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Mike Wallace: The Passing of an American News Icon

What might have been then last of an era passed with the death of Mike Wallace. Born on May 9, 1918, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Wallace began his news career in Chicago in the 1940s, first as a radio news writer for the Chicago Sun and then as a reporter for WMAQ. But all will remember him for the career he began with CBS in 1951.

The journalist is best remembered for his presence on 60 Minutes. For many years, his Sunday night interviews were must see for those who wanted to know what was going on in the world. Long before cable news and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Wallace supplied viewers with a glimpse into the lives of notables from around the world.

Wallace was a tenacious interviewer. He employed thorough research and was relentless as his style bordered on a cross examination of both friend and foe. Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and Wallace’s long-time producer at 60 Minutes said, “He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous. … He knew, and he knew that everybody else knew, that he was going to get to the truth. And that’s what motivated him.”

His career was marked by some of the most important milestones and players in the history of the late twentieth century.  During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace pointedly asked Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Khomeini calmly answered by predicting Sadat’s assassination—a prediction that was all too true.

Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aides tried to stop the interview, Wallace challenged him with, “This isn’t a real democracy, come on!” That may have been on of the few times the former KGB operative was a loss for words.

During the Watergate scandal, he faced Nixon aide John Ehrlichman in 1973 and read a long list of alleged crimes. “All of this,” Wallace noted, “by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.” Ehrlichman only response was, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”

Regardless of his personal politics are beliefs, Mike Wallace was noted for asking hard questions of everyone he interviewed. Barbra Streisand was reduced to tears when as he chided her for being “totally self-absorbed” when she was young. He called into question her decades of psychoanalysis by wondering aloud, “What is it she is trying to find out that takes 20 years?”

Wallace’s late colleague Harry Reasoner once observed, “There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face.”

Wallace said he didn’t think he had an unfair advantage over his interview subjects: “The person I’m interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He’s in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I’m armed with is research.”

His television career spanned six decades. In 1949, he appeared as Myron Wallace in a show called Majority Rules. In the early 1950s he was an announcer and game show host. In the mid-1950s he hosted Night Beat, a series of one-on-one interviews that first won Wallace fame for his tough style. And in 1963 he became a full-time newsman for CBS.

Wallace once asked Eleanor Roosevelt if she was aware some people hated her late husband, and though Nancy Regan counted him as a lifelong friend, he made her angry in a televised interview. Though Wallace covered the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, he didn’t fit the stereotype of the Eastern liberal journalist. He was close friends with the Reagans and was once asked to be Richard Nixon’s press secretary.

Such a career couldn’t be managed without a degree of controversy. Mike Wallace was sued on more than one occasion, the most publicized lawsuit against him coming from retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland. Wallace was sued for $120 million for his part in the 1982 CBS Reports documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” in which he accused Westmoreland and others of intentionally underestimating enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War.

Westmoreland later dropped the libel suit in 1985 after a long trial. Lawyers for each side later said legal costs of the suit totaled $12 million, of which $9 million was paid by CBS. Wallace said the case plunged him into a depression that put him in the hospital for a week.

In his later years, Wallace was candid about bouts with depression appearing in 1996 before the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging to urge more federal funds for depression research. He was open with the world that at some points he felt “lower, lower, lower than a snake’s belly” but had recovered through psychiatry and antidepressants. He even disclosed that during one particularly dark period he had tried to commit suicide.

Thankfully Mike Wallace persevered. Born the year World War I ended, his career spanned World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and both wars in the Middle East. Whether you liked him or not, there is no denying he was an American icon.

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