The veteran CBS newsman, who invented the television interview and developed a reputation as a tough and fearless interrogator, was an inspiration in his prime and also in his last years, says colleague Bob Simon. Plus, Howard Kurtz on the legendary newsman.
Mike Wallace invented the TV interview. That was on Nightbeat more than 50 years ago and no one has matched him since.
Somehow, before an interview even began, Mike could spot exactly where his subject was vulnerable and he’d go straight for it. His deadliest weapons were an arched eyebrow and silence. He never had to say, “Do you expect me to believe that?” His face said it all.
He could make the grand inquisitor look like a softie.
I often wondered why people agreed to be interviewed by him. I think it was somehow comparable to what once made some men volunteer to go a round with Muhammad Ali. The ultimate test. Can I get through this alive?
Mike and I got off to a bad start. It was 1967, and I was working the overnight shift on the news desk. Mike dropped by around 2 in the morning decked out in a tuxedo. He was quite pleased with himself; so much so that after a while, I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Hey Mike, you’d better get that tux back to the shop or they’ll charge you for another day.” Everyone laughed. Not Mike.
In 1987, I was based in Israel when the Palestinian intifada broke out. I covered it as best I could. The Israelis weren’t looking great. Mike called me a week after it started and said: “Get ready kid, they’ll be all over you, but keep reporting.”
In 1993, Mike came to Bosnia to interview Radovan Karadzic, the Serb psychopath. I was in Sarajevo, and Mike asked me to come along. There were at least 10 of Karadzic’s thugs in the room with automatic weapons. Mike asked Karadzic how he, a psychiatrist, could deal with being a mass murderer. I thought, This guy has bigger cojones than any reporter who has ever covered a war.
I was shaking. He was not.
Several years ago, I was ill, but still managed to come to work. He came into my office every day to ask how I was doing, and whether there was anything he could do to help.
He had always been an inspiration to me as a newsman. In the last several years, he inspired me in a different way. If this old geezer can keep it up at his age, I thought, maybe there’s some hope for me.
I stopped going to see Mike a few months ago. He didn’t recognize me anymore, and my visits weren’t doing anything for him. I thought, What a travesty. Here’s a guy with the quickest instincts and the sharpest voice around and the gods are making him linger helpless and silent for months before letting him go.
This morning, when I heard that they finally had, my first reaction was exactly what his would have been if it had been the other way around: “What’s it going to do to the show tonight?”
Appearances occasionally to the contrary, Mike was a tender soul.