Chris Wallace tapped the black three-ring binder resting on the corner of his desk. “I’ve got some doozies in there,” he said, eyebrow raised provocatively.
The unlabeled binder holds the veteran Fox News anchor’s questions for Thursday’s Republican primary debate, for which he will serve as a moderator. Clamped inside it are newspaper clippings, memos to his researcher and outlines of what the hodgepodge of presidential candidates vying to top the GOP field have been saying about the issues and about each other.
It has become a primary-season ritual for Wallace, a fixture at Fox News for more than a decade, to challenge and goad the packed roster of Republican candidates. But this debate in Cleveland, the first of the 2016 election season, may be in a league of its own.
Aside from what Wallace calls the “Trump factor” — Donald Trump, the unpredictable tycoon whose off-the-cuff quips and slams have been roiling the GOP — there’s the unwieldy size of the field. Of the 17 declared candidates, Fox will allow only the top 10, as determined by five of the most recent national polls, into Thursday’s debate.
“There’s so doggone many,” said Wallace, 67, sitting at his desk in Fox’s Washington bureau. The decision to pack the stage was made above his pay grade, he adds. “Will [the debate] be as great as it would be if there were three or four candidates? No. But it’s clear from the polls, people are far from decided.”
But now the decision-making begins, with an event that TV analysts predict could draw the highest ratings in cable-news history. And as the candidates attempt to make their first impressions before a national audience, you can count on the veteran newsman to leave his imprint on this moment by interrupting, prodding and pressing the debaters in his trademark fashion.
“I certainly think my style is adversarial,” he said, absentmindedly pushing his penny loafers around under his desk with socked feet.
Wallace’s goal, he says, is to push politicians off their scripts — a strategy his old colleague Sam Donaldson used to call “unlocking their minds.” When they were both on the White House beat in the 1980s — Wallace for NBC, Donaldson for ABC — they found themselves tag-teaming President Reagan, peppering him with questions about the 1985 incident in which the United States intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists. Reagan ignored them until Wallace asked, bluntly, “Do you have anything to apologize for?”
That unlocked Reagan’s mind.
“Never!” shouted the president, who had planned not to comment on the issue.
That kind of “get” during years of covering politics paved Wallace’s path to hosting his own Sunday show on Fox starting in 2003 — a way to move out of the shadow of his late father, the “60 Minutes” icon Mike Wallace.
Chris says he endured the “mixed blessing of being the son of anyone so famous.”
“Not that he sort of got me jobs or anything like that, but you have access to things. You meet people. You see how things are done just by going to visit your father. The negative side is you’re under a cloud. Did you get this because of your dad? When you’re talking to people, they’ll call you Mike instead of Chris. As I got older, it became less and less of an issue.”
And a certain stylistic resemblance to his father didn’t hurt.
“They both had this tenacious style of take no prisoners,” said Donaldson, who once got into a pushing match with Chris over a podium spot when the two correspondents were covering Reagan for competing networks. Donaldson had claimed the space but left to make a phone call. When he came back, Wallace was there and jostling ensued.
“Chris is straight ahead, right onto you,” Donaldson said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat it.”
Wallace has been heavily focused on the Thursday debate (which he will moderate alongside Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly) since late June, when he used some of his vacation time in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to start working through the binder.
On a recent Thursday morning, Wallace walked the few steps from his small, memorabilia-filled office — his father’s Rolodex, a photo of him playing hoops with Michael Jordan — to the more spacious suite of his boss, Bill Sammon, the vice president of news, who had called together a small debate-prep meeting.
“It’s insane interest,” Sammon said as Wallace took a seat. Sammon was fielding calls from campaigns that wanted him to walk them through the debate rules, while he was also trying to finalize the program. Sammon is against opening statements. Ten statements from 10 candidates would be a buzz kill, he argued. Wallace nodded.
“I talked with Bret. He’s written 54 questions,” Sammon said.
“I’ve written 22,” Wallace said.
Twenty-two is about as many as each moderator will have time to ask. With 10 candidates — each vying for a knockout moment — the anchors will have to keep their questions precise and their eyes on the clock.
“We’ll have a murder board Monday,” Sammon said. “Another Wednesday and Friday. The week of the debate, every day; and two a day if we need to.”
“Murder boards,” in Fox parlance, are sessions in which each moderator’s questions are refined — pared if they are too long, scuttled if they are too “weedy.” Sammon, Wallace, Kelly and Baier will harshly criticize each other’s work.
“We’ve all got thick skin,” Sammon said to Wallace, who shot him a speak-for-yourself look.
“I’m a sensitive guy,” Wallace said.
He wasn’t joking. On camera, he wants to be seen as effective. Off camera, Wallace wants to be liked. There was a time, during the GOP primary for the 2012 presidential election, when Wallace was perceived by some to be neither. Near the start of a December 2011 Republican debate in Ames, Iowa, he asked Newt Gingrich how he could be expected to run the government when his campaign was in debt and much of his staff had recently quit.
