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Playboy Interview: Chris Wallace
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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PLAYBOY: It was a unexpectedly confrontational interview.

WALLACE: 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.”

PLAYBOY: 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.”

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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. 

PLAYBOY: 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.

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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.]

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What do you remember most about working with Cronkite?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Are you implying that Walter Cronkite’s daughter was your first sexual conquest?

WALLACE: I know this is Playboy, but you’ve got to be kidding!

PLAYBOY: We are merely interested in chronicling this untold story from media history.

WALLACE: Right, sure. She was my first girlfriend. That’s all you’re going to get.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Your dad is legendary for asking tough questions. Would he interrogate you about homework and girls and all that?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: How is he now, by the way?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Your critics like to say you wouldn’t be anywhere without nepotism. Does that bother you?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: When did you have that realization?

WALLACE: Last Thursday? Friday? [laughs] No, probably in my 30s or early 40s. 

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Whose doing was that?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: You sound like a man whose network isn’t exactly favored by the current administration.

WALLACE: 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.

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