Mike Wallace falls silent. He is determined not to become one of those people who talk when they simply shouldn't.
"We are preoccupied," he begins, setting down his reading glasses, "with studying the personalities of those who, for 15 minutes each or more, flash to the top. We have a tendency to build people up, too quickly sometimes in my estimation, and then to tear them down often much too quickly."
For someone who has played the fame game so well for so long, Wallace does not sound completely comfortable with his celebrity status as a broadcast journalist. "It comes with the territory," he continues in a monotone.
There is more to Wallace than meets the electronic eye. In person, he is reserved, soft spoken and thoughtful, taking long pauses between question and answer. He is certainly not the self-assured pit bull of "60 Minutes" who has been chasing down the bad guys for almost two decades.
In short, Wallace is not as full of himself as he appears to be on television. In fact, when responding to an interview request Wallace inquired, "What's the hook?" He was not immediately convinced that plain old Mike Wallace was enough to carry an extended article. It turns out that Wallace is a modest man.
Wait a minute. The man whose image is projected into millions of homes every Sunday night? The man who last September was host of a 60-minute program dedicated to reviewing his own career -- when he wasn't even retiring? The man who recently asked Salman Rushdie if he has been celibate in hiding? This man modest? You bet.
Elizabeth Dribben, a longtime associate and former Buffalo resident, describes his modesty as a very "interesting" phenomenon. "When he walks into a room or a studio, he is not always aware he is Mike Wallace," she says. Wallace's humility manifests itself in his habit of introducing himself to whomever he is interviewing or perhaps a new member of the technical crew. "He doesn't assume you know who he is," Dribben says. (Dribben, by the way claims both full responsibility and the credit for Wallace's in-house nickname of "Your Worship.")
It is tough to demonstrate, from a conversation or interview, how Wallace shies away from the topic of himself. It would take several long paragraphs to show the subtle way he shifts conversation away from himself. The best example of Wallace left to his own devices is his 1984 autobiography "Close Encounters."
In the introduction Wallace confesses that, working on it alone, he could not build up the "requisite ardor" for the project. He only followed through with the book after signing on co-author Gary Paul Gates. Wallace and Gates took turns writing chapters. Gates ended up doing most of the writing about Wallace, and Wallace was left to write about the places he has been and the people he has met.
In the same way his show, "Mike Wallace, Then and Now," was not so much about Wallace as the people he has interviewed. He described the genesis of the program as small talk that got out of hand.
"I was at the television academy hall of fame awards last January . . . and I met Jeff Sagansky (head of the CBS programming) for the first time. Toward the end of the evening, he asked, 'Why don't you do a broadcast with some of your old hard-edged interviews?' "
"Fine," Wallace said, and promptly wrote it off as table chat. He was surprised months later by Sagansky, who was still pressing for the show. Wallace agreed again, "and that's how it happened."
Just as Wallace is modest about himself, he is modest about his profession. Does he believe that he wields any power as a journalist? Yes. "But," hedges Wallace, power, only in the ability to tell the story, not in the ability to get anything done or to make changes. Thus he termed his power as negligible, showing how much with his thumb and forefinger.
Wallace also would not seek to increase his power via the anchor chair: "I have an infinitely more interesting job than anchoring," he says. Of his colleague Dan Rather who made the jump, he says, "I think that Dan had a better time when he was on '60 Minutes.' "
Modest, Wallace may be, but shy he is most certainly not. A countervailing force in Wallace is the soul of a salesman. In the '50s he had a lucrative career as a TV and radio pitchman, selling everything from Parliament cigarettes to a shortening called Fluffo. His inclinations in that direction seem to be well preserved. Consider the interview with Charles Kuralt for the CBS radio network prior to the airing of "Then and Now" when the topic of that show came up:
"I would never say take an hour of your time to watch a television broadcast, (but) watch on Wednesday the 26th at 10. You will get a kick out of it. I mean, you're going to see from Malcolm X to Margaret Sanger, from the ayatollah to the shah, presidents and first ladies -- it is a kick. It is really good fun."
Wallace sounds less convincing when speaking of the overall health of network news. While initially bucking at the question, and saying the death of network news has been foretold for quite a long time, he dropped into one of his long pauses and turned in his chair to glance out at his office's view of the Hudson River. He was aware of the signs of ill health.
"You have a contracting market (today in TV). That means less money available because there are fewer viewers and because commercials don't bring in as much revenue as they used to. These are all facts of life that you have to deal with."
Wallace sounds like he is trying to convince himself when he rhetorically asks, "What is the most popular broadcast in television today? The network evening news. There are three editions of it . . . CBS, ABC and NBC . . . and added up, it comes to about 60 percent of the audience. That's pretty good." Pretty good, but not very good, as in 1980 when the audience share was closer to 70 percent.
Along with modesty and salesmanship, there is a third spike to the underpinning of Wallace the journalist (and this more than the others defines the man). He is a showman.
