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Mike Wallace, man of the hour

Mike Wallace's revealing reports have won every major award in journalism, but in a Dateline interview, he revealed a little about himself. Katie Couric sits down with the "60 Minutes" star to find out what makes him tick.

In the lion’s den of investigative journalism, Mike Wallace is the father of the pride. He is fierce, fearless, and unrelenting. For half a century, he has taken on the most notable and notorious figures in modern history, never hesitating, in the hunt for truth.

Katie Couric, NBC News: Did you ever feel like, “Oh I can’t ask this?” Or did you ever ask someone a question and think, “Oh that’s a little too much?”Mike Wallace, journalist: No, no.Couric: Never?Wallace: No, never.  I even asked Eleanor Roosevelt difficult questions and she loved it. And then people began to really admire it and say “Hey we’re really getting the straight stuff from Wallace.”

At 87 years old, Wallace is still giving us the straight stuff on "60 Minutes" and in his second memoir, “Between You and Me.” 

The title comes from an exchange with an accountant he cajoled into admitting tax fraud.

(footage) Wallace: Between you and me, you do it, everybody does it.Accountant: I presume everyone does it to an extent.

With a companion DVD, the book is a testament to a brilliant career. It also reveals a Mike Wallace you might not recognize: the former cigarette pitchman who fought for respect as a reporter, the father who lost a teenage son, and even a tough guy who battled depression.

On Martha’s Vineyard, where Wallace relaxes when "60 Minutes" takes a break for the summer, the lion might pass for a lamb, were it not for that tell-tale competitive streak.Every summer, at the Possible Dreams auction, Wallace and his trusted friend, Walter Cronkite compete to raise the most money for community services.

This year, Cronkite steered bidders to a luncheon sail on his boat. Wallace, on the other hand, talked up a tour of “60 Minutes.” Dollar for dollar, Wallace lost that match. But he and his buddy displayed the same camaraderie they used to show on the tennis court.

Couric: Do you still play a lot of tennis up here?Wallace: No, I don’t. I hit the ball some, but I don’t play tennis, competitive tennis. That’s the game I love.

Colleague Morley Saferhas joked that Wallace’s only hobby is pulling the wings off insects. Truth is, he has no real hobby, only work, which he says he’ll never give up.

Couric: How do you do it? How do you stay so vibrant, so active, so alert, and continue to work so hard?Wallace: ‘Cause I wouldn’t know what else to do.  Seriously, I went to work when I was a young fellow and I loved what I did. And I just kept working. And when I decided that maybe the time had come for me to quit, I got depressed. What could I do if I didn’t work?

Born in 1918, Myron Leon Wallace was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, the fourth and last child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. By the way, his father an insurance broker, worked every day of his life until he died at the age of 73.

In high school, Wallace excelled at violin and tennis, but his real strength: his voice. 

Wallace: When I went to Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, what I really wanted to be was a radio announcer.

Fresh from the class of ‘39, Myron Wallace hit the airwaves in Michigan. He started as a rip-and-read reporter for $20 a week and worked his way up.

Among his first claims to fame: the popular radio program, “The Green Hornet.”

After a couple years in the Navy during World War II, Wallace grew more ambitious.In the mid-40s, he made the leap to a new thing called television, even though he wasn’t quite ready for his close-up.

Couric: Early on, you were self-conscious about your looks.Wallace: Yes, because of this [points all over his face]. Pockmarks.Couric: So even though you had a face for radio in your view, you decided to give TV a try?Wallace: That’s exactly right.

Myron also decided to use his nickname on television, and for the next decade, Mike Wallace hosted all kinds of shows, among them, one that co-starred his second wife.

The show was called “Mike and Buff.” The polite banter—or “pabulum,” as he calls it— wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. So he and his talented producer, Ted Yates, came up with a much stronger brew: “Night Beat.”

When “Night Beat” debuted in New York in 1956, it created quite a buzz. No topic was off limits for the 38-year-old interviewer.

