Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

April 15, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Kevorkian and Wallace

The last time I saw Mike Wallace, I had a surreal experience that took me back to my Kennedy-era childhood. This was less than six years ago, when he was still working full-time; after all, he was then a mere 88 years old.

I had known him slightly since the 1980s, since I had been a regional screener for the Livingston Awards, the nation's top prize for young journalists. Journalism gods like Wallace and NBC's John Chancellor made the final decision on the winners.

But for slogging through dozens of entries and selecting the best, we junior judges got to go to New York for a weekend, and have dinner and rub elbows with the great icons of American journalism. To me, that was a very fair trade.

Later, I would come to know him better. But on that beautiful fall afternoon in 2006, Wallace suddenly remembered it was the birthday of Art Buchwald, who had been the top humor columnist back in the 1960s. So he called him, and I listened in sort of semi-awe. I was then already in deep middle age, and anything but a celebrity worshiper. I have interviewed my share of the famous.

But Art Buchwald and Mike Wallace! I was reading Buchwald before I entered puberty; I grew up watching Wallace on Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News. I did not remember a time before I knew who they were. After the conversation, Wallace told the rest of us that Buchwald and he had both suffered from depression.

Depression so bad, he confided, that at one point the had actually tried to kill himself. I was stunned.

Broadcast journalism's most famous tough guy then talked a bit wistfully about Buchwald, who had earlier that year had a leg amputated, went into a hospice — and after being given up as dying, rallied, came out and went home in triumph.

Art Buchwald's rally didn't last, and he died just months after that phone call. Mike Wallace's own health declined a few years later. Once, at a reception for the Knight-Wallace journalism fellows at the University of Michigan, I asked him if he worried he might die chasing some story. "What would be wrong with that?" he challenged me.

He clearly meant it. But on April 8, he died, not running to a plane, but in a long-term care facility in Connecticut.

Wallace would have been 94 next month. I don't know what his physical or mental condition was at the end. But I do know that under different circumstances he might well have ended his life with a man who gave him one of his last sensational stories.

A man who I caused him to meet: Jack Kevorkian.

Which is how I got to know the real Mike Wallace a little better. Back in November 1988, Kevorkian, the apostle of physician-assisted suicide, asked to see me. I had covered him for years for many publications, but this time he wanted media advice.

"I've performed euthanasia and taped it," he said, waving a videotape. He wanted the largest possible audience and a nationwide debate on the issue. I told him "60 Minutes" was the program with the highest rating, and the journalist with the most credibility was Mike Wallace. Fortunately, Mike happened to be in his office, and I got him on the phone. He told Kevorkian to send him the videotape.

Later that night, Wallace called me. "Do you think he is sane?" he asked. I told him I wasn't competent to render a diagnosis, but that I could say that Kevorkian seemed rational.

Mike Wallace ended up doing a sensational story. Partly as a result, Kevorkian ended up going to prison for eight years. Wallace, the man who had faced down mobsters and crooked politicians, felt bad about that. He came to believe in the justice of what Jack Kevorkian was doing, and repeatedly asked Gov. Jennifer Granholm to consider commuting his sentence, something she did in 2007.

Sure enough, Wallace was the first journalist to interview Kevorkian when he left prison. He told me once he hoped Dr. Death would be around to help him if he ever needed his services.

But though Kevorkian was 10 years younger than Wallace, he died 10 months before the broadcaster's final sign-off.

Professionally, Mike Wallace was indeed tough as nails, so much so that his early nickname was Mike Malice. But he had a soft spot for more than Jack Kevorkian. He and his wife Mary donated heavily to the journalism fellowship program at the University of Michigan, the school from which he graduated in 1939.

Few knew that his first jobs out of college were as radio announcers in Grand Rapids and Detroit. Fewer knew that he was so dedicated to the U-M's mid-career fellowship program that they purchased the large and comfortable house in which the program is lodged, or that he loved holding forth with the fellows.

Charles Eisendrath, who has run that program for years, said when the sad news came that "Mike was rightly celebrated for being tough, but if you were lucky enough to be within his personal orbit, his affection and loyalty were equally strong." He prized, Eisendrath told me, "the highest quality in anything, from education and journalism to bravery and humor. He radiated these values."

I know I'll wish this fall that he was still around and that both President Obama and Mitt Romney could have been made to sit down for half-hour, no-holds-barred interviews with Mike Wallace.

And I am equally sure they would have dreaded it.

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