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.