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.’”
PLAYBOY: 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?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: Still, America is a nation divided. You’re either a Red American or a Blue American. How did this happen?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: If that’s how you see it, what will it take for the Republicans to win in November?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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.
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: As is Fox News, right?
WALLACE: You want to get into the whole right-wing thing?
PLAYBOY: 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.
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: Do you think the middle class should pay more taxes than millionaires?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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.
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: By the way, do you have a wire in your ear with someone feeding you facts and figures?
WALLACE: [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.
PLAYBOY: Who is someone you hate to interview but like personally?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: What about the opposite —someone you may not click with personally but love to interview?
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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.”
WALLACE: 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.
PLAYBOY: 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?
WALLACE: 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.