Such is the clout of "60 Minutes" that even its bitter enemies have trouble turning down the chance to be on it. Mike Wallace charges into the lion's den for Sunday night's season premiere and interviews the masterminds behind Sen. Jesse Helms, who figureheaded a drive to take over that wicked old CBS and become "Dan Rather's boss" so as to set the country straight again.
What Wallace finds in Helms' attic constitutes one of the most bizarre, do-we-laugh-or-cry? reports in the history of the most powerful TV series ever.
Meanwhile, CBS sources confirmed yesterday that Atlanta businessman and mouth-about-town Ted Turner, who also failed in a CBS takeover attempt, has agreed to give "60 Minutes" his first broadcast interview upon completion of taking over MGM, which came cheaper.
On Sunday's premiere, airing at 7 p.m. on Channel 9, Wallace and producer George Crile (returning to the air for the first time since "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Conspiracy" and the subsequent suit brought by Gen. William C. Westmoreland) traveled to Raleigh, N.C., to discover the real kingpin behind the various Helms endeavors. The idea of Jesse Helms having a brain trust does sound like a contradiction in terms. But Wallace comes across the oracle in a report that at times resembles a fantasy from the mind of Federico Fellini.
The guiding light, it seems, is a 26-year-old bedridden invalid named Bob Harris, whom muscular dystrophy has robbed of his strength and his voice. He speaks to his mother through a tube and a vibrating device, and lies in his bed watching tapes of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" to check out the latest in fiendish communist conspiracies.
How will Helms and his peculiar crew square the "liberal bias" of CBS News with the fact that it is willing to present them and their case on the air with no apparent prejudice? Of course no apparent prejudice is needed, because the three Helms "Fairness in Media" flunkies who hang out at the National Congressional Club and swear by the pronouncements of Harris are all hapless self-parodies, their own worst defenders.
Wallace treats the whole thing with utmost seriousness, remaining patiently unaggressive.
"Our agenda is not only keeping the free enterprise system in place, but also the return of moral values in this country," says Tom Ellis, Congressional Club director.
"Why? What's happened to our moral values?" Wallace asks him.
"Well, I'd say that the television has taken over and is the main cause for our having a deterioration of moral values in this country," Ellis says. "They set the agenda."
When Wallace asks Harris why public opinion polls persist in showing that people do not find CBS liberally biased, he replies though his voice machine and his mother, "I don't think people are in a position to judge whether it's liberally biased . . . because no one on network news is going to admit that it is, or very few will."
Never mind the spinning; Lewis Carroll has to be laughing in his grave.
As the broadcast seems unlikely to prove a boon to Helms and his obsessive supporters, it's a bit of an impediment to passionate Helms-hating as well. It's hard not to feel sorry for those Helmsmen, sitting there in Raleigh amid their banners and their posters and scouring the airwaves for signs of seditious perversion by media bogeypersons. If "60 Minutes" wanted to load the dice, they would have begun this tiny bombshell of a report by saying, "This is a great country, despite the following evidence to the contrary."