First Impressions

CBS’s 60 Minutes devoted its entire hour last Sunday night to remembering Mike Wallace, the grand inquistor of television news who had died the previous weekend at the age of 93. It was a fond farewell that did not soft-peddle the reality that Wallace could be both a pussycat and a bear.

I have my own little piece of Wallace lore. On my first of what turned out to be many, many summer TV critics’ tours to Los Angeles, CBS flew Wallace  out to do meet-and-greets. This was 1973, when the critic corps was still relatively small, so instead of mass press conferences there were small coffee klatch sessions that were almost cozy. Nobody asked hard questions. Everybody just chatted, and the interviewee – whether it was Wallace or William “Cannon” Conrad or Sally Field – was mainly expected to tell good anecdotes.

Wallace was extremely convivial, telling “war stories” about cheats and liars he’s faced down and expounding on how he and his producers convinced these crooks to appear on camera. We all laughed a lot.

As the session was ending, I couldn’t resist approaching the most feared and famous journalist in America. I had on the TV beat for The Orlando Sentinel for less than six months. I had previously been a staff writer for the paper’s ambitious Sunday magazine, Florida, and one of the last pieces I had written for the mag was a long feature about the “leper colony” in Carville, Louisiana. I couldn’t wait to tell Wallace that Carville was a great story just waiting for him or Morley Safer.

“Mr. Wallace, Mr. Wallace,” I called to him. He turned toward me. “I just wanted to tell you I have a great story idea for you. It’s about….”

He cut me off with one of those annoyed “Oh, please” looks well known to 60 Minutes viewers. “Sure kid,” he said. “Everybody does.”

As he turned away, I was so stunned by his curt rebuff that that my deeply ingrained Southern manners and deference just disappeared. “Well, fuck  you,” I blurted.

He turned sharply and looked at me – really looked at me for the first time. I gulped. “What’s the story?” he asked.

I told him, as succinctly as I could, about Carville. He nodded as I explained and then he said, “That is a good story, but it’s not a 60 Minutes story.” He went on to explain about conflict, finding the drama in a piece.

He thanked me for the suggestion, wished me luck with my writing, shook my hand.

Years later, when I was working for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I lined up a phone interview with Wallace to talk about some history special he was narrating. The publicist had gotten me his home phone number. We talked about the special, 60 Minutes, even his struggle with depression. He was as candid as he was genial. As the interview was wrapping up, I mentioned the encounter described above.

Not surprisingly, given how many people he’d met in his professional life, he did not recall my outburst. But his behavior, he said, sounded like him, and he apologized.

No, I said, “I’m the one who should apologize for what I said. It was unprofessional, not to mention rude.”

“Trust me when I tell you, Noel,” he said. “You were not the first person who ever said that to me.”

Photo: Screen shot from video (fair use).
Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.

  1. Mr. Holston, your recollections of Mike Wallace remind me of meeting Walter Cronkite (1916-2009).  I was traveling with former Gov. Jimmy Carter in New York City after he announced his presidential ambitions in December 1974.  I was the Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Constitution and was the only journalist following Carter in his first foray to NYC as a presidential candidate.  I had known Carter since covering the 1970 governor’s race for readers of the Marietta Daily Journal and had interviewed him several times after I joined The Constitution in 1971. 

    With his recognition in national polls less than 5 percent, Carter did well, I thought, among the New Yorkers he met.  Carter was the best one-on-one politician I have observed campaigning — before or since, New York City or elsewhere.  But his delivery speaking to groups, especially large gatherings, lacked impact. 

    We went to the CBS studios in Manhattan where Cronkite and Carter met for the first time.  What surprised me was just before the TV lights were turned on Carter, Cronkite turned to me and said, “I apologize to The Atlanta Constitution for these soft questions.  We’re interviewing all the presidential candidates when they come through New York.  Just want to get them on the record on a few basic questions.”  

    I nodded. 

    Interesting, I thought.  Uncle Walter, a former newspaperman and wire-service reporter, didn’t want me to think he had lost the skills of more intense questioning of politicians common with newspaper reporters but less so among TV reporters, with the possible exception of Mike Wallace.

    I took several photos of “the most trusted man in America” sitting with a virtually unknown politician from Georgia.  When Carter was elected president, I reviewed my 35mm negatives and, passing by photos of Cronkite, cropped one image off to one side so I could get a print of soon-to-be President Carter.  Amazing success for Carter in 1976.   

    A few years later, Cronkite and I were participating in a large sailboat regatta in New England — on different boats.  At a social gathering one evening, I didn’t bother him by asking whether he recalled the first time he met Jimmy Carter (and me).  I left him alone, repaying, in a sense, a courtesy he once gave me.  And watched him dance vigorously in his leather deck shoes.  Jitterbug.

    ~ Beau Cutts   

    1. Noel Holston

      Nice story, Beau. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. It’s funny how we expect people we remember to remember us.  When they pretend that they do, it creates a sense of pleasure and the deception goes unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how politicians morph into habitual liars –like lovers who compliment a new dress.
    But, there’s a difference between that and a Willard or Newton perverting what another person has done and said.
    Investigators tell lies in hopes of getting reluctant truth tellers to open up and “set the record straight.” Perhaps they don’t realize that the instinct-driven politicians will just mimic that behavior and lie right back.

    1. Noel Holston

      Just to be clear (in case I wasn’t in the piece), I never expected Wallace or any of the many celebrities I got to interview to remember me.

  3.  Mike Wallace’s legendary competitiveness was on the screen for all to see on “60 Minutes,” and last week’s memorial broadcast referred to his equally competitive nature on the tennis court.  I saw that first hand in Atlanta more than thirty years ago.  My wife’s father, Zeke Segal, was then the CBS Atlanta bureau chief.  He called me one day to say that Mike Wallace was coming to town and was looking for a tennis game.  Could I play him?  I agreed, and showed up at the court in my whites with my old wood racquet.  Mike was carrying one of the new Prince aluminum racquets with the large head.  Well, age was on my side but he proceeded to wipe the court with me!  He charged the net at every opportunity and put points away with smash after smash.  Afterwards, he bought me a gin and tonic at the hotel bar and excused himself politely.  Years later — a couple of years ago, in fact — I saw him again in New York and reminded him of that long-ago game and the result.  He smiled ruefully and said, “I only play mixed doubles now.  And I’m the woman.”

    1. Noel Holston

      Another nice anecdote. Thanks for posting that.

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