Mike Wallace

For years, producers of CBS's "60 Minutes" had hoped to win an interview with a top official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to no avail.

So in 1995, when reporter Mike Wallace was invited to lunch with church President Gordon B. Hinckley, Wallace was stunned. He was downright thrilled when President Hinckley offered him an interview for a profile on the church's leader, who said he had already faced every possible question about the LDS Church as a missionary in the Hyde Park area of London and could handle anything Wallace could throw his way.

That, Wallace said, was the start of a friendship that has lasted ever since, "a friendship that is a genuine friendship."

Wallace was in Salt Lake City on Friday as a "guest artist" to narrate part of a film commemorating President Hinckley's life at a concert celebrating the LDS prophet's 95th birthday.

Meeting with reporters at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Friday morning, Wallace had nothing but praise and admiration for the leader of a church that had often mystified him — until his interview for the "60 Minutes" piece, which ran in April 1996, cleared up some of Wallace's ideas about the church on such subjects as the role of blacks in the church and the history of polygamy.

"I've never had a relationship like this with a clergyman. I'm not a particularly pious or religious person," Wallace said.

Apparently, the feeling is mutual.

"When we told President Hinckley Mike had agreed to come, tears welled up in his eyes," Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Craig Jessop said.

Wallace, who is Jewish — "maybe I'm one of the lost tribes," he quipped — said he had initially been concerned about being seen as a "patsy for the Mormon church" because of his friendship with President Hinckley and his decision to play a part in the birthday bash. But he soon shrugged that off.

"Because I have the feeling I do for Gordon B. Hinckley, I figure I'll get a pass on this if I'm not as characteristically confrontational," Wallace said.

The 87-year-old Wallace was especially in awe of the fact that President Hinckley remains so active at age 95, repeatedly saying he's "beginning to feel" his own age and speculating that President Hinckley's energy comes from "imagination, courage — there's something in this man's mind, in his soul. I mean, look at what he has done for this church since he was an elder when he was 22 years old in London. He's an extraordinary individual."

Comment on this story

Wallace, who said his friendship with President Hinckley endures despite their lack of regular contact, said if he could sit down with the church president again for an interview, he would most like to ask him about his impressions of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

He said he mentioned the war to President Hinckley when they met briefly Friday morning, and his response, coupled with the look in his eyes, left Wallace wanting to delve deeper.

"I got the impression he was not and is not happy about our war in Iraq," Wallace said.

In December 2004, President Hinckley told CNN's Larry King, "I'm optimistic. I think we can look forward with hope and faith. I hope there will be a resolution of the Iraq situation. . . . We believe in peace. We work for peace. We pray for peace, but we are all citizens of the nation, and we meet that responsibility as that responsibility is defined by our leadership in the nation."

E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com