It isn’t often that I find myself in line behind Dick Cheney, but that’s what happened when I spoke to Chris Wallace last week. “I’m sorry I’m a little late but I was just in an interview with Vice President Cheney, so I couldn’t say ‘Hey, I got to interrupt because I have to go talk to somebody else,’” the host of FOX News Sunday told me when we got on the phone to talk “about me, for God’s sake.” Mainly, we were talking about his 50 years in journalism, which started when his stepfather, CBS News’ Bill Leonard, gave the 16-year-old an internship helping out Walter Cronkite during the 1964 Democratic and Republican conventions.
Wallace has been familiar to viewers on a national stage since the seventies, when he joined NBC News’ Washington bureau. During his long stints at NBC and ABC, he forged an identity for himself as a tenacious reporter and a tough interviewer, despite working in the same business as his father, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. Since 2003, Wallace has been the host of FOX’s Sunday morning show, speaking to policy makers, world leaders and pundits. Wallace spoke to me last week about his anniversary, his late father’s influence on his career, the improvement of their relationship over the years, and the challenges of keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle.
Your journalism career started with an internship that your stepfather helped you get. How did it spark your interest in the news business?
Back in 1964 my stepfather, Bill Leonard, was the head of the CBS News election unit. I was 16 at the time and he asked me if I wanted to go to the conventions and to be a gopher, go for coffee, go for pencils. And a lot of the kids of the correspondents and executives were being hired to do it and it just so happened that I ended up as Walter Cronkite’s gopher at the Republican Convention out in San Francisco. And the impact it had on me was I couldn’t believe that people got paid to do this. To be able to go to the convention and see all of the fascinating political developments, all of the historic figures like Nixon and Eisenhower, to see all of the pageantry and fun. It just struck me as, this is the greatest job in the world, and 50 years later I feel the same way.
Did you carry the experience through the rest of high school and into college? Did you work in the school newspaper, for instance?
I did. I worked in my high school newspaper and at Harvard, in college, I was the anchor of the evening newscast. I guess the most unforgettable event was in 1969 when student radicals took over the main administration building in Harvard Yard. We took over the office of the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences and made that our studio and we were talking to the protesters and reporting on the college radio station about what was going on. At about five or six in the morning the administration ordered in the Middlesex County Police to take over the building. They broke down the doors and they arrested all of the students. Of course I wasn’t there as a demonstrator; I was a reporter, so I held up my little card and said ‘I’m press’ and they arrested me right along with everybody else. We were each allowed to make one call from jail and so I called the radio station and did a phoner report of what was going on with the demonstrators inside the jail at that hour. I do remember I signed off, “This is Chris Wallace in custody.”
THE REST OF THIS FEATURE “PARADE” INTERVIEW CAN BE SEEN HERE.