Mike Wallace Says Ahmadinejad an Impressive Fellow
Mike Wallace came out of retirement to interview Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Wallace found him to be “an impressive fellow.” Indeed, he might have a little man-crush on him, remarking, “He’s actually, in a strange way, he’s a rather attractive man, very smart, savvy, self-assured, good looking in a strange way.”
Twenty-seven years after a chilling sit-down with Ayatollah Khomeini that was one of Mike Wallace’s most memorable, the CBS newsman snagged an interview this week with current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. The 88-year-old Wallace had been pursuing the interview for so long that he had to be reminded by Ahmadinejad when he first asked for it. A portion of Wallace’s interview, conducted Tuesday at a crucial time in the Mideast with Israel fighting the Iran-backed Hezbollah, will be shown Thursday on the “CBS Evening News.” A fuller report will air on Sunday’s “60 Minutes.”
In the interview, Ahmadinejad said of the Bush administration, “see how they talk down to my nation.”
During the midst of the American hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace interviewed Iranian leader Khomeini, locking eyes with the cleric when he asked for a response to Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat calling Khomeini a lunatic. Of Ahmadinejad, Wallace said, “He’s an impressive fellow, this guy. He really is. He’s obviously smart as hell.”
Wallace said he was surprised to find that the Iranian president was still a college professor who taught a graduate-level course. “You’ll find him an interesting man,” he said. “I expected more of a firebrand. I don’t think he has the slightest doubt about how he feels … about the American administration and the Zionist state. He comes across as more rational than I had expected.”
Hollywood Reporter’s Paul Gough account makes it clear that Wallace had this reaction even after some rather rude treatment at his host’s hands:
[W]hen they got there they were told that the Iranian president was very busy and may not get to talk to them. The CBS crew cooled their heels, so to speak, in Tehran’s 100-degree heat in a hotel without air conditioning. “We waited, and they said, ‘he’s still busy, he doesn’t know, he hasn’t decided,'” Wallace said. “We were scheduled to return. If he hadn’t talked to us by late Tuesday we were going to get on the plane. All of the sudden word came through he was going to talk.”
The 3:30 p.m. interview didn’t come off until 5 p.m., but Wallace said their talk stretched for an hour and a half. “We went on and on,” Wallace said. “We were told we were going to get 30 minutes.”
Wallace has spent a lot of time in Iran over the past four decades, interviewing the Shah, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and, most famously, the 1979 sitdown with the Ayatollah Khomeini who asked the Iranian leader what he thought of Anwar Sadat’s desciption of him as a lunatic.
There wasn’t any of that this time. Wallace dismissed the common perceptions of Ahmadinejad. “He’s actually, in a strange way, he’s a rather attractive man, very smart, savvy, self-assured, good looking in a strange way,” Wallace said. “He’s very, very short but he’s comfortable in his own skin.”
Despite problems with translation — there was only one translator for a time during the interview — Wallace said Ahmadinejad was patient. “He couldn’t have been more accomodating. He had a good time doing the interview,” Wallace said. And he believes that it was Ahmadinejad’s idea to do the interview. He acknowledged that he had become a much-desired interview subject but told the veteran CBS journalist that he remembered a discussion the two had over a year ago when Ahmadinejad was in New York. “I don’t know if you remember this or not but you and I had a talk over breakfast at the United Nations,” Ahmadinejad told Wallace. “Do you remember that you asked me at the time if I would sit down with you … and I said by all means, let’s do it.” Wallace said he was surprised that Ahmadinejad had remembered.
As for retiring, Wallace said that he isn’t having a happy retirement because he likes the job. He does acknowledge, particularly in this last voyage, that the airplane travel is “interminable” and the major reason why he wanted to retire in the first place. But he said there were other stories that he wanted to do. “When you love what you do, it’s not work,” Wallace said.
Now, Wallace is a professional journalist and, with some major caveats (see below), one of the best. That he found Ahmadinejah charismatic and impressive does not offend me, either. I’m sure Hitler and Stalin had a presence, too. I understand the same was true of Osama bin Laden in his prime; there haven’t been any interviews lately. Still, I share David Bernstein‘s befuddlement at the lack of countervailing disgust at a man who, as Bernstein puts it, is “the man whose agents are killing scores of Americans in Iraq, not to mention thousands of Iraqis, and who also is the world’s leading Holocaust denier and most dangerous anti-Semite [relevant aside: Wallace is Jewish], currently engaged in a devastating proxy war with Israel and threatening to wipe out the country entirely.” But, damn, he’s hot!
Wallace, though, is a man whose value set I can’t quite understand. I call to your attention, again, to a 1987 exchange from a PBS panel discussion. James Fallows describes in hindsight a dialogue between the late Peter Jennings, then anchor of ABC World News Tonight, and Wallace about a hypothetical war they were covering.
With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to “Roll tape!” as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he finally said. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. “But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That’s purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction.” Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” “I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said a moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. “I chickened out.” Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
Bizarre, indeed. I fully understand the idea that getting the story is important. That this is paramount to one’s loyalties as a citizen, however, is beyond my powers of empathy.