Gingrich used his response to go after Wallace.
“I wish you would put aside the ‘gotcha’ questions,” the former House speaker said to sustained applause. “I’d love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games!”
Wallace tried to save face but was booed loudly by the crowd.
Later, Wallace was asked by a friend how he felt in that moment. “What do you think? It hurt my feelings,” Wallace told him. But he understood that Gingrich was being strategic.
Gingrich said recently, “Among conservatives, there’s a real desire to see people who are willing to stand up to the media, and I was able to use that to my advantage.”
Wallace threw what he thought was a hardball, but Gingrich hit it out of the park. Usually, Wallace’s questions are tougher to parry.
“He’s able to — without being hostile — be very firm,” Gingrich said. “I regard him as one of the more aggressive moderators, because he does his homework and he’s willing to fight his way past your first two or three answers and try to really make you answer the question that he’s going after.”
For a guy who can seem pugnacious and terse on camera, Wallace is mostly self-effacing when off.
Before a recent Sunday show, tape was playing of an F-16 jet fighter rolling through the sky, and a cameraman asked if Wallace had ever flown in one. Wallace had, and he started describing how cool it was before interrupting himself: “I wore a jet fighter pilot uniform. You know those? You know how they talk about the right stuff? Well I had the wrong stuff.” The room erupted in laughter.
At home, his sense of humor is the same, said his wife, Lorraine. She and Wallace have been married for 17 years with a “Brady Bunch”-like family — his four kids from his first marriage to Elizabeth Farrell, and her two children from a previous marriage to the comedian Dick Smothers.
Chris is a “change is overrated” kind of guy, said Lorraine, who instituted family traditions for him such as Soup Sunday, a different recipe every week after his “Fox News Sunday” broadcasts. (She turned that routine into a best-selling cookbook, “Mr. Sunday’s Soups.”)
“He’s not fussy,” she said. “When we were dating he told me, ‘Lorraine, you’ll have to learn this about reporters: When you see a bus, get on it. When you see food, eat it. When you see a bathroom, use it.’ ”
“He’d be on the evening news at 6:30, and at 7:02, he’d walk in for family dinner,” said Wallace’s eldest son, Peter, a senior managing director with the private-equity firm Blackstone Group. “He never missed any of my soccer games Saturday morning.”
It was a childhood unlike Chris’s own. Wallace did not get to know well his father, Mike, until he was a teenager. He was raised by mother Norma Kaphan and stepfather Bill Leonard, who as president of CBS News encouraged him as much as Mike Wallace did to get into broadcasting.
It is at Fox News that he has established himself and also become a favorite of Roger Ailes, who hired Wallace away from ABC in 2003. Ailes moved aside Tony Snow, who was then the Sunday show host, to give Wallace the slot.
“He asks well-thought-out, probing questions without a lot of words,” said Ailes, Fox News’s chairman and chief executive. “I always worry that sometimes interviewers don’t go deep enough in terms of the issue. If someone gives a surface answer, the interviewer will go on, but Chris stays after them to answer the question.”
Wallace is wary of talking debate strategy in front of a reporter, but he acknowledges that he is keeping a confidential list tracking the polls that will determine who makes it into the Fox debate. Fox hasn’t revealed which polls it will use yet.
He is thinking a lot about Trump, who is leading in most major polls and will thus have the central position on the stage. On Twitter last week, John Weaver, senior adviser to the Republican presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, drew this analogy: “Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”
Wallace might agree with that.
“He’s a big wild card, because you don’t know how he’s going to react,” Wallace said, back in his office. Will Trump go after one of the candidates standing beside him? Will he abide by the moderators’ directions? When the red light flashes telling him his time is up, will he abide by the limit?
With most candidates, Wallace has an idea of what they would like to accomplish on the debate stage. “If you’re Jeb Bush, you pretty much want to stay out of any clinches,” Wallace said. “There’s nothing to be gained by him to punch down on somebody below him. What he’s going to want to do is establish his conservative bona fides, to say: ‘I’m not Bush III, I’m the former conservative governor of a state.’ . . . There are other people who are going to want to make a statement on the stage, who are going to want to push at somebody, and to a certain degree, you’d like those fireworks.”
Enter Trump, who has been trash-talking just about everyone in unusually impolitic terms — disparaging Scott Walker (“Wisconsin is in terrible shape”), insulting Lindsey Graham (“a stiff”. . . “a total lightweight”), mocking Rick Perry (“he put on glasses so people think he’s smart”). (And yes, Wallace has a researcher keeping track of all of these comments.)
“Trump, you know he wants to go after people,” Wallace said. “And you can be sure there will be a moment — whether it’s in my questioning or Bret’s or Megyn’s, where somebody is going to give him a fat juicy ball right in there so he can go after Bush and see how he responds to it. It’s sort of like playing three-dimensional checkers.”
That is exactly Wallace’s kind of game.