect trust?
Wallace: People don’t trust anything anymore. We don’t trust our government. We don’t trust our automobile makers. We don’t trust our pharmaceutical houses. We don’t trust our doctors or our hospitals or our cops. We don’t trust Congress. And a lot of Americans don’t trust the president of the U.S. So the media are simply regarded as another piece of the American establishment. People think we’re trying to get away with something, trying to pull the wool over their eyes, trying to push an agenda.
Playboy: Any truth to that?
Wallace: To some degree, of course. For example, I think the vaudeville that takes place on weekends—such as The McLaughlin Group—is destructive. You don’t get a lot of wisdom out of them, and their political projections are largely wrong. In my estimation, what the shout shows do in the end is popularize and trivialize reporters. It’s an act, with people talking loudly in a self-consciously controversial or provocative way—unlike This Week With David Brinkley, which is first-rate, good and thoughtful stuff.
Playboy: What about the daytime talk shows, with Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams and the others? They raised the in-studio ambush to an art form.
Wallace: Those are disgusting broadcasts. They are the worst kind of voyeurism—too often like a public pig-sticking. They’re a hateful exploitation of humans who, I think, do not know how to handle themselves on the air.
Playboy: Public distrust of the media has also been fanned by the huge speaking fees that some TV journalists receive. Do you receive a fee when you speak?
Wallace: Damn right.
Playboy: How much?
Wallace: Not less than 25, and not more than 50. I do maybe, tops, half a dozen a year.
Playboy: That’s $25,000 to $50,000—quite a piece of change. Tom Brokaw of NBC has called taking big fees a form of white-collar crime.
Wallace: That’s Tom’s view. It’s not mine. What makes it white-collar crime? Can anybody claim that in my 28 years on 60 Minutes, I’ve gone in the tank for any industry or group or lobby I’ve spoken in front of? Of course not.
Playboy: You talked about the importance of establishing a chemistry of confidentiality with your interview subjects. Which other television interviewers do the same thing?
Wallace: I’ll tell you who does that better than anybody I know: Barbara Walters.
Playboy: But some also say she’s just a softball, celebrity interviewer—hardly a 60 Minutes type.
Wallace: That’s not fair at all. Look, you get the information you’re after by whatever means you feel will be effective. She is very effective in getting it her way. She leaves very few questions unasked.
Playboy: How does she get so many famous subjects in the first place?
Wallace: There is nobody in the world better at “gets” than Barbara Walters—nobody. She will pursue them, write them, visit them, entertain them, and send them flowers. She is good friends with the mighty.
Playboy: Would you ever do any of those things?
Wallace: I never have. I’m not good at it. But it’s perfectly legit.
Playboy: But it’s sucking up.
Wallace: It isn’t necessarily. Well, with some of them it is.
Playboy: Who were your favorite celebrities to profile?
Wallace: I guess I fell in love with Vladimir Horowitz—and he with me. So funny.
Playboy: How so?
Wallace: It was at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. First time I’d met him. But I was apprehensive about Horowitz. He was this extraordinary figure. He had been holed up, hadn’t left his house, for 12 years. Now he was performing again. We were supposed to meet him at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon for the interview—he was playing the next day at four. In fact, he performed only on Sundays at four o'clock because he believed it was the only time of week that men don’t fall asleep. Anyway, he arrived for our interview on Saturday wearing bow tie and tails. As he came onto the stage, where our cameras were set up, I said to him, “Maestro!” And he said, “Mike Wallace! I watch you every Sunday night!” Horowitz was kind of an adolescent. We hit it off and had a good time.
Playboy: One person you didn’t hit it off with was Barbra Streisand. In 1991 you did a profile of her and, in front of her, quoted her mother as saying that Barbra was not a very attentive daughter. Before the interview was over, you had Barbra crying. She said angrily to you: “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
Wallace: Well, Streisand and I had worked together years before. She had appeared about 15 times on a broadcast that I did around 1960 called PM East. She was this raspy, difficult, self-absorbed person—with this glorious voice. We didn’t hit it off very well back then, and I wound up not liking her very much. We didn’t talk for about 20 years. She didn’t miss me and I didn’t miss her. Big deal.
