Wallace the man is every bit as indomitable as Wallace the muckraker.
Like 60 Minutes, Close Encounters (William Morrow) is hard to put down. There are moments, however, when you want to throw it on the floor. Mike Wallace is at once arresting and compelling; for example, when a retired Lyndon Johnson refuses to talk about Vietnam, Wallace cajoles him into conversation. "Vietnam fucked you, Mr. President, and…you fucked the country. And you've got to talk about that!" ' It is vintage volatile Wallace. The book works. It is replete with "war stories": of a relentless Mike squaring off with Menachem Begin, whom he compares, as a young revolutionary, to terrorist Yasir Arafat, and with Arafat, whom he links to "the butcher" Idi Amin; of Wallace's moments of exultation when he gets Ehrlichman, who was not sufficiently prepared for his encounter about Watergate on 60 Minutes, and his sense of despair when Haldeman, overpaid and overprepared for Wallace's fabled jabs, never lets Wallace lay a glove on him.
Not just the fearless exposer of scams and shams, Wallace reveals, in his dialogue with pianist Vladimir Horowitz, what an adroit interviewer he can be; it is also evident in his one‑on‑one with Itzhak Penman when Wallace asks him why so many world‑class violinists happen to be Jewish and the impish Penman replies, "You see, our fingers are circumcised, which gives… dexterity, particularly in the pinky.” Such moments are part of the sweet success that has moved Wallace from Night Beat to cigarette huckstering on‑camera to the heady phenomenon of 60 Minutes.
The book is much like having a long, nostalgic, anecdotal dinner with him, during which he confesses to friends his sense of pride that President Richard Nixon called when Mike was hospitalized for minor surgery. Wallace discloses how John Charles Daly made his life miserable when he worked for Daly at ABC News, how he helped break the My Lai‑massacre story, and why he has now sworn off ambush interviews, thank goodness.
The downside of Close Encounters is when Wallace takes a breather between his chapters and seems to ask his ace relief pitcher, Gary Paul Gates, to take over. Gates is Wallace's co‑author. He is capable of serious writing about television, and emerges as the third man at the dinner conversation. When the dialogue turns to the uncomfortable questions ‑Wallace's dispute with colleague Morley Safer over a projected investigation of Haiti (later offered to Ed Bradley and finally done by Wallace)‑ Gates provides the details. This is the case with Mike's indiscretion ‑off‑camera but recorded‑ about certain ethnic minorities and "watermelons and tacos," when Gates is assigned to sketch the embarrassment. Wallace is, in fact, well advised not to write about the current $120 million lawsuit brought by General Westmoreland, and can be forgiven for it. But Gates's version of the alleged libel is not the kind of first-person journalism that 60 Minutes demands. Sometimes the reader can't help sensing that Gates's assignment is the defensive stuff, while Mike is the avenging angel.
When Wallace is on his own ‑particularly when he tells of his devotion to his talented artist wife, Lorraine, who turned his topsy‑turvy life around, or his poignant interview with Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who grieved over his split‑second failure to save President Kennedy from an assassin's bullet‑ and when Gates offers the sensitive account of son Peter Wallace's tragic death in a climbing accident in the mountains of Greece, the book provides insights into Wallace the man, who is every bit as indomitable as Wallace the muckraker.
Ironically, Wallace's two thorny and interminable libel entanglements both involve military heroes ‑Herbert v. Lando and Westmoreland v. CBS. At the time of the alleged defamation of Colonel Anthony Herbert, Wallace and his producer, Barry Lando, were accused by certain publications of attacking Herbert, an anti‑military‑establishment hero, to repair the damage done by a CBS Reports program, "The Selling of the Pentagon.” As for the Westmoreland program, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” (also on CBS Reports), Wallace is accused of defaming an Establishment general. Wallace defied predictability in his choice of targets and is fiercely loyal to producer George Crile, who shaped the Westmoreland program, even when CBS appears to have abandoned him. Wallace, like Murrow before him, is a friend for stormy weather.
Whether you love or hate 60 Minutes, you'll want to read Close Encounters, although the "two‑anchor" treatment may send you scurrying to remember whether it's Wallace or third‑person journalism, in which the best scenes are denied the leading man.
"Tough‑but fair” is Mike Wallace's self‑chosen epitaph. Close Encounters is fair, but not always quite tough enough.