Mike and Chris Wallace. A few of the people who come into our homes and become a part of our own extended families through the media are themselves members of the same family. This series will explore the personal and professional dimensions in some of these relationships.
New York and Washington — TWO pairs of penetrating brown eyes stare down the TV audience every Sunday night, the famous gaze of the Wallaces -- father and son. Mike Wallace, the father and the grand inquisitor of CBS's ``60 Minutes'' and son Chris Wallace, White House correspondent as well as Sunday night anchor for NBC News, are among the most prominent of media families. But behind that similar brown stare are two disparate newsmen with intriguing views of each other and their world.
Mike Wallace has a reputation for being the toughest reporter in broadcast journalism.
``You know, I'm not sure what it means, really -- [to be] the toughest reporter,'' he says. ``If that's the willingness to ask the tough questions or the occasionally abrasive questions, well, I guess I plead guilty.'' (Don Hewitt, executive producer of ``60 Minutes,'' kiddingly told a broadcast reporter passing Wallace's office that they open the door and throw a hunk of raw meat in regularly.)
But Wallace points out that there are other toughies, ``others who ask just as pointed questions but do it in a different style'' -- ABC's White House correspondent, Sam Donaldson, and ``Nightline'' anchor Ted Koppel among them.
``Look, I would say that I'm probably not the . . . '' -- here his voice drops, and he says, ``Let's take it again,'' as though we were taping an interview for ``60 Minutes'' this Sunday. ``What I tried to do was carve out a piece of the reportorial territory. And I believe that I didn't have the qualities that are best in an anchor person. And, if I wanted to carve out a certain part of the reportorial territory in an identifiable way, I found out that asking the hard questions and being fairly dogged about it was probably going to be the best way.''
Mike Wallace is sitting in an office on a high floor in the dark glass building where ``60 Minutes'' ticks away each week, with his back to the window view of the slate blue Hudson River, piers, and smokestacks. There is a courtly charm about this man who is one of the golden throats of broadcasting. But even relaxed as he is, leaning back at his desk in a squeaking chair and munching a ham and cheese on rye for lunch, Mike Wallace is formidable. It is all in the eyes, those bold, black-brown, tell-it-to-me-now eyes that demand answers. Interviewing Mike Wallace is like a high dive off a cliff into the sea below. It can be done, but it has a very bracing effect.
Off-camera, Wallace looks more like the grandfather he is, the alert face deeply seamed, although his well-barbered hair is sleek and black as a crow's wing. In conversation Wallace speaks in the same vibrant baritone he does on the air, hitting the important words with a broadcaster's special emphasis and rhythm to keep the listener tuned in. This is no rumpled newsman; he is ``anchorly'' looking in his navy blue blazer, gray flannel trousers, maroon and gray striped tie, and cream shirt with a faint maroon stripe.
One of the deans of interviewers himself, he is a master of the anticipated question, the Pinterian pause, the deflected answer.
We talk of Tom Stoppard's play ``Night and Day'' in which light becomes a metaphor for information and the correspondents sharing that light make the difference between night and day. ``It would be nice to believe that,'' rumbles Wallace, who doesn't believe idealism is a factor. ``Not with me,'' he says. ``I think most reporters do what they do for themselves.''
He says he's pleased if one of his stories is ``useful'' but explains, ``Unless I'm really interested -- unless a reporter is genuinely interested for himself or herself, I think the story may come out looking like boilerplate.''
Among the factors in his hard-nosed attitude about choosing stories are the quantities of time involved, the money, the staff, the travel required.
And the style.
The incisive style you see on camera is the result of arduous preparation, what Wallace calls ``the donkey work.'' He reads everything he can find on a subject, listens to tapes, goes over transcripts, then sits down with a legal pad to list categories like power, money, corruption, health, etc., doing five or six questions on each until he may have nearly 100 questions. These he edits to 50 questions, which he brings in to the interview. But he may not actually use more than a dozen, improvising the rest from a saturation knowledge of the subject. ``The person with whom I'm doing the interview knows that I've spent a lot of time, and respects that, and generally will cooperate more.''
In his beige and brown office on West 57th Street sit the TV laurels of his 17-year career with ``60 Minutes,'' the Peabody and Emmy awards, the TV Guide cover story titled ``Their Finest Hours.''
The earlier part of his 47-year career began with a speech and broadcasting major at the University of Michigan, then caught fire later with TV's ``Night Beat,'' a confrontational New York interview show where he served as host. He'd had a brief romp on the Broadway stage, later turned to doing game shows, talk shows, and even cigarette commercials.
But in 1962, as he writes painfully in his autobiography ``Close Encounters'' he decided to ``go straight'' and do just broadcast news. The turning point was the accidental death that year of his older son, Peter, who had wanted to be a journalist. It was then that Mike Wallace decided to ``restructure his life in a way that would honor Peter's memory.''
