Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Self-Questioning Mike Wallace

In the obituary roll of old clips, Mike Wallace, who has died at 93, is now seen in his familiar role as relentless prosecutor of the powerful.

Yet, it was not always so. In the early days of “60 Minutes,” I was with him at small gatherings, when he and other media people, then under relentless attack by the Vice President of the United States as "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," were asking ourselves if there was any truth in those charges.

Of us all, it was the hard-charging Mike who was most willing to examine his own prejudices. Over dinner and drinks, we argued over whether Spiro Agnew had touched a nerve in mouthing Nixon White House epithets written by Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire calling us "pusillanimous pussyfooters" for opposing the Vietnam War.

Back then, it was only little more than a decade after Sen. Joe McCarthy had terrorized Washington and the media with little public questioning until Edward R. Murrow on CBS and others helped bring him down.

It would take years before Agnew was forced out of office for taking cash bribes when he was governor of Maryland and even longer for Nixon to self-destruct over Watergate.

Such self-questioning by Mike Wallace, even as he became famous for grilling and even ambushing interviewees, foreshadowed the suicidal depression he would suffer in the 1980s after a long, inconclusive trial of a $120 million libel suit by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the former American commander in Vietnam, for asserting that the General had deliberately falsified his estimates of enemy strength.

Next Sunday, CBS will no doubt put into perspective the pluses and minuses of what Mike brought to TV journalism but, in the remembrances of his personal style, what should not be lost is how much he cared about getting the story right and how often he did just that, most notably in the celebrated whistle-blower story about tobacco companies.

For a long-time admirer, there is a special irony in the recent short-lived Newt Gingrich presidential skyrocket, which started with a highly applauded debate attack on Mike’s son, Chris, of Fox News for “gotcha questions” and “playing Mickey Mouse games" after a legitimate query about the disarray in Gingrich’s campaign.

In his prime, Chris’ father would have never let a politician have the last word about that.

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