Wallace: An old friend of mine said, “There’s no such thing as an indiscreet question.” And it worked. At 11:30 at night with the lights in here, warts in all. And the smoke from my cigarette curling up.  I had been fairly anonymous until that time, and all of a sudden, cab drivers [were telling me] “Give ‘em hell, Mike, go for it!”

In 1957, he went national on ABC with “The Mike Wallace Interview.” His guest list read like a who’s who, and might have branded him a serious journalist, were it not for the cigarette ads that featured him.

Back then, even the legendary Edward R. Murrow smoked on the air. But Wallace was a paid spokesman, long after other reporters had given up those jobs because of conflicts of interest.

Wallace: I used to say that I didn’t do news exclusively because I had to support Peter and Chris.

Peter and Chris, Wallace’s two sons in Chicago didn’t see much of their dad, who was working in New York. He divorced three times before settling down with his fourth and current wife, Mary.

Incidentally, she was the widow of his "Night Beat" producer, Ted Yates. He was killed in 1967 while covering the Six-Day War in the Middle East for NBC News.

Before he married Mary in 1986, Wallace admits, he was married to the job.

Wallace: I was not a very good husband. Couric: Any regrets about that?Wallace: In retrospect, yeah. But listen, I did what I felt that I wanted to do. Fairly selfishly. I didn’t know my kids as well as I should have.

Chris would grow up to be a network correspondent. The elder, Peter, aspired to be reporter, too. But he never got that chance. Instead, when he was 19 years old, he changed his father’s life forever.

Wallace: In a strange way, I wanted to prove to Peter that I could do good serious work and attribute it, in effect, to his memory.

Couric: Do you think Peter would have become a TV journalist?Wallace: Oh yeah, I do. He was a good writer, he was a good guy.

In August 1962, Peter Wallace, an adventurous Yale student, was exploring Greece.

Wallace: He saw a mountain outside Kamari looking down into the Gulf of Corinth. And he was told that a couple of nuns were living up there in the monastery. So…Couric: He went up.Wallace: Nosy reporter-type, he went up.

When several weeks passed with no word from his reliable son, Wallace instinctively flew to Greece. With the help of the American embassy and leads from villagers, he zeroed in on a steep mountain path...

Wallace: And so, I went up and found him.Couric: He had fallen.Wallace: He had fallen and, you know, you’ve lost. Anybody who knows and loves and all of a sudden it’s snatched away...Couric: How do you recover from something like that, Mike? The loss of a child, especially.Wallace: I know. It’s now 43 years. You do, you do. I was astonished at the number of people who would send me letters because it had happened to them and they tried to help me understand it. When you think you have it made, so often life turns around and bites you in the back.

He buried his son a week after what should have been Peter’s 20th birthday.

Then, Wallace who was 44, recalibrated his life. The cigarette commercials were no longer worth the money. He quit making them.

Wallace: After Peter passed, I said, “Look let’s make a virtue out of necessity, I’m going to go straight. I’m going to give up everything that I’ve been doing that is not just news.”

But, believe it or not, in the early '60s, almost nobody in the news business wanted to hire Mike Wallace. He dedicates his book to the guy who did.

Wallace: I finally persuaded Dick Salant, who was the president of CBS News at the time, to give me a chance.

In his early years at CBS, Wallace did anything and everything to prove himself— from reporting in Vietnam to anchoring the morning news.

But, in 1968, he nearly quit CBS News for a job that would have landed him in the White House. He was covering the presidential election when Richard Nixon asked him to be his press secretary.  Wallace was tempted. Instead, he listened to a veteran correspondent who said:

Wallace: “Mike, Don’t do it because you have finally made yourself what you hoped to be.”Couric: Credible?

Wallace: Exactly right. “You’ve done that, so don’t give yourself the opportunity to backslide.”

