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Playboy Interview: Chris Wallace
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: How would America be different now under President Hillary?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What is the biggest story in American politics right now?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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.

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What’s your political view on gay marriage?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What changed your mind?

WALLACE: 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. 

PLAYBOY: You’re sounding like a Democrat.

WALLACE: I am a registered Democrat, but that doesn’t mean anything.

PLAYBOY: Did you vote for Obama?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: How would you describe your politics?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Okay, surprise us.

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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.]

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What’s your relationship with Murdoch like?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: How much time do you spend watching your competition on, say, MSNBC?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: But you know who Chris Matthews is.

WALLACE: [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.

PLAYBOY: So you’re saying Rachel Maddow isn’t watchable?

WALLACE: I find her smart-alecky.

PLAYBOY: CNN is certainly making a big fuss over Anderson Cooper lately. What’s your take on him?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What about online? I suspect you’re not a fan of Arianna Huffington.

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Are you a Twitter man?

WALLACE: I wouldn’t even know where to find it.

PLAYBOY: Google co-sponsored one of the debates you moderated. How often do you Google yourself?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Another observation: You’re really kind of a square. Did you ever have a rebellious period?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: So you’ve never inhaled?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: How were those few?

WALLACE: 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!”

PLAYBOY: What’s wrong with you?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: So you have zero vices?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: What was the takeaway from therapy?

WALLACE: 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.

PLAYBOY: Fair and balanced?

WALLACE: Hell yes.

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