Gary Paul Gates is making a career out of doing books for television personalities who seem to find the act of writing beneath their dignity. A few years ago he was the coauthor with Dan Rather of "The Palace Guard," which became a best seller. Now he has signed up with Mike Wallace and delivered "Close Encounters," which probably also will become a best seller. If further proof were needed that there's one born every minute, this is it.
That many of the book's tens of thousands of prospective readers will come away from it entertained, edified or instructed seems most unlikely, for it is in no way entertaining, edifying or instructive. Its prose is graceless and cliche'-ridden and its narrative scheme is confusing; it has been padded to the indecent length of nearly 500 pages by the generous addition of excerpts from transcripts of Wallace's television shows; like too many journalistic memoirs it is a frenzied exercise in name-dropping that would have been more aptly titled "Famous People I Have Met."
Yet thousands of people will buy it, in the high expectation of finding pleasure in it, for the sole and simple reason that Wallace is a star. That certainly can have been the only reason for the success of Rather's book, which in the large library of Watergate literature occupies a very small niche. The star's full-color photograph on the jacket (Wallace is seen here in a pensive pose) apparently is reason enough for readers, or perhaps "viewers" is the more appropriate word, to shell out $17.95. On that same jacket, along with Wallace's glossy photo, appears the claim that the book offers "Mike Wallace's Own Story." But the reader who hopes that this means tasty tidbits and inside skinny is bound to be disappointed. The chapters chronicling Wallace's professional life are "third-person history and reporting" by Gates and for the most part are discreet, deferential and duller than dishwater; the chapters describing Wallace's "first-person recollections and gut reactions to the events and experiences I've encountered across the years" are less gutty than Olympian, presented as they are in the voice of a man who is soon to join the elder-statesmen's club.
Whether discussing Wallace's early years on a local New York program called "Night Beat" or his current eminence as point man for "60 Minutes," both Gates and Wallace bend over backwards to be polite; Wallace may be famous as a tough guy, but here he's all pussycat. His various disagreements with his colleagues Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner -- can anybody out there really care about this? -- are gently aired and then papered over so nicely that scarcely a seam shows. Even the painful subject of the early death of Wallace's elder son becomes less a matter of terrible personal loss than of providing impetus for a professional turning-point; emotions, which in this instance must have been wracking, are not permitted to show.
That being the case, we are left with one recapitulation upon another of the interviews Wallace has conducted and the stories he has reported. These are most accurately defined as yesterday's news, and have approximately as much punch. One after another, the famous guests troop into Wallace's lair, there to be subjected to the grilling techniques that first made him famous; the problem is that what often had spark and life on television falls flat on the printed page, and is in no way animated by the turgid Gates-Wallace narrative. As for the stories of Wallace as reporter, they have much less to do with journalistic derring-do than with the labors of the producers, legmen and other functionaries who do the real work for the stars of television's journalistic firmament and to whom Wallace tosses bouquet after bouquet.
This is a matter on which Wallace is understandably sensitive. He does not like to be thought of as a star or an entertainer but as another of the tough reporters out there in the trenches. There's a fair amount of defensive talk in "Close Encounters" about the conflict in television between news and entertainment, and about Wallace's ardent desire to be identified with the former; he came late to the news business, after many years of doing chat shows and commercials (for Parliament cigarettes and a shortening called Fluffo), and he has the zeal of the convert. But whatever his merits as a journalist, and they are not inconsiderable, it remains that the business he is in is show biz. The proof of it is in the publication of "Close Encounters," a star turn if ever there was one.