“Mike Wallace is Here,” is an amazing new documentary directed by Avi Belkin. Your popcorn will grow cold and your drink flat as a parade of great stories, stunning visual images, and compelling sound bites march by. This film demands your complete attention and richly rewards your investment. You won’t forget the sight of Wallace grilling Nixon aide John Ehrlichman about Watergate. As this verbal indictment grows ever longer, Ehrlichman’s face seems to grow smaller and tighter, as his eyes recede and the sweat drips from his nose. Finally, the Stanford law graduate recovers enough to ask “Was there a question in there, somewhere?”
Armed with a university degree and a rich, sonorous voice, the young Wallace sought the protective shield of a radio job. Soon, he was doing everything from broadcasting the news to acting in radio serials. When necessary, he could also pitch cigarettes and beer with great enthusiasm.
In 1956, Wallace was hired to host “Night Beat,” a live, local television show based in New York City. Encouraged to conduct tough, no holds barred interviews with a wide range of public figures, the 38 year old Wallace had finally found the role he was born for. Executives at ABC, then the nation’s third ranking TV network thought so, too. Soon, the pugilist of the airwaves could be seen coast to coast. However, as the list of angry guests grew longer—and the lawsuits multiplied, Wallace became the kind of luxury that his bosses could no longer afford.
If his 15 minutes of fame had expired, Wallace’s versatility guaranteed that he wouldn’t starve. He hosted game shows, anchored local news programs and taped commercials. His life as a prosperous drifter might have continued for years, but Wallace, who had always put his career ahead of his family, was confronted with the unexpected death of his son in a mountain climbing accident. Peter Wallace had long dreamed of becoming a respected writer. His father vowed to keep faith with his son by becoming a serious journalist. In the early 1960’s, Wallace eventually found a berth at CBS News, an organization built by such giants of journalism as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. At the time of Wallace’s arrival, CBS was full of Oxbridge graduates who had risked their necks covering World War II. Those who bothered to take notice of Myron Leon Wallace viewed him with contempt.
This documentary succeeds in part because of Director Avi Belkin’s skillful use of archival footage to show us how Wallace interacted with public figures ranging from Richard Nixon and Vladimir Putin to Malcolm X and Barbara Streisand. There are revealing moments here that viewers may never forget. When asked by Wallace if he fears for his life, Malcolm X responds with a chilling smile, “I’m probably a dead man now.” He was assassinated in February of 1965. Challenged by Wallace about his lack of charisma, an uncomfortable Richard Nixon admits that he was born to be disliked. The important thing, he tells his interrogator, is for a leader to be respected.
Viewers also get to see Mike Wallace using the tools of his trade. When closing in for the kill, he usually says “forgive me for asking this,” or “I hate to ask this but…” Wallace rarely hid his feelings from anyone. He is clearly irritated with Barbara Streisand, perceiving that although she claims to be easily wounded, in reality, she is every bit as tough as Wallace himself. While interviewing real estate mogul Leona Helmsley, Wallace mentions the death of her son. Helmsley, who had been dubbed “The Queen of Mean,” by the New York Press, breaks down in tears. Wallace seems genuinely upset and sorry to be the cause of her distress.
Disliked by many himself, Wallace had a special gift for forging friendships with others perceived as outcasts. Perhaps the most important professional friend Wallace made was CBS News Producer Don Hewitt. Hewitt would go on to become the creator of 60 Minutes, while Wallace became the program’s co-anchor. At the time that these decisions were made, nobody thought that the program would last more than a few months.
Human beings are by nature flawed, complicated and full of contradictions. Mike Wallace was no exception. While he may have been a great journalist, he was certainly not a great man. Wallace often tried to steal juicy stories from his colleagues at 60 Minutes. He made life miserable for female co-workers at CBS trying repeatedly to unhook their bras. Wallace persisted in this conduct for years—and was allowed to get away with it because of his star status at the network. When William C. Westmoreland, the former Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam sued Wallace and CBS for libel in 1982, Wallace eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. CBS had alleged that Westmoreland had manipulated official casualty figures for his own benefit. Wallace was terrified that lawyers would do to him what he had done to so many others for years.
To better understand Mike Wallace, the culture of CBS News and the history of broadcasting in the United States, I strongly recommend two classic books that are as compelling today as when they were first published decades ago. They are: The Powers That Be (1979) by David Halberstam and In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley and the Birth of Modern Broadcasting (1990) by Sally Bedell Smith.