He did that by starting all over, working his way up with grit to anchor of ``The CBS Morning News'' before ``60 Minutes'' was born. As one of the four original horsemen of that CBS News apocalypse, Wallace has interviewed everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Norman Mailer, Maria Callas, Richard Nixon, and Johnny Carson. But the profile he is proudest of is that of shy pianist Vladimir Horowitz, one of those rare profiles in which ``the person begins to talk with candor and feeling and a willingness to suspend wariness.''
Mike Wallace, born in Brookline, Mass., to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, speaks with quiet pride of his son, Chris, who covers the White House for NBC:
``You can imagine the satisfaction a father feels when he sees his son on the lawn of the White House night after night, covering such an important beat and doing it so effectively.''
Chris Wallace is getting ready for his NBC ``standupper'' on the news as we talk one Thursday in the zoo-y atmosphere of the White House briefing room. This guy talks in ``sound bites'' and lives by the stopwatch on the high pressure beat which, that particular day, included covering such wildly diverse subjects as the space shuttle, Libya, Angola, and the Philippines. It's a job he calls ``a joy and a challenge'' but one he describes as full of frustrations.
``You're not so much a detective as you are a traffic cop who's out at the intersection looking at all the traffic going by . . . ready to zero in on anything that's unusual,'' he says.
He slumps in one of the blue theater seats in the briefing room and adds, ``I think people say I cover the President, when, in fact, I really feel I cover the President's men. I won't see him today. He had one public event, but it was in the Oval Office, and a tight pool went in and told us [what he said]. So I saw him on TV today just like anybody who watches the news. And that's frustrating.'' But Chris Wallace studies the President, noting on air one night that Ronald Reagan sees himself as a national father and takes that role seriously.
Chris Wallace is a man of medium height like his father, with the same precisely combed, glossy black hair. But the voice and the eyes are lighter; Chris's eyes are a candid cocoa brown. In Chris those daunting Wallace eyes are offset by an upturned mouth that gives him a look of faint amusement different from Mike Wallace's characteristic seriousness. Chris wears on-camera clothes: TV blue shirt, red foulard tie, glen plaid suit. He walks like Humphrey Bogart on a deadline.
Chris Wallace is Mike's son by the first of his three marriages, to Norma Kaphan. Born in Chicago, Chris says he didn't see a lot of his father until his teens because ``we lived in separate cities.''
Mike Wallace says that Chris, as a teen-ager, wanted to be a reporter and would do ``play-by-play with his stepfather,'' former CBS News president Bill Leonard, on drives along the Hudson River. They would pass the imaginary mike back and forth, for instance, describing an imaginary crew race up the river. ``At least I've heard that,'' says Mike Wallace. ``I wasn't there. And at home with me, when he was a kid , he would do a very short report and then'' -- here Mike Wallace clears his throat and pipes, ``This is Chris Wallace, CBS News from New York.''
He beams, remembering, then notes that, of course, Chris has never worked for CBS. He notes in ``Close Encounters'' that Chris made it on his own, without his father's ``name or notoreity to advance his career.''
Chris Wallace admits with a grin that the Hudson River crew story is true, adding, ``Usually it was things like, as the car would pass a certain milestone like 25,000 miles, we would do a special broadcast and announce that the car had hit that mark, and then do remotes with the Japanese [manufacturer] in Tokyo . . . and interviews with the car dealer here.'' He nods, remembering, ``Yeah, we would do sort of little imaginary special broadcasts . . . . He would interview me, or I would interview him.''
Mike Wallace notes in ``Close Encounters'' that, ``having watched his old man lapse into the life of an ambitious, driven itinerant, Chris was determined to avoid that fate.'' Chris says he never thought of his globetrotting father as Mike Wallace, the famous face on the tube. ``I knew who my father was, and my kids know who their father is. And they think of me as Dad.''
Mike writes that Chris ``has made career concessions'' that keep him in Washington close to his wife, the former Elizabeth Farrell, and their two children, Peter and Megan. But Chris notes his kids are also ``aware of the fact that I'm a public person as well.''
Chris Wallace says he was bitten by the journalism bug at age 16, when he had a summer job as gofer for Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd, and Robert Trout during CBS coverage of the 1964 presidential conventions. ``It was such an invigorating and exciting thing, one of the classic cases when you think, `People are paid to do this?' ''
So after Harvard he joined the Boston Globe as a reporter, believing that the ``greater experience and intensity'' of print journalism would prepare him for the discipline of TV. Next, as a reporter for WNBC-TV in New York he headed an investigative unit that won a Peabody Award. He soon joined NBC News as congressional reporter. After a brief hitch as ``Today'' anchor, he became White House correspondent in September 1982 for ``NBC Nightly News.''
Both Mike and Chris Wallace deny that there is any loving rivalry between them, despite the parallels of their lives as father and son in the same business.
``No,'' says Mike Wallace. ``There really is no rivalry. He is a critic whom I respect, and I think he does the same. But there really is no sense of rivalry whatsoever.''