September 10, 1984 12:00 PM

For heads of state or petty thieves, as one wag put it, the four most frightening words in the English language are “Mike Wallace is here.” In 16 years as the most tenacious of 60 Minutes’ newshounds, Wallace has pricked politicians’ consciences, dissected phony physicians and taxed unscrupulous accountants on-camera. Lately, Wallace has become something of a news item himself. His just-published autobiography, Close Encounters (William Morrow, $17.95), reveals a surprising conservative streak, and this fall he and other CBS employees may be called to take the stand in a $120 million libel suit filed by Gen. William Westmoreland. Wallace acted as chief on-camera interviewer for a 1982 CBS documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which claimed that in the late ’60s Westmoreland and other U.S. officials conspired to mislead the public about enemy strength in order to maintain popular support for the Vietnam War. Westmoreland says the charge is false.

The focus of Close Encounters Is professional, rather than personal, not surprising for a man who rarely talks about his private life. At his summer home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he and his wife, Lorraine, 63, have vacationed for 12 years, Wallace talked with Associate Editor Jane Hall.

What do you think will be the outcome of the Westmoreland suit?

I think we will win, on the grounds of truth. The documentary is dead accurate, and I stand by it.

The documentary claimed there had been “a conspiracy at the highest levels of military intelligence” to mislead the American public about enemy strength. Yet CBS’ own internal investigation of the documentary concludes that a conspiracy was not proved.

The CBS report affirms the substance of the broadcast. I disagree with the part of the report that says we shouldn’t have used the word “conspiracy.” The CBS investigation was made by an honorable CBS News executive whose background is not in investigative reporting. Based on the dictionary definition of “conspiracy,” a conspiracy was proved. There was a systematic deception about the strength of the enemy. The books were cooked.

What was your role as the correspondent for the documentary?

I did three of the major on-camera interviews that viewers saw. Because the documentary took a year to produce—and involved several other reporters and researchers—I spent proportionately less time on it than I would on a 60 Minutes story. I spent cumulatively about 150 hours on the broadcast. In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to spend more time. But that did not diminish in any respect the accuracy of the report.

One critic of the documentary accused you of being “a puppet on [producer] George Crile’s knee.” Were you?

I’ve been called many things in my life, but never before a puppet. Collaboration with a team of reporters is hardly puppetry.

Readers of your book may be surprised to find that you voted for Richard Nixon in 1968 and once were asked to be his press secretary. What do you think of him now?

Personally, I think he’s about as complicated a guy as I’ve ever met. The other day he sent me a note about an old series of mine, Biography, which airs at 5 a.m. in New York. “I hope you’re getting residuals,” he wrote. But politically, I wonder whether the time has come to let Richard Nixon participate in a more open way in American politics. He’s serving an endless sentence for Watergate, and the country is not benefiting sufficiently from his grasp of foreign affairs and his keen intelligence.

What do you think of Ronald Reagan?

He’s a consummate politician and a decent man who—whether you agree with his policies or not—uses the Presidency as a bully pulpit.

In the 1970s 60 Minutes gained notoriety with “ambush” interviews. Have you abandoned that tactic?

This fall we’ll have a story about a “sting” operation set up by Vuitton luggage to catch criminals who sell fake Vuitton goods. But in recent years we have steered away from stories where the reporter comes out from behind the potted palm. There’s a danger with such stories that you are creating confrontation for confrontation’s sake.

Some critics have said that 60 Minutes is entertainment, a weekly struggle between good and evil. Do you agree?

I would hope that 60 Minutes is arresting, entertaining. We probably do sharpen the conflict between the opposing views because we’ve got only 15 minutes to tell a story that may affect millions. If I’m doing a story about age discrimination, I don’t want some wimp—forgive the use of the word “wimp”—telling me about it. I want somebody who’s really angry and feels he has been treated unjustly. I want the best case to be made on the other side too, so that the audience can make up its own mind. That’s good television and good journalism.

How do you work on your 60 Minutes stories?

I do about 25 pieces and travel hundreds of thousands of miles each year. This month I will go to Mexico, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, New York and Denver on three different stories. With that many pieces per correspondent, it’s obvious the correspondent cannot be there all the time for each story. The producer will work eight to 10 weeks on a story; as a correspondent, I will work eight to 10 days per story. The producer does much of the gumshoe work before I do the on-camera interviews. I’ve said it many times: 60 Minutes is a producers’ broadcast.

Do you feel interview subjects are treated fairly on 60 Minutes?

We have been sued for libel 50 times, and we’ve never lost. We settled only one case out of court, for $500, to the nephew of the President of a Latin American country who was mentioned in a drug story. The nephew never even bothered to collect the money. Personally, I think I’ve occasionally been guilty of a cheap shot—pushing the subject unfairly in an interview—but that is unlikely to make it through the editing process.

What chance does some poor subject have against CBS’ Mike Wallace?

Frankly, I don’t think I have the advantage. The person I’m interviewing has not been subpoenaed. He’s in charge of himself, and he lives with his subject matter every day. All I’m armed with is research.

When you were questioning Shirley MacLaine recently about her belief in reincarnation, she sidestepped a question by saying, “Mike, that doesn’t become you.” Could a corporate executive learn from her approach?

No, because I don’t interview an artist like Shirley or Vladimir Horowitz in the same way that I approach an investigative piece.

Sometime this season Diane Sawyer will join 60 Minutes as the first full-time female correspondent. How will she fare in the 60 Minutes men’s club?

She can be one of the boys. She’s good and smart, and she will add to the broadcast.

Even though you’re Jewish, you were accused of being anti-Israel after some stories on the Middle East. Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?

I’ve been called a “self-hating Jew” because I treated Arab leaders, including Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, fairly in interviews. But I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism in my professional or personal life. I think of myself as Jewish, although I don’t go to synagogue. Every night I say a traditional Jewish prayer—”Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One”—with added prayers for people I’m close to.

How much of your abrasive on-air style is a reflection of your personality?

My wife says I’m the same on-camera and off, and I think my children would agree. There’s little of the diplomat in me. I’m not proud of it.

Can you take it as well as dish it out?

It depends upon how close to the bone it is. I used to play the violin in high school, and one Christmas I brought it out. There were catcalls and hoots from my family. I put that violin away, and I haven’t touched it since. I have no sense of humor about that, I can tell you.

Your son Chris is a correspondent for NBC News. Do you give him any advice about TV journalism?

We’re gently candid with each other, as a father and son should be. I think he’s first-rate, and since I’m older, I listen to him more than he listens to me.

Did you ever consider living your life differently?

I didn’t want to, and my wife, Lorraine, didn’t want me to either. She’s the one who encouraged me to return to straight news when I was doing TV commercials for Parliament cigarettes and game shows like Who Pays? for the money in the ’50s.

You’re 66, and you’ve got a contract that runs until you’re 70. Are you mellowing at all?

Perhaps a little. Physically, everything still works. Psychically, it’s more difficult for me to get worked up about injustice because I increasingly appreciate that there’s more than one side to a question. But I hope I still have a willingness to be surprised.

Do you plan to slow down?

If Ronald Reagan isn’t slowing down at 73, why should I?

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