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Channel surfing the other night, I ran across All the President’s Men for what felt like the thousandth time. I came in about twenty minutes before the end, and – not for the first time – I felt compelled to watch it to the end. What a splendidly written, brilliantly directed, terrifically acted movie! What a stirring story! What a beautiful piece of filmmaking, from the cinematography to the lighting design! And what a crock!
All the President’s Men converted a generation of innocent, impressionable, pre-Internet Americans – myself included – into unthinking fans of the mainstream news media. Some people in the government might be out to screw us over, and certainly every last man and woman in corporate America was up to no good, but the knights in shining armor at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the network news divisions were there to come to our rescue – to save our freedoms and preserve our Constitution, wielding the truth like a shining sword.
As I watched Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, in the last shot of the film, taking down Richard M. Nixon one typewriter keystroke at a time, my thoughts naturally turned to Mike Wallace, who since his death the other day at the age of 285 – sorry, 93 – has been celebrated by many commentators as the quintessential embodiment of the crusading, principled, virtuous mainstream news media in its now-bygone, widely lamented heyday. His death, indeed, has provided his colleagues in the traditional media with a magnificent opportunity – which many of them, of course, have seized upon – to try to resurrect the heroic myth perpetrated by All the President’s Men and many other films. (Remember, for example, another Redford film from 1976, Three Days of the Condor, in which he’s betrayed and hunted down by the CIA and ends up, incriminating evidence finally in hand, at the entrance to the New York Times building, the logo of that newspaper symbolizing his, and justice’s, salvation?) A typical posthumous tribute to Wallace in the Washington Post began as follows: “Mike Wallace had a glorious career at CBS, racking up 21 Emmy awards and an endless reel of great interviewing moments. And to think that this fantastic career….” Check, please!
Admittedly, Wallace was a gifted showman. Every cheesy TV show that has ever made use of ambush interviews owes him a huge debt of gratitude. But too often his antics left a vaguely – or not so vaguely – bad taste in one’s mouth. Yes, the used-car salesman in Cowpie, Oklahoma, who turned back odometers deserved to get nabbed for it – but did he deserve to be nabbed in front a nationwide audience? Did this pathetic petty swindler deserve to be cast as this week’s dastardly villain opposite the golden champion of American fair play and hero of the common man – portrayed, as always, by Wallace, this moneyed member of the Manhattan media elite?
What was especially unpalatable about Wallace’s work on 60 Minutes is that one week he’d self-righteously bring down some small-time crook in some shabby little office in flyover America – killing a fly with a cannon – and the next week he’d turn out an unctuous, nauseating puff piece on some insufferable celebrity or other. I’ll never forget the image of him laughing it up with real-estate magnates Harry and Leona Helmsley on the roof of one of their New York hotels. One had the impression (and perhaps he even said something to this effect; I don’t remember) that he and the Helmsleys were chums, or at least went to some of the same parties or had mutual friends among the bicoastal glitterati. The Helmsleys were ripe for exposé treatment (she ended up behind bars; he escaped prosecution only because of physical and mental incompetence), but their profile by Mike Wallace, investigative journalist extraordinaire, was framed as a portrait of a husband and wife of a certain age who, though high-powered and successful businesspeople, were, far more importantly, still just as deeply in love with each other as ever.
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