In Print

Mike Wallace remembers

By Brooks Robards - April 20, 2006

"Between You and Me," by Mike Wallace. Random House, 2006. $28.95. 277 pages.

The Vineyard numbers among its summer residents not one but two icons of broadcast journalism. Edgartown's Walter Cronkite may be the field's revered patriarch, but Vineyard Haven's still boyish Mike Wallace, who just announced his retirement from "60 Minutes" at age 87, is its favorite son.

In "Between You and Me," the new memoir he has written, Mr. Wallace confesses the epitaph he'd pick for himself is, "Tough, but fair." And that's how he reminisces about the interviews and issues he's covered in a long and distinguished career.

Mr. Wallace's first memoir, "Close Encounters," also written with CBS news colleague Gary Paul Gates, was published in 1984 and covered Mr. Wallace's early career. The title for this second book comes from a line Mr. Wallace used while interviewing a bribe-taking Chicago accountant during a "60 Minutes" interview.

"Poor Phil Barasch," Mr. Wallace writes, "had allowed himself to forget that our interview was being recorded on-camera, and when we broadcast the piece a few weeks later, his statement that 'everybody does it' (including him) was made 'between you and me' and the millions of viewers who were watching "60 Minutes" that night."

There lies the genius of the Mike Wallace interview. Mr. Wallace's disarming frankness combines with a down-to-earth, regular-guy demeanor that convinces his subjects they can be as honest as he is. Starting his career in the days of live, black-and-white TV, Mr. Wallace came of age professionally with the medium and has long served as on-the-scene surrogate for the TV viewer.

He starts the book with a description of how he and producer Ted Yates, whose widow he married many years later, launched "Night Beat," a program he called "a radical departure from the usual pablum of radio and television interviews." Yates was the idea man, but Mr. Wallace crafted a feisty, no-holds-barred interview style during that local New York show in the 1950s and rode it to network fame and fortune.

First came "The Mike Wallace Interview" at ABC. His most memorable interview during that period was with columnist Drew Pearson, who insisted that John F. Kennedy had not actually written "Profiles in Courage," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Wallace prefaces his account of the controversial interview with one of the few snippets of his personal history in the book. Growing up in the "O'Connor and Goldberg" town of Brookline, Mr. Wallace lived in the same neighborhood as Kennedy, and they attended the same elementary school and knew each other from an early age.

With the threat of a libel suit from the Kennedy clan, the Drew Pearson incident produced one of Mr. Wallace's first clashes with the corporate culture of the networks he worked for. Much to Mr. Wallace's consternation, his boss at ABC appeared on air to apologize for the allegation, which Mr. Wallace continues to believe was justified.

Mr. Wallace's memoir offers plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits and insider stories of friendships with the famous and celebrated, from Nancy Reagan to Barbra Streisand. Lyndon Johnson once ordered CBS producer Don Hewitt to pick up a candy wrapper during a tour of the then-President's ranch. Leonard Garment asked Mr. Wallace to work in Richard Nixon's campaign, and old friend Nancy Reagan once hopped in his lap and gave him a hug.

Much of it reads like straight reportage of historic events in the nation's history, not surprising for a journalist trained to get the facts, not analyze them to death. Mr. Wallace's informal, conversational writing style can seem deceptively simple, but it reveals a man intent on getting the record straight even when it means confessing some of his own gaffes and misjudgments.

The most interesting sections of the book, peppered with quotes from interview transcripts, demonstrate how he pried information out of reluctant subjects and sometimes went head to head with his corporate bosses.

The two stories closest to Mr. Wallace's heart in his years of reporting were the civil rights movement and the turmoil in the Middle East. He began covering civil rights in 1957 when he interviewed Ku Klux Klan leader Eldon Edwards. We went on to cover Martin Luther King - the public figure he most admires - and outed the philandering of Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad in an interview with Malcolm X. Eight months later, Malcolm X was gunned down.

Of his Middle East coverage, Mr. Wallace says, "In the course of my career at CBS News, I had more assignments in that troubled region than all other foreign countries combined, and I was given the opportunity to report on the bitter conflict from every possible angle." Interestingly enough, Mr. Wallace, who is Jewish, ran into a barrage of attacks from the American Jewish Congress and Israeli lobby groups. Mr. Wallace writes that the AJC went so far as to compare one of his "60 Minutes" stories on Syrian Jews with films Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used to demonstrate the benefits of concentration camps.

Vineyarders will enjoy such insider anecdotes as the time Mr. Wallace braced a stage-fright-ridden Thomas Hart Benton with martinis before his talk at what must have been the Old Whaling Church (the book says Methodist Church, but there is none in Edgartown).

Mr. Wallace touches only briefly on criticism showered on "60 Minutes" for the sometimes questionable tactics like hidden cameras used by the show to "get the goods" on its subject. For the most part, he defends those practices, although he admits, "There were times when we got so caught up in the investigative fever that we adopted a sort of crusade mentality and wound up doing reports that projected more heat than light."

He takes far more time to lay out the elements of his 1982 documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception" that generated a $120 million libel suit and plunged Mr. Wallace into a depression serious enough to warrant hospitalization. The case offers an exemplar of the damage done by power and publicity when wielded without scruples.

The documentary showed how General William Westmoreland had manipulated the "order of battle" (enemy troop strength) in an attempt to keep support for war from flagging. The ensuing libel suit dragged out for months, and Mr. Wallace, who felt personally responsible, found himself barraged by Westmoreland's lawyers and undercut by his superiors.

Another tar baby of a story involved tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and became the basis for the movie "The Insider," where Christopher Plummer plays Mr. Wallace. The network refused to run the interview for reasons Mr. Wallace suggests had to do with family tobacco connections.

Despite his tangles with network corporate culture, his struggles with depression, and the enemies he inevitably made, Mr. Wallace closes his memoir on a high note with remembrances of some of his favorite interview subjects.

He closes the book with a challenge to President George W. Bush. Explaining, "Karl Rove wouldn't let me talk to him even when he was merely governor of Texas," Mr. Wallace asks for an interview. Chances are he'll come out of retirement for that one.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.