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Wallace on Bush, big tobacco and more

Journalist and author plays 'Hardball' with MSNBC's Matthews
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Mike Wallace jokes he's interviewed every president since Abraham Lincoln, except one, George W. Bush. 

In his new memoir, "Between You and Me," Wallace gives us the behind-the-scenes stories of almost four decades with "60 Minutes." 

So why is the man in the Oval Office afraid of the man on "60 Minutes." 

Wallace joined MSNBC's Chris Matthews on Monday to discuss his show, the book and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Mike, why is George W., the man in the White House, afraid of an interview with you? 

MIKE WALLACE, CBS NEWS:  Because he pays attention strictly to Karl Rove, and that's why from the very beginning, it's been apparent that Karl Rove will not permit him to sit down with me.

MATTHEWS:  Why did you get the sense that it's Karl Rove that's standing your way with the president?

WALLACE:  I went down to Texas when he was governor to do a piece about tort reform.  And mind you, Texas judges at that time had a certain conflict of interest, because they had to run for office.  And, therefore, if they are raising campaign funds, well, obviously somebody who had given them money for their campaigns would get better treatment. 

In any case, we did the story, but he said, "you're not going to talk to the governor.  I don't want the governor to talk to you about this."  OK, not the end of the world. 

When he arrived in Washington, I figured, well, the rules have changed.  I have never -- repeat, never -- gotten the chance, not only to interview the president, George W. Bush.  I've never even met the man.  I have not shaken hands with the man.  For some reason both Karl Rove and Karen Hughes have said, "uh-huh, forget it.  You're not going to talk to this guy."  Why?  You got me. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this -- Bob Woodward, a friend of yours, a friend of mine.  In areas out there, digging into this White House, writing the best war stories there are about the recent battles in Iraq, the two Gulf Wars. 

And yet now he's on the skillet for not coming clean with his own newspaper, as to what he knew about this leak, way back two years ago. 

WALLACE:  Right.  So?

MATTHEWS:  Did he break the rules?

WALLACE:  This is -- who knows?  He makes up his own rules.  Look, Woodward and Bernstein have done a wonderful job.  Woodward, particularly, has done an extraordinary job over the years. 

But what he has got is some kind of relationship with "The Washington Post" in which he says, "when the time comes -- when the time comes, you will get all my material to run a week's worth of stories.  However, I'm holding on to a lot of my stuff for my books.  Books mean more to me.  More money, more prestige, whatever."

And so he saves stories, keeps it from the Post, apparently with their understanding.  I don't know anybody else who has that understanding.  It's a great one for Woodward.  And in my estimation, makes "The Washington Post" look a little silly.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well let's talk about conflicts with corporations.  You broke some amazing stories.  I mean, I remember "The Insider."  I thought the movie was a hell of a movie.  Christopher Plummer played you, sort of a mixed-bag portrait of you. 

What did you make of that -- when you look back over your big stories and breaking the tobacco industry, and showing that they had in fact, gone out to try to sell nicotine and that was their business...  is that one of your big stories, that one? 

WALLACE:  Of course it was.  Look, when an insider, when you get hold of an insider like Jeff Wigand, and Jeff Wigand was the insider of them all, as far as Brown & Williamson tobacco was concerned. 

And what happened was, that we got to talk to him, but CBS would not permit us to broadcast it.  Why?  Well, it depends upon who you listen to.


WALLACE:  The Tisch family at that time controlled the company.  The Tisch family controlled CBS.  They obviously did not want somebody who was saying, in effect, "tobacco is a killer."  They didn't want that on the air.  It was against the interest of the Tisch family.

MATTHEWS:  Did you figure that out, or did Larry Tisch ever call you up and say, "My son, Andrew, is an owner of one of these companies, don't hurt him?"

WALLACE:  Your son, Andy, your son, Andrew, was one of those who raised his hand in front of that congressional committee and swore under oath that nicotine was not addictive.  Well, come on.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it is.  Let me ask you about the other big story, because I thought that that must have been tough on the inside.  The way you write in your book, you basically took the side of, "let's get the story out."

And it was the other people like Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes" and the ownership, that was queasy about getting out the facts because they were afraid of big tobacco and they're afraid of the corporate interests of the company.

WALLACE:  Well, they were not particularly anxious to get the story out.  Hewitt, as far as I was concerned, caved in to management, management of CBS.  And it surprised me, because he never caved in to anybody.

MATTHEWS:  Were they threatening his job?

WALLACE:  I doubt that.  Who the dickens knows? ...  But, listen, I have nothing in the world but respect and gratitude to Hewitt, and he got a little miffed at me when I said that I lost respect for him, when he caved into management on that one. 

He is the best.  He is the guy who thought up "60 Minutes."  Don Hewitt is the guy who made "60 Minutes," as you've said, one of the best television broadcasts of all-time.

MATTHEWS:  I think it's the best.  Let me ask you about going up against General Westmoreland.  The one thing that struck me back then in being draft eligible back then, was that Westmoreland looked every inch the commander.  And boy, central casting.  You had to go up against him in court.

WALLACE:  That's correct.  And mind you, Westie and I were friends.  Westie had sent me letters complimenting stuff that I had done in Vietnam. 

But then all of a sudden, we wind up -- as a matter of fact, we wound up standing on the first day of the trial point -- at points in the urinal.  First day of the trial, here's Westie, here's Mike, etc.

