That’s Me with Mike Wallace
When I opened the inter-office envelope and found this picture, with a note from Mike: “The three – tired – Musketeers” at the bottom, I just about cried. He had been my responsibility at the 1976 Republican and Democratic conventions and the two of us and reporter Sylvia Chase had had a wonderful, successful time.
In the 70s and early 80s, network convention coverage ran “gavel to gavel,” which meant from the minute the gavel came down to open the day session until the minute that same gavel fell to close the night, we were on the air “live.” Our job was to cover what was going on on the convention floor — and back then things really were going on. My assignment was to make my way around the convention floor and find stories we could pitch to the control room, led by another CBS News legend, 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt.
I was anonymous; I didn’t have on one of those huge headsets and I was a “girl” so no one paid much attention to me as I wandered the floor, standing next to (or behind) big shots and eavesdropping. (You’d be amazed what you can find out if no one thinks you’re important enough to move away from.) Mike would listen, despite the chaos, to every story idea I brought. Sometimes he’d ask for more details and I’d go back and listen some more, or ask questions. Sometimes he’d say –” Nah, I don’t think so.” And sometimes he’d take the story and go sell it to Don just as it was.
But here’s the thing: no matter how well I had helped to get coherent research and backgrounders to him, attending state and issue causes in the morning, before the session began, he was astonishing in his capacity to take that information, combine it with what was happening, and create a coherent, meaningful report. I have never seen a better assimilator of information, or someone more gifted at relaying it to an audience.
Everyone has spoken of his interviewing skills and everyone has a favorite story. I remember when my husband was a psych resident. By then, we knew Mike well. We were watching 60 Minutes and Mike was interviewing a general — I wish I could remember which one. After about five minutes, my husband turned to me in astonishment and said “Mike Wallace interviews like a psychiatrist!” What he meant was that his wording, and his follow up questions, were so precise, so well-positioned, that it seemed what it took young doctors years to learn just came naturally to him. Of course, the level of planning and preparation he did enabled that “spontaneous” question placement, but he was the master.
I have so many personal memories too: sitting on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park while our son Josh and his grandson Peter played in the sandbox; Mike telling my psychiatrist husband about his own battles with depression and how grateful he was for the treatment he had received. Mike stopping at my desk to ask how our young family was doing– his son Chris still lived in Chicago then, so our family felt familiar to him. Him telling me the story of becoming a journalist; how CBS News president Richard Salant had made him go off the air for a year; no Parliament commercials, no acting, nothing. He needed to “cleanse” himself from his commercial years to be a credible journalist in Salant’s eyes. He did it, too. And, he said, he’d never regretted it.
My favorite memory, though, is a selfish one. After the Conventions, we were somewhere in a car, maybe going to the airport. Mike said to me “They told me I’d be glad to have you – that you would be great at the conventions. I just want you to know that you were.” Can you imagine getting a compliment like that from Mike Wallace?
I am so proud and grateful to have known him and worked with him. What did you think of him?
Photo from Cynthia Samuels