Sunday, April 15, 2012

Old Hickory

1963: The year Mike introduced America to the Beatles.
Seattle, 1999.  I’m walking down the street with Mike Wallace on an overcast autumn afternoon, on our way to interrogate some Junior Deputy Assistant US Attorney, when a Jeep driven by three blonde college girls pulls up.  They scream out “Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike!!!” like a bunch of newsmagazine groupies, and yank their shirts up to their chins, laughing.

“I wouldn’t have thought that was our demographic,” I say, as the Jeep screeches away.

“Speak for yourself, kiddo,” he chuckled.   “C’mon, we’re gonna be late…”

By the time I started working with Wallace, who died last week, he was 78 years old.  How long can this possibly last, I wondered as I settled in to my new office.   Nine years later he was shaking my hand goodbye, as I became another of the hundreds of colleagues he’d outlasted at CBS News.  (Okay, he didn’t literally shake my hand – he’d gone off to the Vineyard a few days earlier [it was late June, after all] – but he totally would have if he’d been there.)

60 Minutes will devote tonight’s entire program to Mike, but unless they’ve been hiding a lot of great stuff in the vault, I’m guessing you’ve seen it a hundred times.  Starting with the 25th Anniversary in 1993, it seemed like Mike had been in the retrospectives-and-lifetime-achievement-awards phase of his career for a couple of decades.  He’ll be calling the Ayatollah a lunatic, cooing over Vladimir Horowitz playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” clinging to Pavarotti on the back of a motorbike, dancing with Tina Turner, a few ferocious screening room arguments with Don Hewitt (whose brief interlude of peace and quiet in the afterlife Mike is totally ruining right now) and the inevitable montage of weasels and miscreants scurrying away through various parking lots and slamming dozens of doors in his face.

I tended to work on the latter kind of story – though as he entered his ninth decade, the Old Man preferred to farm the parking-lot-sprinting out to someone else.  That’s why nothing I had a hand in ever winds up on these retrospective reels. Mike built his reputation on stories like that – without them, he’d basically have been Leeza Gibbons – but by the time he was 80, he didn’t enjoy working on them very much.  When it came time to regale friends at dinner parties, I very much doubt he ever told people about his interview with a USAID contractor in Haiti.  But when that contractor is asked to name the most difficult moments of his life, I’m quite certain “meeting Mike Wallace” is at or near the top. When I look back on it, I can think of a lot of people who might have greeted Mike's obituary with delight.  This guy, for instance. And this guyThis one for sure. And him... Dude had some enemies.

"Text" message from
Mike, circa 2001
And the enemies list included an awful lot of people who worked for him.  A lot of former CBS people have been exchanging playful memories on Facebook this - a digital shiva of sorts for a man born when Morse code was a common means of communication - but, like me, all of those people worked with him in the 90's and 00's.  "The Anti-Depressant Years," let's call them.  He was by all accounts a truly miserable prick in the early years of 60 Minutes.  That Ayatollah interview is usually seen of an example of Mike's chutzpah, and it was: for Mike Wallace to have called anyone else a lunatic in 1979 required balls as big as the bells of Notre Dame.  (There a couple of good pieces by long-time producer Barry Lando here and here.  Producer Harry Moses recalls begging for a transfer from the Wallace team here.)

Though all of my ex-60M friends feel lucky to have worked there, we were definitely present for the decline of the empire.  I watched Wallace blow as many interviews as he aced.  Interviewing a couple of slick district attorneys in Texas, he was lucky to get out of the room with his wristwatch and shoes. The next day, he tried to redeem himself with a ferocious takedown of a 13-year-old girl who could be generously be described as "reading below grade level." But when the man was on his game, man, could he knock it out of the park.  His best interviews weren't necessarily adversarial. (Listen up, J-school young 'uns.)  In 2000 I went with him to interview the head of the Iowa Farm Bureau, a man who would probably decline reincarnation if it meant sitting for this interview again. One of Mike's favorite expressions was to say that a confused person "didn't know whether to shit or go blind!"  That was this guy. It was like watching a man being beaten with a sack of doorknobs - except that Mike's approach was so gentle, so reassuring.  He could see the man was drowning in his own sweat, but instead of throwing him an anvil, he kept throwing life preservers.  "That's a really good answer," he'd say, before helping the guy step on another rhetorical landmine. On and on this went, for more than an hour.  I began to wonder if the guy's organ donor card was up to date.

