In late 1997 I heard that Mike Wallace, the legendary 60 Minutes reporter, had been in town to do a critical story on the Boston Globe's reporting about Ray Flynn's relationship with alcohol. So I called him up.
Flynn, the former Boston mayor who was by this time the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was believed to harbor further political ambitions. And a Globe team headed by Walter Robinson, now a Northeastern colleague, traveled to Rome and produced a front-page story claiming that Flynn was spending an inordinate amount of time in the city's Irish pubs. Robinson also reported seeing Flynn stagger out of a North End bar in the middle of the day. (The story is not on the open Web, but you can look it up.)
The Globe article provoked a controversy, and I had written about it for the Boston Phoenix, mainly defending the Globe on the grounds that Flynn had run afoul of cultural changes about politicians' drinking habits, and that Flynn was widely thought to harbor further political ambitions. (In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.)
Wallace was having none of it.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking," Wallace told me. "How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?" He then shifted his attention to me. Here's what I wrote at the time:
"Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?" Wallace asked. "And you, you bastard ... " He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because "he can't think of anything better to do."
"Is that a fact?" Wallace demanded.
I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I'd been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn's motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.
And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness -- that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.
"You yuppies aren't telling me that things have changed," Wallace sneered. "Things haven't changed at all." He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.
"When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago," Wallace said.
At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: "You're writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse's ass."
In fact, I think what I wrote about Wallace that day was fair and respectful, which you can judge for yourself. I was also impressed with Flynn's reaction -- he was never anything but gentlemanly in my future encounters with him, and he's gone on to lead a useful and interesting post-political life.
As for Wallace, for many years he was the face and voice of 60 Minutes, one of the most successful news programs in television history. You could observe that there's no such thing as a golden age, but I really do think there was a golden age of television news, and Wallace was right in the middle of it. It's remarkable to think that he made it to 93, and only did his last interview -- with Roger Clemens -- in 2008.
Like so many others we've lost in the last few years, Mike Wallace will be missed.
Follow Dan Kennedy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dankennedy_nu