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Mike Wallace: Dead at 93, But Not Soon Forgotten -- Or Equalled
April 8, 2012  | By David Bianculli

60 Minutes -- the CBS newsmagazine that Mike Wallace, more than anyone else, helped make a respected journalistic TV institution and a durable Top 10 hit -- got caught a bit off guard by Wallace's death Saturday night at age 93. Though Morley Safer opened the broadcast by honoring his venerable colleague, he had to promise a full retrospective would be coming the following Sunday.

That's what happens when you die in the middle of Easter and Passover weekend. Except for atheists and Buddhists, there aren't many people around to scramble for breaking news. But the ability to cause a little newsroom panic one last time, I suspect, would have made Mike Wallace smile...

I remember a welcoming smile he flashed at me once -- when I was in the 60 Minutes office, about to interview his boss, Don Hewitt, for my Teleliteracy book. It was such a conspiratorial smile, a mixture of effusive warmth and troublemaking glee, that I worried, as I was ushered past him into Hewitt's office, that Wallace knew something I didn't.


To me, he was just being nice. But to the subjects of his programs -- first Night Beat, his bare-knuckles interview program, then 60 Minutes -- his smile, warmth and glee would be used as precise, wounding weapons. Relax. It's just the two of us here. Tell me, really, how clever you are. And now... pounce! Mike Wallace would add another dazzled, stunned head to his trophy wall.

Face the Nation Sunday had time to put together a short tribute to Wallace, in which host Bob Schieffer said with a smile, "He even gave me a compliment once." Nice line, and nice touch -- an understated nod from one no-nonsense newsman to another.

Anyone who has clocked time -- lots of it -- watching the 60 Minutes stopwatch has a personal list of Mike Wallace favorites. Depending upon your age, and your memory, it could be vintage ambush interviews of Wallace unmasking the shady practices of unscrupulous gas-station attendants, or Wallace firing unflinchingly tough questions at John Ehrlichman, Barbra Streisand, even the Ayatollah Khoemini.

I can even quote part of that last interview from memory -- when Wallace, risking a lot more than a harsh look from the Iranian leader in 1979, repeated, via a duly frightened interpreter, the insult by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that the Ayatollah was "a lunatic."

"Imam, forgive me," Wallace, putting his hand to his chest, told the Iranian leader. "His words, not mine."

In 1979, that was one of the gutsiest TV interview moments I had ever seen. More than 30 years later, it still is.


Today, at a time when ambush journalism is equated with the annoying stalkarazzi horseflies at TMZ, and celebrity interviews often sink to the red-carpet level of "Who are you wearing?," what Wallace accomplished, and stood for, for so many decades should be neither forgotten nor devalued. It should, however, be imitated --if possible.

At his best, in his prime -- and that prime was a period that lasted more than a generation -- Wallace could wither an interview subject, and a reputation, with a single question. Today, perhaps the most withering question to ask about today's TV landscape is this:

Who, and where, is Mike Wallace's modern equivalent?

Forgive me, Imam. I'm only asking...

(For another remembrance of Mike Wallace, read Ronnie Gill's latest Altered Reality column HERE.)
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