THE MIKE WALLACE I KNEW:

by MARION GOLDIN , former Producer, “60 MINUTES”

Although I knew that Mike Wallace had been seriously ill for sometime, it has taken me somewhat longer than my former colleagues to come to terms with his death.  For fifteen years, from the summer of 1972 to the spring of 1988—with a brief hiatus from 1982 to mid-1984—Mike Wallace was an integral part of my professional life- & personal one too.

In the halcyon days of television news–& especially CBS News—coverage of our quadrennial political conventions was  a rite as sacred as the conventions themselves.  No expense was spared.  In addition to the anchors around whom all the coverage pivoted, CBS deployed four floor reporters who tracked the action among the delegations & others in attendance.  And those four correspondents each had an assistant to ply them with information & act as another set of eyes & ears for the multiple story lines unfolding.

I was lucky enough to be paired with Mike Wallace for the historic 1972 Democratic & Republican conventions, both held in Miami Beach, Florida.   What serendipity. I was Washington based & already a Watergate junkie even though the break-in at the Democratic National Committee had occurred just weeks before.  And Mike Wallace was a tiger for a good story.  Even though he did not know me, he sensed a first-rate story when he heard one.  So we were off & running.  Finding obscure, Watergate related persons among the delegates, facing skepticism if not outright opposition from our bosses plus explicit memos from the Republican Party describing this convention as a coronation of President Nixon- into which no bad news must intrude, we turned the 1972 Republican convention into a vehicle for bringing the Watergate saga to a wider American audience, many of whom were hearing about it for the first time.

So it is with a great deal of pride & a few tears that I read in the post-mortems an excerpt from Wallace’s interview with John Ehrlichman, conducted less than a year later.  It is now being cited as one of the paragons of his career.  We fought like banshees  to get that interview (by that time I had become one of Mike’s producers at “60 Minutes”), & once we did I researched the subject relentlessly, wrote questions & went over & over it all with Mike, as if we were cramming for exams.  When Fred Friendly (another TV news icon no longer with us), told MW that he was the best prepared interviewer he, Friendly, had ever seen…Mike told him I was responsible.  “Congratulations, “ Friendly wrote to me.  It’s a rare skill.”

I recount this story not to burnish my own image, but to illustrate what too many obituary writers have neglected: Mike Wallace was generous in crediting his producers.  It is how some of us, at least, developed independent reputations & infinitely more Google hits than we ever would have dreamed!  When TV Guide once pressed Wallace on how he would check out a story, he finally relented: “I would detail Marion Goldin to go do the work!”

Make no mistake: Mike Wallace could be & was a first class s.o.b.   He really was the incarnation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde- capable of such gratuitous cruelty & bullying that few were prepared to counter.  (I have always suspected that women were more inviting targets for this behavior- especially since we were more readily reduced to tears).  If he thought you were independently wealthy or had other sources of income, that would infuriate him, since he had lost one of his favorite means of control: a mortgage and/or tuition payment that indicated some desperation to keep one’s job!  When my father had a heart attack & I was forced to detour to his home in Florida from a shoot in Oregon, Mike shouted at me upon my return: “How could you be so self-indulgent.”   He was capable o language most foul: fond of using the god-awful “c” word to denigrate the women in his midst.

But he was also—on so many occasions—Dr. Jekyll.  So kind & thoughtful that I made the mistake of thinking he really liked me, instead of my work.  His third wife, Lorraine Perigord was an ethereal woman & a sensitive painter.  And somehow they knew that my husband & I were art collectors.  So one Saturday afternoon in October of 1978- they asked us to join them at the Guggenheim Museum for a Mark Rothko retrospective.  We all had a marvelous time.  And when I had finally made the excruciating decision to leave “60 Minutes” for ABC News, Mike did everything in his power to deter me & then—again with Lorraine—took my husband & me to “21” for a farewell dinner.  And he never stopped checking in to see whether he could lure me back to CBS- which he did less than 2 years later.  I know: it wasn’t me; it was my work.

On one particularly long plane ride, he poured his heart out about the loss of his son Peter.  He described in detail the awful trip to Greece & the even more awful discovery in some God-forsaken ravine.  Many of you may recall that until some years ago, Wallace always wore a black tie- in honor & memory of Peter.  Mike’s resolve to “go straight” after Peter’s death, to leave his game shows & commercials behind & become an honest-to-God newsman has also been noted.  What has been omitted is the credit he always gave & the debt he felt to Dick Salant, then the President of CBS News.  Salant, one of the true purists in the business, although he himself was an attorney, not a journalist, saw something in Mike Wallace that led him to hire him at CBS News.  Mike never forgot that.

Mike could also be a joyous soul.  He laughed easily & made others laugh.  He loved to remind me that I was “easily amused.”  And by Mike Wallace I was.  On an incredibly bumpy Braniff flight from San Antonio to Los Angeles, the stewardess spilled coffee on his crotch.  Rushing over with the all-purpose club soda she was rubbing away when Mike remarked.  “If something doesn’t happen real soon, I’ll really be embarrassed.!”

As has been noted, he loved the limelight; he loved his celebrity & at least in my presence, he never tired of strangers coming up to him to tell him how wonderful he was.  Until an evening in Palm Springs, where we were dining after a day’s work & a women rushed up to him, exclaiming: “Mr. Rather, it’s so nice to meet you!”  I was laughing too hard to record Mike’s response, but suffice it to say, it was a long time before I stopped calling him Mr. Rather.

Yet, in the final analysis, all of this was truly in the service of exceptional work.  There have already been lots of words devoted to ambush journalism, clever questions & dazzling profiles.  Let me mention just two stories of substance that Mike & I did together in the mid-eighties & that I am as proud of today as when they aired almost 30 years ago. They demonstrate what made “60 Minutes” not only entertaining, but enlightening & effective as well.  One we called “Patient Dumping.”  It was the practice of for-profit hospitals rejecting uninsured patients in their emergency room- directing them instead to the public or charity hospital in town.  Our documentation was superb: Parkland Hospital in Dallas had set up a taping system to capture these conversations. Mike arrived in town fresh from his first hospitalization for depression & did a first-rate job of confronting the perpetrators & interviewing the victims. The piece led directly to federal legislation to ban the practice.  We have a letter of thanks from Senator Ted Kennedy to prove it.

“The “36 Hour Day” also changed the law by banning—at least in some states—the practice of interns & residents working 36 hours’ straight until they could barely see or stand, let alone practice good medicine.  Mike Wallace, once again, seized the material prepared for him & brought his inimitable style & insight to it.

It is almost impossible for me to think of Mike Wallace resting in peace anywhere-  at any time.  But if any one deserves to do so, it is Myron Leon Wallace along with those of us fortunate enough to have been on that bucking steer with him.

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One Response to THE MIKE WALLACE I KNEW:

  1. Bonnie Harshman Cole says:

    Wonderful tribute, Marion. I am Janet Harshman Agassi’s sister and I have heard so many incredible stories from her about you and Mike. Those were the days!

    Bonnie Harshman Cole
    Shaker Hts., Ohio

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