“You’re doing terrific - just terrific!” he said, patting him on the knee during a tape change.  “Just a few more questions.”

At that point, the guy’s wife came in from the kitchen (yes, we were in the poor fellow's home) and announced that she’d baked us all some delicious chocolate chip cookies! Mike got up, helped himself to a handful, praised them to high heaven, telling our guy what a lucky man he was as the Missus toddled back to the kitchen.  Mike closed the door, sat back down, cued the camera, and began dissecting the guy's corporate tax returns going back to about the Truman Administration.  It was beyond masterful.

Les Moonves, as part of his efforts to defile the remains of CBS News, succeed in squeezing out Hewitt and Wallace about eight years ago.  Last week he had his secretary issue some recycled boilerplate in re: tremendous sadness / extraordinary contribution / loss will be felt by all. &c. &c.  Here's hoping he skips the memorial, sparing us a rerun of the turgid speech me made at Hewitt's a couple years ago. (I should note that the guy who fired me also spoke at that one, and was an absolute delight.  Though I hope he precedes me to the grave by a number of decades, I'd be happy to have him give my eulogy in the event he doesn't.)

But of course there's nothing original left to say about the guy, except that he was a complete original.  He's spawned generations of imitators, for better or worse (you could say the same for, I dunno, Eddie Van Halen and Ernest Hemingway), but before him there was no one for him to imitate. Never mind breaking the mold - Mike was the mold.  And if there's anything truly inspirational about the guy, it's that this reinvention took place well into mid-life.  When 60 Minutes first debuted (coming in 102nd in the ratings), he was 50 years old. 

Mike led an unforgettable life.  But as he slipped into his 80s, his memory started to fade.  He was incredibly vigorous, physically (I always had to remind myself: he's as old as my grandparents), but when he'd forget some little thing, his frustration was palpable.  You could make fun of him for being old, but never for being forgetful, because that really frightened him.

The last time I saw him was at Don Hewitt's memorial at Lincoln Center in 2009.  He was brought in in a wheelchair at the last minute, to thunderous applause.  Afterwards, there was a long line of well-wishers.  I'd been told by someone who kept in touch with him that his memory was pretty shot, so when I got to the front of the line I took his hand and said my name, and told him we used to work together.  He didn't speak (it's unclear to me whether he could, or if it was just too tiring), but he gripped my hand, patted my shoulder, gave me a beaming smile and a big thumbs-up.

Photo: Ann Marie Mooney

Mike's son, Chris, whose death will likely be mourned by some of his immediate family and no one else, said a few months ago, "Physically, he’s okay. Mentally, he’s not...The interesting thing is, he never mentions ’60 Minutes.’ It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone."

And that's pretty much the most tragic thing I've ever heard. Because no one who ever met the guy - on either side of the camera - will ever forget him.


Dave said...

Interesting piece on an interesting figure. I was a chiropractic student in the late
'70s, when we heard that 60 Minutes was going to do a piece on the profession. Considering the fight for legitimacy the the profession had faced, we naiively thought that here we had a shot at vindication under the auspicies of the great Mike Wallace. Turned out to be a pretty nasty piece of work. In hindsight, no great surprise.

It wasn't the same after that, though I still found him remarkable in his own way. Thanks for your insight.

Aguachile said...

This is one hell of a well-written piece, compañero. Many thanks for sharing.

Fulano said...

At last, a very well written and insightful article from you. This makes up for your last 249 smarmy little blog entries. ;-)

As Mike Wallace would have said, "Frank, you didn't fuck-up too bad."