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The taming of the shrewd? Not likely

CBS' sharp-tongued `60 Minutes' veteran Mike Wallace turns 88 this week. There's no way he's quitting. He might slow down. A little.

May 08, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Mike Wallace sure doesn't act like someone on the cusp of retirement.

The veteran CBS broadcaster, who turns 88 on Tuesday, officially becomes "correspondent emeritus" at the end of this month, but when a visitor stopped by on a recent afternoon, he said he has no plans to pack up the memorabilia and Emmy Awards that line the walls of his "60 Minutes" office.

Instead, Wallace rummaged through the papers on his desk and pulled out a draft of a letter he had composed that morning, scribbled in felt-tip pen across the front page of the New York Times. It was a missive to incoming White House press secretary Tony Snow requesting time with President Bush, who has until now declined all of Wallace's interview requests.

"I've talked to every president since Abe Lincoln," Wallace said with mock indignation. (In truth, his record stretches back to John F. Kennedy.)

Bush is just one of the subjects the newsman -- a legend for his pugnacious and penetrating interview style -- hopes to corner in the coming year. After reporting stories for "60 Minutes" for 38 years, Wallace recently signed another multiyear contract to contribute several pieces a year to the program, a deal that also allows him to do separate cable channel specials. CBS wasn't the only network that wanted his services; NBC recently approached him with an offer to do "anything I wanted," Wallace said, but loyalty to "the mother church" prevailed.

"I'm going to stay here," he said firmly. "There's an understanding that I'm not going to be getting on airplanes and flying all over the world, but there are going to be certain important interviews I will do for '60 Minutes.' "

Indeed, the thought of quitting work altogether isn't wired into Wallace's DNA.

"My sense is that six months from now, the story is not going to be how little he's working, but how much," said his son, Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday." "He's incapable of just stopping. It's just who he is."

"He's not going to retire," added fellow "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer. "That's like asking a tiger or a cobra to retire."

Still, after nearly six decades in television, Wallace said he has come to accept that he can't keep up the pace that he used to. This spring, he decided to scale back his workload, which he had already cut in half a few years ago. On May 21, in his last regularly scheduled appearance on "60 Minutes," the show will feature a retrospective of his career.

"When you're about to be 88, some of those things that are absolutely vital to get around begin to fail a trifle," he said. "You begin to say, 'Is it sensible to try to keep the same type of work schedule?' There used to be a time when I would say, 'I'm going to Omaha, Neb., or Beirut.' Now I say, 'My Lord, I have to fly to Washington.' "

Friends say he seems content with his decision. But the longtime broadcaster shrugged off a reporter's effort to get him to define this next phase, or even when it begins, noting that he plans to come back to work this fall after his annual summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard.

"I will continue to do what I have been doing," he said a bit testily after being pressed on the subject.

Wallace's semi-retirement, such as it is, comes at a time of substantial transition for CBS News, whose anchor Bob Schieffer is set to hand off the evening newscast this fall to Katie Couric, who will also do pieces for "60 Minutes."

"I suppose it has to happen," said "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney of Wallace cutting back. "I have an old fogy view; I don't like changes. I don't think it will be as good without him. It's like a football team that loses its star quarterback -- it's not the same team."

But News President Sean McManus said Wallace will remain a full-time CBS employee, one who he hopes will still play a significant role at the network.

"There's never been a more distinctive voice in the business, and my only hope is that we can continue to get as much of his contributions as he's able to give us," he said.

In person, Wallace appears remarkably youthful, dapper in a crisp navy-blue suit and sharply knotted red tie, his skin tanned, his thick hair still neatly combed back. Signs of his age surface only occasionally, when he fiddles with his hearing aids.

The job, he said, has kept him vital.

"This is not work," Wallace said. "You can go any place in the world, with CBS picking up the tab, and talk to just about anybody. You have enough time to do it justice on the air. Can you think of a better reportorial job?"


Media minded

It wasn't a career Myron Leon Wallace could have envisioned growing up in Brookline, Mass., the youngest of four children born to Jewish immigrants from Russia. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1939 with a liberal arts degree, he was uncertain about his career path but landed a job as a radio news reader in Grand Rapids.

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