In addition to doing a little work on early radio and TV dramas, Wallace also appeared on Broadway, acting in the 1954 production of "Reclining Figure." If nothing else, the performer within excels at being outspoken. Playing to his modesty won't help either, as in the case of the Emmy awards. Wallace has won 14 Emmy awards to date. They are all stored in his office, almost out of sight on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. When his attention is called to them, he glances over his reading glasses with a look as if to say, "Oh, those."
For Wallace, the Emmys have become a "devalued currency" over the past several years. He was uncomfortable with the fact that Emmy nominees have to nominate themselves as well as pay a $132 entrance fee -- all without knowing who the judges are and by what criteria they are judging the awards.
Underlining the latter, Wallace points to how last year Rather was passed over for his work in China during the student revolt, while Tom Brokaw received an Emmy. "I've nothing against Tom," says Wallace. "He's a fine fellow, but his knowledge of, and participation in, the coverage of that story was minuscule in comparison to Rather's.
The important (awards), in my estimation, are the Columbia-duPont awards and the Peabodys. (Wallace has been recognized three times by each.) There is still nothing for broadcast journalism that approaches the prestige of the Pulitzers for print. I think that it's too bad that such is the case."
But the attributes that serve him so well today, the showman and the salesman, did not always do so. His moonlighting as a pitchman and stylistic flourishes as a news performer gave him a bad reputation. A passage in "Close Encounters" sums up the original attitude toward Wallace. In 1960, when a syndicator tried to sell CBS a Wallace documentary on the space race, the producer's comment was: "We don't want the man who measures the half-inch filter on Parliament cigarettes measuring the missile gap with Russia."
"I'm all for good sensationalism," Wallace says. For Wallace, sensationalism means, "if somebody in the audience sits up and says: 'Holy smokes! I didn't know that!' " Wallace concedes that not all sensationalism acts in service of exposing a societal ill, wrongdoing or shortcoming. Some is "more heat than light."
He specifically stands up for Geraldo Rivera, saying that Rivera has proven himself a top reporter, and a "very intelligent and enjoyable fellow." Rivera fell from grace in Wallace's eyes ("And he knows I feel this way; we've discussed it.") for permitting himself "to become more advocate than reporter" and that he has done this "apparently for reasons of money."
It is in grave tones that Wallace concludes, "It is not something I particularly admire."
Wallace's emotions about Rivera were perhaps so heartfelt because Wallace, too, had to face the choice between money and credibility as a journalist. In 1961 Wallace gave up doing Parliament ads, and any other sort of advertising along with variety shows to dedicate himself to becoming a serious reporter. It was a tough choice, financially and mentally.
He ended up waiting more than a year before CBS gave him his shot.
Despite the tough time he had getting into the mainstream, Wallace certainly would not have had it any other way. "Back in the old days," begins Wallace with a smile, "you could do commercials, news, play by play, game shows. You could do it all -- and in a strange way it helped those of us who did it through the years, to know the medium in which we worked. We learned how to attract listeners and viewers and how to hold them."
The outcome of this varied and various background, according to Dribben, was and is a true original.
"He didn't model himself after anybody," says Dribben, "because there was nobody to model himself after. Everyone now, who wants to be an inquisitor-interviewer . . . uses Mike Wallace as the model."
Hand in hand with his modesty is Wallace's fierce guarding of all that is personal. In the world of high-stakes journalism and show business, friendship is often regarded as social currency. Wallace, on the other hand, told Kuralt in their interview, "I think it's a good idea to maintain a certain distance (between interviewer and interviewee)."
An example of Wallace's strict ethics on this matter is former President Richard Nixon. Nixon is a man that Wallace has said he admires as a politician, and whom he has known since the very early days of what looked to be a long and lean '68 campaign. Nixon, for his part, felt so comfortable with Wallace, that he offered Wallace the position of press secretary after winning in '68 (a job that Wallace seriously considered because of his respect for Nixon). To this day Wallace is one of the few journalists to whom the ex-president is accessible. But does Wallace consider Mr. Nixon a friend? "No."
The most public aspect of Wallace's personal life has been his five marriages. Is a personal life the cost of success? Wallace at first brightly booms that he had an interesting and varied personal life. Then, considering the marriages, he pauses. "I had no idea I'd ever get divorced," says Wallace. "And the first time it happened to me (he lets out an exaggerated gasp), it was a big trauma.
"But over a period of years . . . for a variety of reasons, I have been married, now, four times. None of these relationships were undertaken casually, and each one lasted a fair length of time, too. The third time was for 28 years. But to some degree, my work has contributed to that. There's simply no doubt about that. Priorities."
He ends with the very un-Wallacelike statement: "I tried to do no harm, no damage to anybody. I've tried to honor the responsibilities that I've undertaken to other individuals, and I think by and large I have."
The secret of Wallace's success? A little show, a little tell and a little sell. (Wallace himself would have you believe that he has run into a great deal of people "who like to talk when they simply shouldn't.")
As for the secret of Mike Wallace, that is still very much his own. At 72 years of age and after 40 years in the business (28 of which at CBS and 22 of that at "60 Minutes"), Wallace is not ready to quit. He's not even thinking about it.
SEAN O' SULLIVAN is a free-lance writer from Buffalo whose work has appeared in Spy and Punch magazines.