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How does Mike Wallace get people to open up? He's nosy — and prepared

Mike Wallace is a legend in his own time, so he deserves a second memoir, "Between You and Me" — a collection of ruminations about his most famous interviews over the past 60 years.

The man is 87 years old but looks and sounds much younger.

The founding star of CBS' TV newsmagazine show "60 Minutes" since its inception in 1968, Wallace just might be the greatest interviewer of all time.

Answering the phone at his New York office, Wallace was caught eating a sandwich; he thought he had a break between interviews. But he was completely gracious, genial, relaxed — and talkative. (I was the beneficiary of a glorious journalistic accident: 50 juicy minutes.)

Wallace had just returned from a hearing test. "You reach the point in this business when the hearing starts to go," he said. "It has something to do with using earphones all the time. A lot of broadcasting people have this problem. Walter Cronkite is virtually stone deaf." (I moved the microphone on my headset a little closer to my mouth before continuing.)

"I've always been nosy," he said when asked about his interviewing techniques. "Early on I learned to read thoroughly everything that has been written about an interviewee, see his films or whatever there is, then write on a yellow pad, subheadings such as 'motivation,' 'fear,' 'greed' — things of that nature.

"I may end up with 100 questions on the pad, but when I sit down, this person begins to see 'This guy knows a lot about me.' And that establishes what I call the chemistry of confidentiality. If I listen and let silences go, more words keep coming out. If you prepare, people you interview respect you and want to help."

Wallace recalled the earlier days of his career when he sometimes did "ambush interviews," obtained by surprise outside someone's office. "You get a certain amount of information that way, but they tended to be caricatures of themselves. They worked for awhile — but then we realized they were self-defeating. We generated more heat than light."

Sit-down interviews are better, he said — and he is especially grateful for a delightful run of "meeting interesting people, who had something to say." He believes now that some of his better interviews came out of left field.

Wallace calls himself "an old fiddle player" who "cares a lot about music." One of his favorite musicians is Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps the greatest pianist of the 20th century. By accident Wallace came face to face with Horowitz prior to the interview, and Horowitz shouted, "Mike Wallace — I watch you every Sunday."

Although Wallace was nervous about the interview — a rarity for him — he became calm after that meeting. "It turned into a glorious piece. And it was the first time he'd done such an interview. But my interviews with Shirley MacLaine and Tina Turner were also satisfying — so much so that I knew I'd probably done better with them than I have a right to believe I could ever do."

MacLaine became more than just an interview subject, however. Wallace, who was single at the time, asserts he has "never been courted, if that's the word, the way Shirley MacLaine did with me. Following our interview, she began to believe we were going to wind up together. She was a journalism groupie — but it just didn't work."

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know, when Wallace interviewed President Gordon B. Hinckley for the first time, they connected well. Although Wallace had been trying for years to get "a Mormon leader" to talk to him, he says he was always "stonewalled." Then he heard President Hinckley speak at New York's Harvard Club and then saw him throw it open for questions.

"It was stunning," Wallace said. "I interviewed him afterward, then we did another interview in Salt Lake City. He was willing to answer every question. So we just became good friends, Gordon and I. He's simply an extraordinary man."

Wallace says he has learned a lot doing these interviews. "You have to! I'm looking now at the wall in my office with pictures of Yasser Arafat, Eric Severeid, Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley — and a picture of me getting arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. As well as a letter from Spiro Agnew (Richard Nixon's vice president, who resigned in the 1970s after charges of corruption). The letter says, 'Mike, have lunch with me and I'll pay you.' It's signed, 'Ted' (Agnew's nickname). We had a bet about a baseball game."

According to Wallace, "60 Minutes" didn't get a strong audience until about five years into the show. "We were finishing 85 or 90 out of 100 shows. Then came the oil embargo, in 1973, at the time of the Yom Kippur War, and people didn't have gas to drive to grandma's house on Sunday afternoon, so they stayed at home with the remote and discovered us. We had our act together by then. These have been wonderful days."

Wallace is a strong enough personality that he and Don Hewitt, the founder and, until recently, producer of "60 Minutes," often went the rounds about stories. "Think blood, shouts, noisy, mean — the kind of creative tension that works out for the best."

In Wallace's opinion, the recent ascension of Sean McManus to the presidency of CBS News could result in the return of Hewitt. "Who knows how soon? Don still has the appetite for it."

Asked to explain his own youthfulness and his intellectual acuity, Wallace says, "I just love what I do!" Then he pointed to a persistent problem that he and other broadcasters have. "You're not necessarily a good husband or father, because you use so much psychic energy in what you do — and that doesn't sit well with a spouse."

It's hard to imagine such a successful man suffering from clinical depression, but it happened to Wallace late in life, after an interview with Vietnam War commanding Gen. William Westmoreland resulted in a lawsuit because he thought he had been "smeared" on "60 Minutes."

"To sit in a drafty federal courtroom for four months and hear yourself called a cheap fraud every day was difficult," Wallace said. "Afterward, I couldn't eat, sleep or concentrate. All of a sudden that's where I was. They called it nervous exhaustion — but it was tougher than that."

Ironically, the psychiatrist Wallace approached for help, Marvin Kaplan, had never seen him on television — so he had to watch "60 Minutes" before he had a feel for what Wallace was going through. "Then he said 'You are going to have to get ready to testify in that $120 million suit. You are going to be six feet away from the jury, and you're going to have to answer questions like some of the ones you ask. You're going to have to get ready to lose. And if you lose, it would be like a doctor being sued for malpractice. Your professional life would be over — and your credibility and integrity, everything a reporter holds dear, goes out the window."

It was medication, Kaplan's wise advice and the huge emotional support from Wallace's wife, Mary, that helped him recover. Plus, Westmoreland suddenly dropped the lawsuit.

Despite his high television perch, Wallace easily hands out praise to other interviewers, expressing genuine admiration for Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, Charlie Rose and Larry King. "There used to be a time when you'd say that Larry throws softballs — but that's no longer true. These people are all superb interviewers."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com