Playboy: So why did you do the interview with her?
Wallace: While she was making the movie The Prince of Tides, her manager came to me for permission to use some of the material from PM East for a new album. I said, “Sure, but how about a 60 Minutes piece on her when the movie is released?” We negotiated for a long time. She wanted to know what it would be about. She wanted control over the final edit—which was denied. Finally, she said OK.
Playboy: But the interview turned out pretty rough, didn’t it?
Wallace: It wasn’t a rough interview. From my point of view, it was an absolutely sensible interview. But she didn’t like being reminded about certain things.
Playboy: About her mother?
Wallace: Well, her mother said, in effect: Barbra doesn’t have time for me.
Playboy: How did you feel when she started crying?
Wallace: I was, I was … I’m trying to say … I felt good at that point, because we were seeing the unvarnished human being—one of the most accomplished, most admired and most vulnerable individuals in the world of entertainment. It gave a perfect understanding of the kind of person she is. That moment in the interview humanized her even more to the millions who saw her.
Playboy: She wrote you a letter, which you read on the air. She said that she didn’t like the piece and that you had a mean streak.
Playboy: And your response was: “I was told that Barbra said she really liked it.” Last year she was asked about this, and she said that remark made her feel like she’d been “date-raped.”
Wallace: I never read or heard that. She said that four years after the broadcast? That’s asinine.
Playboy: One interview coup this year was Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Why do you think he agreed to be interviewed?
Wallace: We had been negotiating with Farrakhan since before the Million Man March—without success. But then he was taken aback by the reaction to his speech at the march, to the numerology and the gobbledygook. And when he came to New York for the rapprochement between him and the widow of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, he began to see firsthand how I was regarded in the black community. Malcolm X had been a friend of mine. We trusted each other.
Playboy: Did your opinion of Farrakhan change after the interview?
Wallace: To some degree, yes. He’s a very civilized fellow. I’d had a hunch that he was intelligent, well educated, hardworking. What I didn’t know was whether or not he was a demagogue.
Wallace: Well, after the interview, we had lunch at his place in Arizona. He suggested that he would like to talk with somebody high up in the Jewish community, if I could arrange it. He really felt that he had been misunderstood in the Jewish community, and particularly by the Jewish leadership. So I said, “I’m going to try.” I won’t name names, but I went to a bunch of people who were fairly high up in the Jewish community, and they showed no interest. None.
Finally, I went to my friend Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress. He’s regarded in the Jewish community as perhaps a maverick, but he’s faithful to Judaism and Israel and he has political clout. And he agreed to have dinner with Farrakhan. We did it on a Sunday night at the Bronfmans'—Mr. and Mrs. Bronfman, Mr. and Mrs. Farrakhan, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace.
Playboy: What happened?
Wallace: Well, it was fascinating. Everybody asked flat-out questions and Farrakhan was very forthcoming. They found him reasonable, rational and charming—just as I had. But Farrakhan spoke in Brooklyn the next day and it was the same old rhetoric. It certainly contradicted what he had said the night before.
Playboy: Then what did you do?
Wallace: I took myself out of it at that point. I just wanted to bring these people together to see what might happen. I’m not sure it’s the role of a reporter to do that. I had some misgivings, but I figured, What the hell.
Playboy: Let’s get back to your role in investigative journalism. One of your biggest coups—and biggest embarrassments—was the story last year on the tobacco industry. You had a secret source, Jeffrey Wigand, a former employee at a tobacco company. Wigand was bound by a confidentiality agreement to keep certain corporate data from the public. You supposedly had this information cold, but your lawyers feared a potential $15 billion lawsuit, which could have bankrupted CBS. So they prevented you from running the story. In retrospect, how do you feel about that decision?
Wallace: I can’t believe there’s a jury in the world that would protect the sanctity of that kind of confidentiality agreement. I’d love to see this case—or a similar case—go to court. I’d love to see some law made.
