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.