- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Two 60 Minutes veterans — Lesley Stahl and Steve Kroft — recall the complicated, competitive, charming co-founder of the modern newsmagazine and the take-no-prisoners interviewing style that “took the clothes off” everyone from heads of state to movie stars.
Stahl on Wallace
Mike was pretty much like what you saw. He was tough, he was insistent, he was one of those never-give-up kind of people. His brand of journalism began in the early ’60s when his son died. His son went missing in Greece and was killed in a hiking accident in 1962. This was a life-altering moment for him. After that, he decided he really wanted to do something meaningful, important, serious with his life.
60 Minutes started in 1968. Mike and Don Hewitt, they really started from scratch. They were given the hour. They could have turned it into anything they wanted. Really, anything. Mike decided it was going to be a place where the Edward R. Murrow mission would be carried forward. He would do investigative, hard-hitting, serious journalism with integrity. He created 60 Minutes for that purpose and pursued it and stayed with 60 Minutes for almost 40 years. He made sure it never lost that original vision that came out of his own grief and what life was about, all those serious questions, and the legacy by which we live. The reason people want to work there so much and the reason so many look upon Mike with so much respect, it all grows out of that.
As a reporter, Mike just went after things full-bore. You could tell his personality when you saw him on the air, right? He was in the hunt. He was fearless. He brought me to 60 Minutes, and then occasionally — not often — he’d call me into his office and I’d sit down like at the knee of the teacher and he’d give me a lesson. And the one I remember the best is when he said, “You know, the secret of a great interview is to ask the question no one else would ask, that the audience wants you to ask but doesn’t think you will, to be daring and just go all out for it. But when you ask it, you can’t be embarrassed, you can’t be timid, and you can’t in your own self feel afraid to ask it. Because if you’re afraid or embarrassed or it’s hard for you, then you make the audience uncomfortable. You have to just go for it, and do it,” and then he said, “Lesley, get to work on that.” (Laughs.) And what was so great is when you watched him you knew, you were waiting for that question. You had no idea when or how it was going to come, but people watched 60 Minutes as much for Mike Wallace’s questions as anything else.
He was supposed to have an interview with Boris Yeltsin when he was president of Russia. He went over there and Yeltsin frosted him, didn’t see him. So Mike came back to New York. And Yeltsin said, “Please come back. Please come back.” But Mike couldn’t — he had another story — so he sent me, and Mike handed me his notes for the interview. It was on a yellow legal pad, and it was all written out, everything he was going to ask. And you could see the preparation that he put in ahead of time so that it could look like he was winging it — but he wasn’t. He really worked hard.
This whole thing about his depression is another example of the courage of this man. Mike Wallace was one of the first public figures to come out and say, “I have depression.” And I think it was vitally important for people to understand that a tough guy could have a disease thought of as something that women who can’t get out of bed have. If he had not done anything else — all the things we talked about — we could say he was a great man. He made people who had depression stop being so ashamed of it.
Kroft on Wallace
I joined the show in 1989. Mike was 71 years old. He looked like he was about 55. He was, I’d say, at the height of his powers, and he was very encouraging to me at the beginning — he was helpful, he was willing to sit down and talk. But Mike was the most competitive person I have ever been around. We would go after the same story a lot. I found out the only thing worse than losing out on a story to Mike Wallace was actually managing to get the story, because Mike had a long memory. (Laughs.) He could make your life miserable for months. I remember the last time I saw Ed Bradley, he was still talking about some story that Mike had beaten him out of. He was still angry about it. In 1992, I got an interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton. I don’t know this from firsthand knowledge, but I’ve been told by CBS News executives at the time that Mike spent two days trying to get the story away from me. I don’t think he begrudged me for getting it. He just wanted to do the big interviews. Period. All of them. That was just his nature.
He had this persona that was just sort of overwhelming. The fights he used to have with Don Hewitt were legendary. They would fight about everything. It was usually about the story Mike was doing and what Don thought of it during the screening. Mike was the horse and Don was the jockey. Don knew how to ride Mike and get the best out of him. They would fight, and 20 minutes later they would be laughing and joking. But that went on constantly. Every day.
Everybody knew Mike could do a great job with any story he wanted. He was an incredible — and I don’t mean this in a negative way, I mean this in a positive way — he was an incredible performer. This is somebody who started out in the early days of television and already had a career as a host, a narrator. It wasn’t really until the late ’50s that he developed this skill as a great interviewer.
He was a crusader. He always went after the bad guys. He could just take somebody’s clothes off right there in front of the cameras. He could just strip them down, break them down, and he loved to do it, he loved to get under people’s skin when he was doing interviews. I think the Ayatollah Khomeini story was a good example, when he asked that famous question — “Some say you are a lunatic.” It’s not a question that anybody else would dare ask. They certainly would not have been able to ask it in the way Mike asked it.
He did it with Barbra Streisand. It took forever to get her to sit down. Mike had known her for a long time. Mike knew her foibles. He knew her reputation, and he tried to get her to cry, I think — he wanted to see what would happen.
Mike liked to stir the pot. He always stirred the pot, whether it was doing an interview or trying to get Don upset about something or playing a practical joke. He just liked to roil the waters. He was the one that could navigate it. I think the interview that was the most fun to watch was with Louis Farrakhan. Mike was very quick. He was a relentless interrogator. And he was great at setting traps for people and then cutting them off. He was smart, and I don’t think I ever saw him go after somebody who was a sympathetic target.
One thing that is important to understand is that Mike was not an easy person. He was highly respected, had a good sense of humor, and he could be incredibly charming. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody more complicated. There is this book out about him now that talks about the fact he always felt a little insecure because he didn’t start out as a journalist. He started out as a guy who does television, a role player, whatever they needed. He was an incredibly good broadcaster, and I think he felt a little insecure about his journalistic credentials even though he had done some of the greatest television features ever. He never said, “That was really great.” He was always looking to top himself, always.
His legacy? He’s the best television interviewer ever. That’s not a bad legacy.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day