Playboy: In the wake of the story, you went on the Charlie Rose show to discuss it and took Morley Safer along with you. Yet you hadn’t told Safer that 60 Minutes had paid Wigand $12,000 one year earlier as an expert consultant on another story; nor had you told him that CBS had indemnified Wigand against libel suits, so long as he told the truth.
Without knowing any of this, Safer went out on a limb during the show, condemning the lawyers at CBS. Three days later, it came out in the press that Wigand had taken the consultant’s fee. When Safer found out, he got angry and put out a statement saying that you had “sandbagged” him. Had you?
Wallace: The truth is that Morley didn’t know anything about this story. My mistake was suggesting that he come to the Charlie Rose broadcast and talk about something he didn’t know about. There was no sandbagging. Morley knows now that was utter nonsense.
Playboy: So his statement was issued in the heat of passion?
Wallace: Maybe the heat of passion, or after a few drinks. He called me at home at 7:45 that night. He was standing in the Palm, the noisiest restaurant in Washington, D.C. He told me he was writing a letter to all and sundry. And I’m hearing of his dismay for the first time. I said, “Mo, we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
Playboy: He then issued a public apology to Charlie Rose and his audience.
Wallace: I had no idea he was doing that. It was an asinine overreaction—based on ignorance. I hated the fact that this was going to fracture our friendship.
Playboy: Did it?
Wallace: Well, the next day, a Saturday afternoon, I called Mo and said, “I want to come see you, and I want to give you this background. I value your friendship and our closeness so much that I am going to come over hat in hand and try to explain this to you—you who are never wrong and seldom in doubt. I’m going to explain to you what went on.”
Wallace: And we sat there for two hours, without a drink in our hands, and talked and got it all straightened out. I have nothing but respect for Morley. But he went off half-cocked.
Playboy: Looking back, do you feel you had anything to apologize for?
Wallace: Nothing whatsoever. I thought he had something to apologize for. But, as I said, he’s never wrong and seldom in doubt. And I love him.
Playboy: Let’s touch on another incident that brought you some bad publicity: the hidden camera. In 1994 a journalist was helping you with a story, and you videotaped her with a hidden camera during a background conversation in your office. Someone leaked that information to The Washington Post, and you got your knuckles rapped by the president of CBS News.
Wallace: That was a big mistake, and I’m ashamed of it. I made a speech at Harvard later, and I proposed an annual malpractice award for egregious sins against the standards and principles of journalism. I said that I should be the first recipient.
Playboy: How did something so obviously out of line happen?
Wallace: The problem was that the journalist, Karon Haller, was willing to tell us everything she knew about a story we were working on, but she was shy about going on camera. So my producer suggested using a hidden camera and then showing her the tape afterward. But we didn’t play it back right away. Why not? Because we weren’t planning to put it on the air without her permission. We said, “Let’s put it together and see what we’re going to use—and then check with her.” I should have said no. It was a mistake. That’s when someone in our shop leaked it to The Washington Post.
Playboy: You seem contrite now, but when the story broke, you were very defensive. Are you a naturally defensive person?
Wallace: I used to be, but I’ll tell you what changed me. In 1982 General William Westmoreland brought a libel lawsuit against me, CBS and several others who worked on a CBS Reports broadcast about alleged enemy strengths during the Vietnam war. That’s when I began to understand what happens to somebody who is suddenly propelled into the public eye. You have microphones, reporters and cameras looking down your throat. Some of the stuff that is undertaken in pursuit of a story, some of the tactics journalists use, I found distasteful.
Playboy: Such as?
Wallace: Such as an ambush interview, while I’m walking down the street with my wife.
Playboy: And you found that distasteful. Why?
Wallace: Because I was totally unprepared for it. I had been very open with the press, and all they wanted to do was get me on camera saying what I had been saying publicly—but they wanted their own little exclusive thing.
Playboy: So the Westmoreland experience was chastening for you?