Soon after, Wallace half-heartedly agreed to co-anchor the first-ever television news magazine.

"60 Minutes" premiered in the fall of 1968, with Harry Reasoner and, at the tender age of 50, Mike Wallace. To his surprise, it wasn’t long before America was faithfully tuning in to watch him stalk the bad guys.  

Wallace: We did do what was called the ambush interview. And for some reason, this was extraordinary. And the audience just loved to watch it when we would come upon somebody unaware. And they weren’t prepared to answer questions. And they got embarrassed and they tried to evade the camera or whatever.

Some people he ambush interviewed were actually delighted when he showed up.

Of course, the lion also prowled for newsmakers. In 1979, during the Iranian hostage crisis, he snared the exclusive interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Wallace: Everybody wanted it. It was a great pleasure to be able to walk into the place that I was going to interview the Ayatollah Khomeini. And standing outside were John Hart of NBC, Peter Jennings of ABC, and to be able to say “Hey fellas, great pleasure to see you, and I’m going in there.”

If the highs were stratospheric, the lows were ocean deep. In 1982, Wallace’s reputation was challenged as never before.

U.S. Army General William Westmoreland lodged a $120 million dollar libel suit against CBS News. He was furious about a report that questioned his conduct during the Vietnam War. 

After a vicious three-year battle, the general dropped the claims just days before Wallace was set to testify. But the intrepid reporter had been seriously wounded.

Wallace: To sit there and hear yourself in a courtroom called “thief,” “cheat,” “liar.” Little by little, I began to find that I couldn’t get to sleep. And I was suddenly in a real serious clinical depression.

It was so serious, he was hospitalized in 1984. After a couple of relapses, he found an anti-depressant that has kept him balanced. And he doesn’t give a hoot what anyone has to say about it.

Couric: How do you feel about Tom Cruise’s assertion that...Wallace: Scientology and so forth is going to help you and the e-meter and all that?Couric: Well, that anti-depressants aren’t good, that there’s no use for them. Wallace: I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

A decade after the Westmoreland siege, Wallace locked horns with his own commanders. In 1995, a whistle-blower gave “60 Minutes” explosive information about top executives in the tobacco industry.

For months, CBS refused to broadcast the Jeffrey Wigand interview, concerned it would ignite a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. The producer of the report eventually left “60 Minutes” and sold his story to Hollywood.

Wallace has his own version of what happened.

Couric: In the book, you say you felt outraged and betrayed when the corporate management of CBS emasculated a “60 Minutes” story. Why didn’t you resign in protest?Wallace: What good would it have done? I believed that eventually we were going to get that piece on the air, which of course we did. Everything came around in the right way, finally.

It has been 37 years since Wallace first took the chair at “60 Minutes,” and as long as his health obliges, he sees no reason to stop the clock.

Wallace: I feel damn good.Couric: Damn good. Anything bother you? Do you have any kind of medical stuff you have to deal with?Wallace: I have a pacemaker here. I’ve had a couple of operations for circulation in the legs. I had a fall a couple years ago and lost my memory and busted a couple of eardrums and so forth, but after a while, you simply—Couric: It’s part of getting older, right?Wallace: Yes. It’s part of getting older.

Looking back on what he calls his “unlikely” career, Mike Wallace says it’s impossible to choose a proudest moment or a favorite interview:There are simply too many. And yet, ever concise, he is able to sum up his extraordinary life in just three words.

Couric: "Between you and me," do you ever think of an epitaph?Wallace: I’ve written about it. “Tough, but fair,” and that's really for a reporter… “tough but fair.” You don’t think about your epitaph, really. Do you?Couric: Sometimes.Wallace: Do you really?Couric: Mine would be “Perky no more.”Wallace: (Laughs.) Perfect. Good.

And the next big interview Mike Wallace is working to get? President George W. Bush. Wallace jokes that he's spoken with every sitting president since Abraham Lincoln, except for the one now sitting in the White House.