MATTHEWS:  Swords drawn.  I think you said swords drawn or something like that. 

WALLACE:  Yes.  In any case, in any case, the fact of the matter is that Westie lied to the American people about the fact that there were only 300,000 enemy out there. 

Sam Adams had the documents, had the proof, and he was CIA at the time.  There were 600,000.  It was hardly a popular war.  And what Westie worried about was that, if the American people heard that there were twice as many enemy out there as he was telling were out there, then obviously, the country would say, which was anti-war to begin with, that already lost of tens of thousands of men and women. ...

But to get in there in the courtroom, and they presented their case to begin with, and to hear yourself, as a reporter, call chief, cheap liar, fraud, etc., etc., was a very tough thing, which actually put me in a clinical depression. 

MATTHEWS:  But I thought that the -- your facts were right, though.  Because you said they weren't counting the home guard or the local guard there.  The big element in the V.C., the Vietcong, weren't getting counted.  ... And we had-and the American people had a right to know what we were up against, and we weren't told it.  So you guys were on very strong ground there, when you look back on it. 

WALLACE:  Oh, of course we were, and it became quite apparent. 

Look, everybody who knew what was really taking place there knew that he, Westmoreland, was lying to the American people.  And then you had to believe that Lyndon Johnson was also lying to the American people. 

There weren't 300,000.  There were 600,000 enemy out there.  We were getting -- you remember the body counts. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I remember every night on Cronkite you'd get this body count.  It sounded like we were massacring these people, and yet you kept getting they needed more troops. 

WALLACE:  That's exactly right.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, if Westy was winning, why did he need a quarter million more troops in '68?  That's what I kept asking, why do you need me? 

WALLACE:  You're absolutely right. 

MATTHEWS: Well, Mike, I couldn't avoid your last comment.  The great stress you were under with General Westmoreland.  The general of the army is coming at you with four stars on his shoulder.  Did you feel that affected you physically? 

WALLACE:  Oh, well, to be called nasty names in a courtroom under oath by all kinds of people, and everybody in the press was focusing on it, I got the impression that I was a lousy reporter, a dishonest reporter, a fraud, a cheat, etc. 

And all of a sudden began to not eat, not sleep ...

MATTHEWS:  But you were right this time.  And there have been problems with the CBS.  Dan Rather's had these problems.  But this is so clearly true that you were right.  And that didn't help you sustain yourself, the knowledge that you were absolutely in the clear here, the good guy. 

WALLACE:  You know something when you're in a depression you're crazy.  You're really -- I hate to say it, but you're crazy. 

And your reactions are nutty.  You begin to really lose self-esteem.  And it's a very tough one to handle.  I'm sure that it's never happened to you because you are -- you know better. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm lucky.  I'm lucky.  I don't have it.  And I read about it in your book, and I just feel so sorry for people that have had it, because it sounds like it's worse than just the blues or the black dog at the door.  It's something you can't shake out of. 

WALLACE:  That's right.  That's true. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about-let's leave on a lighter moment here.  Johnny Carson, along with you, I'm a big fan of Carson all those 30 years.  I always wanted to meet him. 

But then I was afraid if I met him he wouldn't be as nice as he was to us at 11:30 every night, which he was very nice.  What was he like when you got with him? 

WALLACE:  Well, I beat him at tennis fairly regularly.  So he got a little unpleasant. 

What happened was that he was going to do a profile, then he decided no, he was not going to do a profile on 60 Minutes.  And finally I was on his show and I said, come on.  Why in the world will you not?  Well, all right, I will. 
And he -- I'll tell you something.  I saw a man for whom I had immense admiration.  He was genuinely funny.  He was -- what he said was I'm comfortable when I am in control. 


WALLACE:  And when I'm making jokes, I'm in control.  When I'm out of control, that's not where I want to be.  And he began to talk about it in that very candid way. 

The strange thing was that in the middle of it, in looking at it, you see him sneak a cigarette when he thinks the camera is off.  He knew that he was getting lung cancer. 


WALLACE:  And he, like Peter Jennings, knew that he was getting lung cancer and could not get over the addiction of cigarettes. 

And that is why I feel that a fellow by the name of Jeff Wiegand, who was the man at Brown and Williamson, who blew the whistle on tobacco, an insider who knew the whole story.  As far as he's concerned -- as far as I'm concerned he's my hero. 

Because what he has really succeeded in doing is making people aware, kids particularly.  He has a foundation for smoke-free kids, which is-has succeeded in getting people off cigarettes ... not just in this country, in Scotland, in Sweden, in a variety of places. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how many lectures to we need?  Yul Brenner, William Talman, the guy who played Hamilton Burger, all these guys came on and did tapes before they died, and they said don't do it, I'm dying.  Don't do it kids.

WALLACE:  That's right.

MATTHEWS:  And they had people smoking out of holes in their necks they're so addicted.  By the way, didn't you think-what did you think of Russell Crowe playing that guy in the movie?
WALLACE:  Oh, Crowe's such an actor.  My, Lord.  That was the first time I ever saw him.  He was absolutely perfect. 

MATTHEWS:  And you knew Jeffrey Wiegand so you knew what he was supposed to be, and he was that guy. 

WALLACE:  Crowe was Wiegand, absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you're the greatest.  Thank you Mike.  Good luck with this book.  It's filled with these stories, and it's tricky being in your business.  "Between You and Me," Mike Wallace about the whole business of doing tough interviews. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.