Wallace: Oh, yes. Chastening for a couple of reasons. First, because we made mistakes and, suddenly, we’re on trial for our lives, so to speak.
Playboy: And second?
Wallace: Because it triggered a depression in me, a clinical depression. When you pick up the paper every morning and read that you are a thief, a liar, a murderer, a fake, a fraud, whatever… .
Playboy: And that made you feel —-
Wallace: It made me feel lower than a snake’s belly. It did. It would be like a doctor getting sued for malpractice because somebody lost a limb or his sight or his life. He’s a servant of health. He’s not trying to hurt people, he’s trying to help people . And a reporter, in a strange way, is the same. What does he have? His credibility, his integrity. When that’s brought into question in a courtroom, over and over and over again… . In my case, it triggered some chemical imbalance, plus a clinical depression. Suddenly every insecurity I ever had took over.
Playboy: Such as?
Wallace: Self-doubt. I would walk into a restaurant with my wife, and I was convinced that I was being seen as a liar, that everybody was whispering behind my back, “There he goes—the liar, the fake, the fraud. He tried to destroy a national hero. He tried to do it in a dishonest way.”
Playboy: But if you knew in your heart that you weren’t a liar and a fraud —-
Wallace: You’re suggesting that depression is rational. Depression is not rational. The most eloquent understanding of depression that I know about is the book Darkness Visible, by my friend Bill Styron. He writes, “Depression is so mysteriously painful and elusive as to verge close to being beyond description.” It really is. In my case, it also involved pain—knives in my arms, weakness in my legs.
Playboy: Did you talk with Styron about the depression?
Wallace: Not at first. I was working. I was going to the trial. I didn’t let people know I was suffering from depression. I was ashamed. I didn’t want anybody to know. Then one night Styron and his wife, Rose, and Art Buchwald were here in my living room. Artie is a good friend, and I knew that he had suffered an episode of depression. And Styron was just at the beginning of his depression. He began to tell me how bad he felt. And I was thinking, Oh, that’s so good to hear. He’s in so much worse shape than I am. I swear, I felt up for 24 hours after hearing that.
Playboy: Did that bring you out of the depression?
Wallace: Oh, no. A depression takes over your life. It is an utterly irrational descent into something close to madness. You wake up in the morning and all you want to do is go back to sleep—but you can’t get to sleep. You’ve taken sleeping pills to try to stay asleep the night before, and you’re groggy. It’s an incredible experience. You think about suicide. You think about what a worthless character you are. I had to go into the hospital for two weeks.
Playboy: Did you ever take real steps toward suicide?
Wallace: I thought about it. You have sleeping pills by the side of your bed. You can’t get to sleep. You take half of one. Then you take another half. And I’m a guy who didn’t like to take aspirin.
Playboy: And how did you overcome the depression?
Wallace: My psychiatrist helped me understand myself and the disease of depression. As it turns out, I was not unusual; I wasn’t even in that deep of a clinical depression. For what I was going through, that was hard to believe, but my doctor said, “Mr. Wallace, I’ve seen a lot worse.”
Playboy: So what you learned is that beneath one of the most seemingly confident people —-
Wallace: Is an insecure individual. Yes, no doubt about it. What also helped me get out of the depression was a drug called Ludiomil. It dries this [points to groin] and this [points to bowels] and your mouth. And your hands shake.
Playboy: Nice drug.
Wallace: Yeah, but it puts a floor under your depression. It keeps you from hitting bottom. That gives the psychiatrist the opportunity to try to learn what triggered the depression.
Playboy: When did you finally get out of it?
Wallace: When Westmoreland pulled out of the suit. We effectively won. That lifted a great burden. Still, you don’t come back overnight. It takes time. And you can get back in a depression real fast, too.
Playboy: It came back?
Wallace: Yeah, twice. The first time was a few months later. Then ten years went by. I was 75 and we were preparing a special two-hour show for the 25th anniversary of 60 Minutes. Suddenly I was going through it again. Boom!—it came out of nowhere. I felt like I couldn’