His last TV interview was in 2008, with classic MLB fireballer-turned-steroid-cheat Roger Clemens. Though, at 89, Mike Wallace was a little bit off his speed (so, by that time, was Clemens, for that matter), the interview was penetrating and fearless, like all the others Wallace had done in more than a half-century of quizzing public figures and celebrities, mostly on CBS and on the extraordinary program he came to exemplify, 60 Minutes. The oddest thing about the Wallace-Clemens face-off was the incredulity expressed by Wallace at Clemens' denials that his fountain-of-youth exploits on the mound had been assisted by contraband medicinals. The newsman scoffed at the idea that the pitcher could have achieved his results (seven Cy Young awards, the last one at age 42) through natural means, or through the "hard work" which Clemens insisted was the one and only secret of his enduring success.
"Impossible!" Wallace said, with categorical certainty, and, though there seems to be no reason to doubt that judgment, the irony of such skepticism was huge and obvious. For Clemens might have responded with equally telling force that it was every bit as difficult to imagine Wallace's own continued prowess and laurels (20 Emmy awards and countless others), well past the age when most journalists — broadcast or print — are either pushing walkers or pushing up daisies.
Wallace (who, almost unbelievably, was already middle-aged by the time he began practicing journalism per se) had numerous formidable contemporaries — Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Tim Russert, Peter Jennings, Harry Reasoner, and at least a dozen other real pros. But Mike Wallace was undeniably the class of the field, worthy of comparison with any Fourth Estate figure — past, present, or future.
Especially future. For what journalist will ever be able to sit down for an interview, whether with a luminary or with an unknown, without being mindful — and unconsciously imitative — of Wallace's determination to get a straight answer and unrelenting will to keep after it. Others have been credited with larger influence: Edward R. Murrow, for example, but for all of Murrow's legendary accomplishments — his broadcasts from wartime London, his takedown of Senator Joe McCarthy, his chronicle of exploited migrant workers — he worked from assumptions. He already knew, or thought he did, most of the answers. Wallace seemed to have no biases and played no favorites. For all his vaunted pugnacity, he was as close to being Socratic in his methods as anyone ever has been. He wasn't out to prove something. He was out to find something: the truth.
And the fact that he almost lasted forever was inspirational in the same way that we hoped, before being disillusioned, that Clemens was. The only comparable figure in journalism was the late Shirley Povich, the distinguished Washington Post newspaperman and sports editor who, at 92, a day before his death, wrote his last column — a wry one reporting his suspicions (this was at the height of baseball's pumped-up era, 1998) that overachieving sluggers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had to be sampling some joy juice. We lost him finally, and we lost Mike Wallace, who died this week at 93.
But legends live on through their example — and the work they leave behind.