My Quarter Century With Mike Wallace
I worked on “60 Minutes” for more than 26 years, most of the time as a producer with Mike Wallace. Each report on the show has “produced by” written on the artwork introducing it, but most viewers have no clue what “produced by” really entails.
Indeed, the great irony of “60 Minutes” was a question of truth in packaging. That is “60 Minutes,” which prided itself on ruthless truth telling, exposing cant and fraud, was, in itself, something of a charade.
The fact is that although viewers tuned in to watch the ongoing exploits of Mike, Morley, Harry, Lesley, etc., most of the intrepid reporting, writing and even many of the most probing questions posed in the interviews were not the handiwork of the stars, but much more the effort of some 30 or more very talented producers who researched and reported the stories that the stars presented — as their own exploits — each Sunday night.
I was willing to go along with that system because it allowed me to help shape what was the most powerful news show on television. I was also willing to rein in my ego because Mike Wallace brought so much to the team himself: a sharp, penetrating mind, an uncanny ability to seize the essence of a story, to sense an opening in a tense interview then thrust with a rapier-like question for the journalistic kill.
To Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had once been a radical underground leader, Mike asked, “What is the difference between the Yasser Arafat of today and the Menachem Begin of 1946?”
Seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the Imam Khomeini in 1979 during the hostage crisis, Mike asked, “President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” Khomeini’s shocked interpreters refused to translate until Khomeini insisted.
Or to Arafat, in a backstreet building in war-torn Beirut. After Arafat excoriated the U.S. for ignoring the human rights of the Palestinians, Mike leapt at the opening to ask the PLO chairman about a small article he had found in the back pages of the Times, in which Arafat had praised former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Mike asked a startled Arafat, “In other words, Mr. Chairman, Idi Amin, the butcher, you admire?”
Afterward, Arafat’s aide, Mahmoud Labadi, said to Mike as we were wrapping our equipment and PLO armed toughs roamed the room, “Mike, you’re not going to use that part about Idi Amin, are you?” Mike smiled and asked ever so quietly, “Mahmoud, do I tell you how to do your job?
“No,” said Labadi.
“Then please don’t tell me how to do mine.”
Remembering our hasty retreat from the site of that interview, one of our camera team, Andy Thompson, writes me: “Our drivers were convinced we wouldn’t get out alive. Crews set off in two sets so that someone would get out OK!”
On another occasion in western Iran, we were with a group of journalists being escorted by a particularly crazed Iranian colonel to cover the war with Iraq. After the colonel had delivered a long diatribe against the U.S. government, Mike turned to him and said, “You know, colonel, I don’t think much of your government either.”
Later that evening, in a room off the hotel lobby with other journalists watching the evening news, the colonel entered, unholstered his .45, strode up to Mike with a wild look in his eyes and moved forward until the muzzle of his revolver almost touched Mike’s forehead. Everyone in the room froze. Mike looked up at the colonel and with his hand pushed the revolver so it pointed toward the ceiling. The officer grinned and pulled the trigger. The gun was empty.
Mike was part reporter, part actor playing reporter. He had a flair for the dramatic, the ability to achieve almost instant rapport with interviewees no matter their wealth, achievement or background. He made them forget the camera and the lights; he was totally with them in the moment, fascinated by whatever they happened to be saying, from a famine-stricken mother in Ethiopia, a child dying in her arms, to the crooks of all shapes and sizes who attempted — almost always unsuccessfully with Mike — to lie their way to respectability.
Mike’s political agenda never seemed to get in the way. There was no story that he wouldn’t agree to go after, from detailing the enormous power of AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby in Washington) to the peccadilloes of Walter Cronkite, who we accused of accepting airline tickets for a piece we were doing on the widespread practice of press junkets. Mike’s targets were often livid, but their rage only heightened his pleasure. He loved controversy, being the center of a story, seeing the sparks fly.
Though he greatly admired the Shah of Iran, was charmed by his wife and Iran’s ambassador in Washington, when I suggested a report on the Shah’s brutal secret police (the Savak), Mike immediately concurred.Later, we did a report during the hostage crisis explaining why the Iranians had such hatred for the United States. President Jimmy Carter called to asked CBS News President Bill Leonard not to broadcast the report. Leonard refused to comply. The shameful facts we were revealing about U.S. complicity with the Shah were not unknown to the Iranians but were to most Americans.
The only time I saw Mike flinch was when he backed away from the excellent report produced by Lowell Bergman claiming that U.S. cigarette company executives lied under oath before Congress when they said they didn’t know that nicotine was addictive.
CBS management was refusing to broadcast the report. It was a very tense time and later became the subject of a movie, “The Insider.”
Mike, of course, was seriously concerned that his reputation — as well as the reputation of “60 Minutes” — would forever be tarnished if he didn’t fight back. I agreed and over a bottle of wine at an Italian restaurant, I suggested he could end the face-off by threatening to resign if CBS refused to go ahead with the broadcast. There was no way, I argued, that CBS could take the public relations bashing that would ensue if Mike Wallace quit over that issue.
Mike finally agreed. He was going to talk to the powers that be the next morning, he said.
When I asked why, he said he just couldn’t go through with it. He couldn’t use such tactics.
The bottom line was that Mike could not bear the thought of not being on the air, on “60 Minutes.” That, for him was what life was all about. During the countless times the subject of retirement came up, he would invariably shrug, “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
He relished the adulation, the eyes following him as he made his way through a crowded restaurant, the people coming up to him in increasingly distant airports telling him how much they liked his latest show. It validated his existence. But more than anything he enjoyed the flash and spark of controversy, confronting miscreants, catching an interviewee out, breaking through emotional barriers to reveal some carefully hidden weakness. And it could all be done with a simple gesture, a raised eyebrow and a single word, such as “and?” or “but?”
And yet, and yet, despite having worked with him for more than a quarter century, I never really knew who he was, what was really going on deep inside, in the soul if you will. I would be sitting with him over dinner after a long day of work and he would be asking me questions about my domestic life, or whatever, with that same sincere look in his eyes, that same intense concern that I had seen him use just a few hours earlier in an interview.
But I loved that man. My wife and I will miss him.
He had said he wanted to keep on working till his toes turned up. Mike, you almost made it.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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