The death this past weekend of veteran television journalist Mike Wallace at the age of 93 has reminded many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of the celebrated newsman's relationship with the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.
In his foreword for President Hinckley's best-selling book, "Standing for Something," Wallace described how the interview happened.
"I'd been trying for decades to get some top Mormon leader — any top Mormon leader — to talk to '60 Minutes' about himself and his church, and I'd regularly been turned down," Wallace wrote. "Mormon friends of mine had volunteered to put in a good word; they'd let the Salt Lake City hierarchy understand that an investigation was not what I had in mind, but rather an exploration of what kind of individual led the Mormons, how did he get his job, what about Mormons and polygamy, what about Mormons and black folks, and did the leaders of the Mormon Church really believe that tale about Joseph Smith finding himself anointed at the age of 14 on a farm in upstate New York?"
They were "merely the kind of nosy questions we regularly put to all manner of highly placed figures on '60 Minutes,’ ” said Wallace, who, according to the Associated Press, "had such a fearsome reputation as an interviewer that 'Mike Wallace is here to see you' were among the most dreaded words a newsmaker could hear.
"We hardly expected 'Yes' for an answer, any more than we expected 'Yes' for an answer to our similar invitations to the pope of the Roman Catholic Church," Wallace wrote.
So Wallace, the king of the ambush interview, was himself "ambushed" by the cordial — "even sunny" — greeting he received from President Hinckley at a luncheon to which both were invited. Nor did he expect President Hinckley's affirmative response to his request for an interview: "President Hinckley's bespectacled eyes literally twinkled as he good-naturedly allowed that it sounded like an appealing notion."
LDS associates of Wallace's couldn't believe President Hinckley had agreed to the interview. Wallace said his friends wondered: "Doesn't (President Hinckley) understand what can happen when '60 Minutes' sets out to do one of its hatchet jobs?"
"Well, what happened," Wallace continued, "was that my '60 Minutes' colleagues and I learned, from the time we spent with Gordon Hinckley and his wife, from his staff, and from other Mormons who talked to us, that this warm and thoughtful and decent and optimistic leader of the Mormon Church fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets.
"I know that may sound more than a trifle corny coming from a dyed-in-the-wool, jaded, New York-based reportorial cynic," Wallace said. "But it was difficult not to arrive at that conclusion after talking not only with him, but about him."
The results of that April 7, 1996, interview can be seen in this retrospective aired by '60 Minutes' soon after President Hinckley died in 2008.