I give it six months before Lara Logan is hosting a talk show on Fox News and whining that she was done in by liberals. (See this New York Times report.)
In late 1997 I heard that Mike Wallace, the legendary “60 Minutes” reporter, had been in town to do a critical story on the Boston Globe’s reporting about Ray Flynn’s relationship with alcohol. So I called him up.
Flynn, the former Boston mayor who was by this time the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was believed to harbor further political ambitions. And a Globe team headed by Walter Robinson, now a Northeastern colleague, traveled to Rome and produced a front-page story claiming that Flynn was spending an inordinate amount of time in the city’s Irish pubs. Robinson also reported seeing Flynn stagger out of a North End bar in the middle of the day. (The story is not on the open Web, but you can look it up.)
The Globe article provoked a controversy, and I had written about it for the Boston Phoenix, mainly defending the Globe on the grounds that Flynn had run afoul of cultural changes about politicians’ drinking habits, and that Flynn was widely thought to harbor further political ambitions. (In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.)
Wallace was having none of it.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking,” Wallace told me. “How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?” He then shifted his attention to me. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?” Wallace asked. “And you, you bastard … ” He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because “he can’t think of anything better to do.”
“Is that a fact?” Wallace demanded.
I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I’d been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn’s motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.
And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness — that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.
“You yuppies aren’t telling me that things have changed,” Wallace sneered. “Things haven’t changed at all.” He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.
“When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago,” Wallace said.
At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: “You’re writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse’s ass.”
In fact, I think what I wrote about Wallace that day was fair and respectful, which you can judge for yourself. I was also impressed with Flynn’s reaction — he was never anything but gentlemanly in my future encounters with him, and he’s gone on to lead a useful and interesting post-political life.
As for Wallace, for many years he was the face and voice of “60 Minutes,” one of the most successful news programs in television history. You could observe that there’s no such thing as a golden age, but I really do think there was a golden age of television news, and Wallace was right in the middle of it. It’s remarkable to think that he made it to 93, and only did his last interview — with Roger Clemens — in 2008.
Like so many others we’ve lost in the last few years, Mike Wallace will be missed.
Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.
One day maybe eight or 10 years ago, I was sitting at my desk at the Boston Phoenix when the phone rang. “This is Andy Rooney,” the caller said in what seemed like an exaggerated attempt at imitating the legendary “60 Minutes” commentator. “Yeah, right,” I responded, wondering who was really on the other end of the line.
It was Rooney. While we were taping “Beat the Press” one Friday afternoon, his daughter Emily, the host, mentioned the name of someone who had been bugging her father over some perceived offense. It turned out that I had heard from the same person a few times as well. She told her father, and he decided to give me a call. I can’t remember what I told him — it was all I could do to recover from my inauspicious opening. Now that Rooney has died, I wish I could recall exactly what he said that day.
Andy Rooney was rooted firmly in CBS News’ golden era. He was friends with Walter Cronkite, he wrote for Harry Reasoner and it was “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt who came up with the idea of having Rooney deliver a monologue at the end of each episode. It was a master stroke, as Rooney’s essay quickly became the most popular part of the program.
Rooney’s death follows his retirement by such a short stretch that “60 Minutes” last night simply recycled the Morley Safer piece (above) that first aired in early October. That’s all right. It was really good and worth seeing again. CBS has posted other Rooney material as well, including video of some of his classic commentaries.
As is well known, Rooney considered himself a writer first, and indeed he rarely found himself in front of a camera until near the end of his career. He wrote for Stars and Stripes, for Arthur Godfrey and for Reasoner before he ever wrote for himself. Yet his curmudgeonly commentaries worked as well as they did not only because they were written by a craftsman, but because he was a first-rate performer as well.
By all accounts, his crankiness was not an act. That he was able to take that crankiness and use it to inform and entertain millions was his gift to us. Andy Rooney was such a skillful writer that he would have been able to find a way to avoid ending with a cliché such as “he’ll be missed.” I lack his skill, and I don’t want to close without acknowledging the obvious.
I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tough questioning last night when I sat down to watch President Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes.” The idea was to revel in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Steve Kroft’s questions — all of which were a variation on “Mr. President, why are you so wonderful?” — were no surprise.
Even so, I was startled when, toward the end of the interview, Kroft asked Obama, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” The president blandly answered that every time he orders a military action, he does so with the understand that someone will be killed.
But what was missing from Kroft’s question and Obama’s answer was the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American whom the president ordered killed last year. Al-Awlaki survived a U.S. drone attack on his headquarters in Yemen on Saturday, after the “60 Minutes” interview was recorded. But the targeting of al-Awlaki was hardly a secret — it was even the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by his father. If Kroft didn’t know that, then he had no business sitting down with the president. If he did, well, why didn’t he say something?
The targeting of al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Islamist, was an extraordinary measure. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, which helped with the lawsuit, has observed:
[T]he United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we’ll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow.
Should the United States be trying to kill al-Awlaki? According to this extensively footnoted Wikipedia article, al-Awlaki’s fiery rhetoric was the inspiration for a number of terrorist attacks. In addition, some say he has been involved in planning acts of terrorism and had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He may, in fact, be a legitimate target.
What troubles me is that it is not widely known that our government has targeted an American-born citizen for death. It’s something that ought to be debated openly, not relegated to an occasional mention in the media. So it’s an opportunity lost when a journalist like Kroft asks a question that is either ignorant or disingenuous, and then allows the president to dissemble without so much as a follow-up.
Did Kroft genuinely not know better, or had he and the folks at CBS News already decided not to press Obama? Either way, it was shocking omission. We could have learned something if only Kroft had bothered to do his job.