Doug Robinson: Mike Wallace vs. President Hinckley? Dave Checketts needn't have worried

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

President Gordon B. Hinckley gives reporter Mike Wallace of CBS's "60 Minutes" a tour of Salt Lake's Temple Square in 1996. President Hinckley, who became leader of the LDS Church on March 12, 1995, was comfortable dealing with the media.

Deseret Morning News archives

When Dave Checketts heard that his friend and neighbor Mike Wallace was going to interview Gordon B. Hinckley, he was worried.

This was in 1995 and Wallace was famous for his tough interviewing skills on "60 Minutes." He didn't interview people, it was said; he interrogated them. It was also noted that the worst sentence you could hear in the English language was, "Mike Wallace is here to see you." He went one-on-one with hardened, tough politicians, crooks, business leaders and assorted battle-tested characters and turned them into oatmeal. And now he was about to interview the beloved president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on national TV.

Checketts, who was president of Madison Square Garden at the time, is a devout Mormon, so his protective instincts took over. "I was thinking he was going to try to tear President Hinckley apart like he did everyone else," recalls Checketts. He called Wallace immediately. "We gotta talk," he said. Checketts appealed to Wallace's weak spot by offering him tickets to a Knicks-Bulls playoff game.

Before the game, Checketts sat at a table with Wallace and his wife Mary and made his appeal. "Mike, if you were interviewing the Pope, my guess is you would hear from a lot of Catholics who would say, don't take your '60 Minutes' approach with him," he began. "This is a holy man for millions of people. That's how I feel about President Hinckley. He has done so much for the church and he's such a gentle soul. I hope this is not a grilling. I just wanted you to hear that. I don't want him to get rough treatment."

As Checketts recalls, Wallace threw back his head and laughed. "I have no intention of doing that," he said. "This is a man I admire. I'm looking forward to sitting down with him."

The rest is church history. The interview proved to be one of the signature moments in the recent history of the LDS Church. President Hinckley was open, humorous and quick on his feet. Wallace was fair, direct and respectful. In the process, some of the mystique of the church dissipated.

When Wallace died on Saturday at the age of 93, many, including Checketts, reflected on that interview and on the famous journalist and the friendship that grew out of that interview. It was an unlikely friendship — the cynical, seen-it-all veteran journalist of Jewish descent and the genial, Utah-born-and-raised leader of the Mormon Church.

And yet that's what happened. Wallace wrote the foreward to President Hinckley's book, "Standing for Something." Ten years after their famous interview, Wallace received a call from Craig Jessop, then director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, inviting him to attend President Hinckley's 95th birthday celebration in Salt Lake City. As Jessop tells it, "Ron Gunnell, Mac Christensen and I brainstormed to find a non-LDS person who knew President Hinckley well and could honor him. We decided the perfect person would be Wallace. I called him and he said he would be really honored. And he was the perfect person for the job. It's one thing to honor ourselves but another to bring someone in from outside who has the stature of Mike Wallace."

The feelings were mutual. As Jessop tells it, President Hinckley got tears in his eyes when Jessop told him Wallace was coming to attend the celebration. "He was very touched and surprised, and President Hinckley wasn't easy to surprise," says Jessop.

President Hinckley mentioned Wallace and the interview in his remarks at the church's October 1996 General Conference. "I developed a deep respect for Mr. Wallace," he said. "He is a most able professional. He was courteous, respectful, incisive in his questions, one who might be described as a tough, street-wise reporter with long experience, but a gentleman in the best sense of the word."

He went on to discuss the interview in detail, question by question.

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