Mike Wallace was an often obnoxious and showboating television journalist whose relentless on-air inquisitions incarnated American impatience with cant, hypocrisy and corruption. Last week I watched Mike Wallace Is Here, the mesmerizing new documentary about his 70 year long career, which began with radio in the 1930s. He didn’t retire from CBS’s Sixty Minutes until 2008.
A promo before the film advertised One Child Nation, a documentary about China’s notorious policy allowing only one child per family. There is footage from various scenes of totalitarian homage, synchronized marches, school children chanting praise, and excuse making for submission to horror and tyranny. The one child policy routinely entailed terror, threats, kidnapping and murder.
These scenes of capricious submission to a dictatorship contrast with the whole long life of Mike Wallace, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. He relentlessly grilled shyster businessmen, con artists, gangsters, corrupt politicians, and egotistical entertainers. He was feared and yet too big to ignore. He self-servingly sought drama for ratings but he also sought truth.
“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” So announced Peter in the Book of Acts. In the economy of the biblical tradition there is no category of special people who stand apart as unaccountable.
Inspired by this biblical tradition of “no respecter of persons,” Americans are typically independent, egalitarian, and impatient with presumption and control. There is embedded in our history and culture a fierce resistance to unquestioning surrender to any imposed orthodoxy. Nobody is above a good inquisition.
Mike Wallace embodied this restless spirit, often ambushing the criminal, the rich and the powerful, demanding of them answers no one else had dared to pose. Sometimes his targets were surprised. They should not have been. Sometimes they lashed out or stormed away. Wallace, at least on camera, was unflappable.
The best interview in the documentary that embodies the American spirit shows Wallace interrogating Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran hostage crisis, which I recall watching as a boy. Khomeini was then America’s most hated man. He terrorized the American captive diplomats but his greatest evils he perpetrated on his fellow Iranians, of whom Khomeini killed many tens of thousands.
Beneath his black turban and thick eyebrows over shifty eyes, Khomeini was a perfect foil for Wallace, who was made to sit on the floor with the ostensible holy man. Wallace refused to stick with scripted questions, of course. “Forgive me,” he said with mock apology as he asked the Ayatollah about Anwar Sadat’s view that he was a madman. Unaccustomed to such effrontery, Khomeini’s eyes darted to and fro, as he responded by essentially urging the assassination of Egypt’s peacemaking president. His wish was not long after granted.
Another compelling interview is Wallace with Vladimir Putin. By then in his late 80s, Wallace bemusedly told the Russian that he couldn’t see or hear well and wondered why he was still working. But he was as sharp and pungent as ever, asking Putin about corruption and the silencing of dissent. Putin unpersuasively claimed Russia has a strong opposition media. The uncomfortable smirk on his face confirms he doesn’t believe his own propaganda. Nobody in Russia asks him the questions Mike Wallace did.
There’s footage of Wallace submitting Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to similar discomfort. Wallace simply asked: “How much do you make?” Noriega, a notorious drug trafficker until removed by U.S. troops, shifted uncomfortably and in silence. “Is the question difficult?” Wallace inquired.
More pleasantly, we see Wallace in the 1950s interviewing a grandmotherly Eleanor Roosevelt. Wallace tells her that many Americans hated her husband and her. She reacts with a smile and a quick “I know!” Khomeini, Noriega and Putin did not respond with similar ease. American leaders must contend with their opponents, while dictators jail, kill or deny they exist.
Wallace’s greatest mishap was his 1980s hit-job on retired General William Westmoreland, alleging the Vietnam War commander in the 1960s had deliberately distorted enemy numbers. Readers Digest called the story a “smear.” Westmoreland sued. The trial revealed Wallace had relied heavily on his producer for research and questions. The litigation was settled without an apology or cash from CBS. But Wallace sank into deep depression and a suicide attempt.
A darker moment for Wallace was the death of his 19 year old son in a Greek mountain climbing accident in 1962. Wallace himself searched for and found the body. By his own admission Wallace neglected his family in favor of his career. He had four wives. His surviving son is Fox television news broadcaster Chris Wallace, who appears in the documentary only briefly.
Wallace was lifelong friends with Nancy Reagan, which the documentary barely mentions and doesn’t explain. It does note that President Nixon wanted Wallace as his press secretary, which is ironic, given that Wallace at Sixty Minutes rose to success covering Watergate. Wallace said much of the American public saw journalists as “commies, liberals,” which he rejected as “damned foolishness.” His own personal politics were unshared.
Mike Wallace Is Here is about the son of Jewish Russian immigrants who, in escaping the insecurities of his background, rose to journalistic fame. Whether intentionally or not, he also became a great American by demanding answers from potentates unaccustomed to questions, and of whom God is no respecter.