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Mike Wallace vs. President Hinckley? Dave Checketts needn't have worried

When Dave Checketts heard that his friend and neighbor Mike Wallace was going to interview Gordon B. Hinckley, he was worried.

This was in 1995 and Wallace was famous for his tough interviewing skills on "60 Minutes." He didn't interview people, it was said; he interrogated them. It was also noted that the worst sentence you could hear in the English language was, "Mike Wallace is here to see you." He went one-on-one with hardened, tough politicians, crooks, business leaders and assorted battle-tested characters and turned them into oatmeal. And now he was about to interview the beloved president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on national TV.

Checketts, who was president of Madison Square Garden at the time, is a devout Mormon, so his protective instincts took over. "I was thinking he was going to try to tear President Hinckley apart like he did everyone else," recalls Checketts. He called Wallace immediately. "We gotta talk," he said. Checketts appealed to Wallace's weak spot by offering him tickets to a Knicks-Bulls playoff game.

Before the game, Checketts sat at a table with Wallace and his wife Mary and made his appeal. "Mike, if you were interviewing the Pope, my guess is you would hear from a lot of Catholics who would say, don't take your '60 Minutes' approach with him," he began. "This is a holy man for millions of people. That's how I feel about President Hinckley. He has done so much for the church and he's such a gentle soul. I hope this is not a grilling. I just wanted you to hear that. I don't want him to get rough treatment."

As Checketts recalls, Wallace threw back his head and laughed. "I have no intention of doing that," he said. "This is a man I admire. I'm looking forward to sitting down with him."

The rest is church history. The interview proved to be one of the signature moments in the recent history of the LDS Church. President Hinckley was open, humorous and quick on his feet. Wallace was fair, direct and respectful. In the process, some of the mystique of the church dissipated.

When Wallace died on Saturday at the age of 93, many, including Checketts, reflected on that interview and on the famous journalist and the friendship that grew out of that interview. It was an unlikely friendship — the cynical, seen-it-all veteran journalist of Jewish descent and the genial, Utah-born-and-raised leader of the Mormon Church.

And yet that's what happened. Wallace wrote the foreward to President Hinckley's book, "Standing for Something." Ten years after their famous interview, Wallace received a call from Craig Jessop, then director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, inviting him to attend President Hinckley's 95th birthday celebration in Salt Lake City. As Jessop tells it, "Ron Gunnell, Mac Christensen and I brainstormed to find a non-LDS person who knew President Hinckley well and could honor him. We decided the perfect person would be Wallace. I called him and he said he would be really honored. And he was the perfect person for the job. It's one thing to honor ourselves but another to bring someone in from outside who has the stature of Mike Wallace."

The feelings were mutual. As Jessop tells it, President Hinckley got tears in his eyes when Jessop told him Wallace was coming to attend the celebration. "He was very touched and surprised, and President Hinckley wasn't easy to surprise," says Jessop.

President Hinckley mentioned Wallace and the interview in his remarks at the church's October 1996 General Conference. "I developed a deep respect for Mr. Wallace," he said. "He is a most able professional. He was courteous, respectful, incisive in his questions, one who might be described as a tough, street-wise reporter with long experience, but a gentleman in the best sense of the word."

He went on to discuss the interview in detail, question by question.

Wallace, who was criticized in the journalism community for what was perceived as soft treatment of the church leader, told National Public Radio that he admired President Hinckley's "candor, his willingness to entertain any question, no matter how difficult or, perhaps embarrassing. He was just absolutely open with me. It became quite clear that there was a great deal in the Mormon religion that I genuinely admired."

Wallace said he had never had a "relationship like this with a clergyman. I'm not a particularly pious or religious person." As for being seen as a "patsy for the Mormon Church," he said, "Because I have the feeling I do for Gordon B. Hinckley, I figure I'll get a pass on this if I'm not as characteristically confrontational."

Wallace wrote about his first meeting with President Hinckley in the foreward to "Standing for Something." He said he received an invitation for a luncheon at the Harvard Club in New York City and wasn't inclined to attend, except that he would have a chance to dine with the leader of the LDS Church. He had been trying for decades to get any of the top Mormon leaders to meet with him, he wrote, but had been turned down.

Wrote Wallace, "So I was totally unprepared for a cordial, even a sunny greeting at the luncheon from Gordon B. Hinckley. And I was still hesitant when, following his postprandial remarks, he threw the floor open for questions from any and all of us. Timorously, I wondered aloud to him if he might entertain the notion of an interview-cum-profile for '60 Minutes.' President Hinckley's bespectacled eyes literally twinkled as he good-naturedly allowed that it sounded like an appealing notion, that after all he really had nothing to hide, and that he imagined he'd have little difficulty handling whatever queries I loosed at him. He'd heard and answered worse, he was sure, during his young missionary years in London where he'd taken on whatever the skeptics and nonbelievers had thrown at him in his Hyde Park appearances and/or confrontations."

The result was a wonderful moment for Wallace, President Hinckley and the LDS Church.

As Checketts recalls, he wrote Wallace a long letter after the interview. "I told him it couldn't have been handled with more class and dignity." Checketts liked the interview so much that it inspired him a couple of years later to arrange for President Hinckley to speak at Madison Square Garden to give him more exposure to the world's media. Checketts invited the biggest names in journalism to the event — "I knew they'd come because they all want tickets to the Knicks games and they don't want to get on my bad side," jokes Checketts. The event attracted some 25,000 people, including many of the big names in the media.

"Mike Wallace was sitting there in the front row," says Checketts. "He came to the reception afterward, too. He and President Hinckley shared laughs and took some pictures. He said he had a soft spot for President Hinckley. Most people didn't think he had a soft spot for anyone."