STEVE INSKEEP, host:
During this final week of the year, we're hearing from people of long experience, marking the passage of time with what we call the Long View. Today it comes from Mike Wallace. He's a correspondent for "60 Minutes" and has been since the TV program started in 1968. His controversial interviews include one with General William Westmoreland. Wallace asked if the US faked its reporting about the enemy in Vietnam.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. MIKE WALLACE ("60 Minutes"): Isn't it a possibility that the real reason for suddenly deciding, in the summer of 1967, to remove an entire category of the enemy from the order of battle was based on political considerations?
General WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: No, decidedly not. That...
Mr. WALLACE: Didn't you make this clear...
Gen. WESTMORELAND: No.
Mr. WALLACE: ...in your August 20th cable?
Gen. WESTMORELAND: Yeah. No, I...
Mr. WALLACE: I have a copy of your August 20th cable.
Gen. WESTMORELAND: Well, sure. OK, OK, all right.
INSKEEP: Westmoreland sued CBS for libel, a suit that was later settled. It's one of many episodes Wallace recounts in a book called "Between You and Me." Several days ago, Mike Wallace came to a microphone at the CBS studios in New York.
Mr. Wallace, it's great to make your acquaintance, even at a distance.
Mr. WALLACE: We're not going to be calling each other by name, or do I say something like `Steve' to you?
INSKEEP: You absolutely can call me Steve.
Mr. WALLACE: You can call me Mike, then.
INSKEEP: Well, thank you.
Mr. WALLACE: Forget this `Mr. Wallace' crap.
INSKEEP: It's going to be...
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: As Mike Wallace spoke, you could faintly hear in the background the ticking of a clock. He's still working at the age of 87.
Mr. WALLACE: I cut myself down to about half time, and cut myself down to about half salary, too.
INSKEEP: Some people may wonder why you are still working.
Mr. WALLACE: Because I wouldn't know what else to do. It's as simple as that. You know, I had a couple or three episodes of clinical depression. I'm fine now, but I talked to my psychiatrist, to whom I go for lube jobs every six months or so, and he says, `Look, what are you going to do? Do you know what you're going to do if you quit completely?' And I said, `I don't know what I'm--I love to work. I love to be useful.'
INSKEEP: I think more than most interviewers the questions that you ask can be as interesting as the answers that they elicit. And...
Mr. WALLACE: Well, a lady by the name of Faye Emerson, who was a good friend of mine a million years ago, told me, `Mike, there is no such thing as an indiscreet question.' And you know what? It's true.
INSKEEP: You know, it's not just the substance of the questions with you, though, sometimes. It's the way that they're asked.
Mr. WALLACE: I couldn't agree more. If you've done it a long time, as you apparently have done, and as you know I surely have done, you learn that one of the most persuasive ways to get somebody that you're interviewing to open up is to write down maybe 50 questions ahead of time, and when you sit down with an interviewee under those circumstances, you become co-conspirators. They suddenly realize, `He knows a lot about me, so I'm going to help him draw a round picture of me.'
INSKEEP: I remember an interview--to be honest, I can't remember the subject of the interview. I can only remember your reaction. It was more than a decade ago, on "60 Minutes." Some politician made some statement and the camera cuts back to Mike Wallace and you say, `Gimme a break!'
Mr. WALLACE: You mean I was a little skeptical of what he was saying?
INSKEEP: A tad.
Mr. WALLACE: If you listen carefully, it's a perfectly sensible thing to say to somebody: `Give me a break. Come on. Let's talk seriously. Don't phony up your answer.' That's not the function of an interview. First of all, you want a character sketch. You want a profile. You want to find out what's important to that individual that you are speaking, whoever he or she may be, and that's why you prepare so thoroughly for it. And that's why I sit down and--not with everybody, but with somebody that I care about interviewing.
Morgan Freeman; all I knew was that he is the most comfortable actor, and when I say comfortable, when he is doing a role he is simply superb. I was very curious about this man, because I have respect and admiration for him, so much of it. The man learned to fly in his 60s. If you can keep fresh eyes and not be jaded by hearing the same kind of thing over and over and over again, the interviewee will help you.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about one other thing, and it's a bit of a delicate subject, I suppose, but there are no indelicate questions, as you have said.
Mr. WALLACE: No indiscreet questions.
INSKEEP: No indiscreet questions.
Mr. WALLACE: Yes. Now I'm very curious to hear what this...
INSKEEP: Well, you've interviewed many people who are in the twilight of their careers, who are later on in life, who've seen many things. How do you interview a person of a certain age?
Mr. WALLACE: You mean, like me?
INSKEEP: Something like that, yes.
Mr. WALLACE: That's not difficult. I've been there. I know what it's about and I know what struggles sometimes are going on in that individual's mind. And if you're interviewing that person, you're interviewing him for his experience, or her experience or wisdom, or their willingness to tell truths, perhaps, that they had not been willing to tell the truth about before. In other words, what the hell? Let's just tell it the way it is.
INSKEEP: You write that you angered Mel Brooks at the age of 75 or so when you told him, `It's all downhill from now on.'
Mr. WALLACE: That's correct, and he hated it.
Mr. WALLACE: He hated it.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you, is it all downhill from now on?
Mr. WALLACE: Hell, yes. I mean, come on. When you've been on "60 Minutes" for 37 or 38 years, you've been around the world and talked to all manner of individuals and you have the energy, psychic and physical, to do that kind of thing, and then suddenly you'd prefer to nap in the afternoon, it's different. And when you say `downhill,' that doesn't mean that you don't have the same energy out in your mind about the stories that you would like to cover, but you don't have really the physical capacity.
INSKEEP: Mike Wallace is the author of "Between you and Me: A Memoir."
It's been great talking to you. Thank you very much.
Mr. WALLACE: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's the Long View from Mike Wallace of CBS. You can go to npr.org to hear him talk about the one interview he still can't get. And this series continues on the air tomorrow when we get the Long View through music.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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