Shining a light

We take for granted just how much Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes have bequeathed to the nation.

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Freelance writer Jaime O’Neill is a frequent contributor to CN&R.

Mike Wallace is retiring.

At age 88, he’s been chugging along for a couple of decades as a role model to aging men everywhere. In the more than 20 years since most men his age have been retired (or expired), Mike Wallace has soldiered on, undiminished by time, still out there, getting on and off airplanes throughout the world, still going mano a mano with the great and the greasy even when those two categories overlap. He’s the Energizer Bunny of broadcast news, and he just keeps going and going and going. His announced retirement will still leave room for doing several stories each year, filed as emeritus correspondent for CBS News.

Wallace has been famous nearly all of his adult life. His time in front of TV cameras spans the history of the medium to date, from the virtual inception right up to the present. In the early 1950s, he did an almost prehistoric talk show with his then-wife Buff Cobb, a show originally called Two Sleepy People that held the distinction of being one of the first CBS shows to be broadcast in color.

In the nearly 40 years Mike Wallace has been one of the 60 Minutes correspondents, he’s filed some 800 stories. The list of people he’s interviewed runs a long gamut, from the Ayatollah Khomeni to Barbra Streisand, from mobsters to moguls, from Richard Milhous Nixon to me.

I was the focus of a story, broadcasted back in 1987, at the halfway point of Wallace’s long tenure with 60 Minutes. It was also at a time when he was struggling with a deep and life-threatening bout of clinical depression, an illness that nearly killed him. Though I surely couldn’t tell it back then. He was 68 years old when I met him standing outside of my classroom on a damp and drizzly morning up in Olympia, Wash., where Wallace and a film crew had come to do a piece about the ignorance of American college students. Some of that ignorance surfaced almost immediately; many of the students were clueless as to just who had come to their class to check up on what they might not know. The demographics of 60 Minutes viewers skews a tad high on the age scale, a fact as true nearly 20 years ago as it is now.

But I knew Wallace through a long history of viewing, and also by his reputation as a take-no-prisoners interviewer, willing to confront, contradict, ambush or intimidate everyone from prima-donna celebs to hamfisted union bosses. Because of what I knew of him, I was more than a little nervous about having him ask me questions while cameras were rolling and the world was watching. Even if I managed to escape without humiliating myself, I worried about what could happen in the editing process as a couple days of filming got whittled down, cut to the 18 minutes that would make air. Between the inadvertently dumb things I might say and the angle the producers might want the story to take, the footage could be cut to make the point that it was, precisely, teachers like me who accounted for the ignorance of American youth. That would not be good.

It was a full year between the time the filming was done and when the piece was aired. Fortunately, any truly stupid thing I might have said got left on the cutting-room floor, and equally fortunately, the producers saw the story much as I did, which is to say that ignorance is bad, but that I wasn’t personally responsible for it.

Back then, I thought a man approaching 70 was virtually fossilized, so Wallace’s energy during his visit surprised me. Those days of filming were long and demanding, and as we left school when my classes were over at the end of each of the three days he was there, it amazed me to watch Mike Wallace talking animatedly with students and teaching colleagues who wanted an autograph, or a few words of advice about careers in journalism. Though he’d been famous almost since fame had been invented, he clearly hadn’t tired of it, still relishing the attention and the fawning that is part of the definition of being famous. Perhaps he took energy from those encounters, but I, a quarter century younger, felt drained by a surfeit of human contact. Perhaps he was reluctant to be alone with himself, back in a motel room looking out at the rain.

It would be a dozen more years before Mike Wallace went public with details of his personal demons and became the public poster boy for depressives, talking openly about his ordeal in an attempt to bring the disease out of the dark and into the light. In so doing, he sought to de-stigmatize a common human ailment that is certainly bad enough without the added stigma of shame and secrecy. And it was only on the eve of his retirement that he disclosed in an interview with Morley Safer that he’d been seriously suicidal right around the time he was paying me that visit up there in Washington State, writing the suicide note, and taking just short of the number of pills necessary to end his life.

Everything a depressive does is done in spite of the voice that argues against doing anything at all. Depression argues for going back to bed and, as the voice grows louder, it argues against light, against laughter, against food, and against life itself. On those days when Mike Wallace appeared so animated, so curious and so full of life, he was mounting an elaborate charade, masking the pain that was threatening to take him down and take him out.

And so was I. As it happened, I was a fellow traveler in those dark alleyways of the spirit. But the prospect of national TV exposure is pretty heady, a temporary tonic against despair. Perhaps a tiny dose of fame would, I thought, supply the sense of purpose and significance so often denied to depressives. Perhaps the lifetime of fame Wallace had known would bestow upon me the 15 minutes that would banish depression from my door.

But it doesn’t work that way. I would come to know what Mike Wallace knew but had not yet said, that neither fame nor fortune nor any other blessing will spare a depressive from the sense that there are no blessings.

The years since my visit from 60 Minutes have seen big gains in the scientific understanding of how depression works, and those years have also produced an array of pharmaceutical defenses against the imbalances in brain chemistry that can make a depressive’s life so hellish. Mike Wallace would not have seen those gains, nor known those years had his suicide been successful.

We take for granted just how much Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes have bequeathed to the nation. There were more than a few Sunday nights when the spirit was lifted or hope was rekindled because Wallace and his colleagues brought to light some governmental or business perfidiousness that had been neglected by other news sources. There were reports 60 Minutes did that kept alive the idea that there was power in an informed citizenry galvanized by news and information about things that mattered.

But among all those contributions, perhaps none surpasses the favor Wallace did when he, at last, unburdened himself of his own story about depression. In so doing, he once again cast a beam of light into a dark place.

Whether a story concerns the corruption of a nation or the corruption of the spirit, shining a light is always the place to start in clearing the corruption away, and for his light, we owe him thanks, and none of us owes more than those who shared the darkness he himself knew so well.