CBS’s “60 Minutes” spent its hour Sunday night doing the thing it had always dreaded but nevertheless was well prepared to do: sending off Mike Wallace.
The clips had been chosen. The interviews had been done in advance; much of Sunday night’s material had appeared in 2006, when Wallace “retired.” The work of the legendarily tough 93-year-old correspondent, who died April 7, will probably never be matched. The archival video evidence of his journalistic prowess will not be in short supply.
In fact, overabundance was the issue here. That’s what happens when a man did television for almost as long as there’s been television. Although the retrospective was thorough and heartfelt, the clips were too clippy, and the years of Wallace’s broadcasting life flashed by as one’s life might rush vividly past when faced with an oncoming bus. Real “60 Minutes” fans might wonder if Wallace would have found the whole thing a little too soft.
Pressed for time, Ayatollah Khomeini mingled with Shirley MacLaine; Manuel Noriega rumbaed with Barbra Streisand; Vladimir Horowitz, John Erlichman, Johnny Carson, Malcolm X, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Vladimir Putin and Yasser Arafat were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Flip, flip, flip, we saw mere seconds of each of them, whittled down to one memorable quote or action that Wallace had pulled forth from their reticence. It’s overwhelming to consider how many people Wallace met and interrogated all those Sunday nights — 800 different segments, the show estimated. Where to begin? (Where to end?)
There was more emphasis on the famous subjects and less on the “small-time crooks, cons and miscreants” that Wallace so loved to hound in the early years. (“It became a caricature of itself,” he explained to Steve Kroft.)
Such is the great challenge and heartbreak of “60 Minutes,” as well as all of televised journalism — it’s not called “90 minutes.” Going on 44 years, the correspondents and producers who make the show have always been trimming, slicing and dicing their best material into the time allowed. The show’s creator, Don Hewitt (who died in 2009), with whom Wallace would occasionally brawl over content and cuts, was known for necessarily squeezing a “60 Minutes” segment down to its essence.
That’s why the stories are so blunt, newsy and sometimes jaw-dropping, but it’s also why, even now, when “60 Minutes” is just about as good as it’s ever been, you still wish they’d slow down and . . . what?
Ruminate? Analyze? Contextualize? Devoting an entire hour (about 42 minutes, really, when you factor in the commercial breaks) to Wallace’s life and work turned out to be a blip. And frankly, Charlie Rose did a better clip-job on his PBS talk show earlier last week. For more than half of Sunday’s show on CBS, the clips ran together as a highlight reel but lacked context — even for the viewer who has been watching “60 Minutes” for decades and appreciates the show’s rigid format. Called upon to give fresh insight, the show’s current stars — Kroft, Scott Pelley, Lesley Stahl — instead came across as dutiful.
In the end, during the show’s final quarter hour, it was up to Morley Safer, the last of the original correspondents from the “60 Minutes” 1970s heyday, to get at the essence of Mike Wallace — the darker stuff. The arrogance, the audacity. The early lack of confidence as an acne-scarred youth that turned him into a tenacious reporter. Self-doubt “made me work harder,” Wallace surmised. Then, as he aged, came the bouts with clinical depression, which came on strong during the years Wallace fought off a lawsuit brought against him and CBS by Gen. William Westmoreland.
There was the moment from a 2006 interview Safer did with Wallace, on the occasion of his semi-retirement from the show. “Did you try to commit suicide at one point?” Safer had asked his friend, following up on a rumor that had floated around the office for years.
“I’ve never said this before,” Wallace had answered, hesitating for a moment. “Yeah, I tried. I wrote a note and [Wallace’s fourth wife] Mary found it.” It was next to a bottle of pills Wallace intended to take.
When it comes to the best — and worst — of Mike Wallace, many of us could watch this kind of thing for hours and hours. (And at some broadcasting museums and libraries, you can.) “C’mon,” he said over and over, in disgust to all sorts of people who wouldn’t tell him the truth. He also seemed to pioneer the doubtful “Really” and “Seriously” you hear from everyone’s mouth these days — questions with no question mark, just sarcastic scorn.
“Why?” he asked. (“Why?” “Why?” “Why?”) “Look,” he interjected. (“Look.” “Look.”) “Forgive me,” he said, when he was about to ask a question so uncomfortable that translators winced at having to then ask it of the despots and dictators under the glare of the lights Wallace and his crew brought with them.
Oh, what a glare.