How Mike Wallace nearly became White House press secretary

With all that is being written about Mike Wallace, one of the most fascinating parts of the veteran newsman’s life received only perfunctory mention in the tributes that followed his death Sunday at age 93:  That CBS-TV’s Wallace was offered the job as press secretary to Richard Nixon as he began his winning quest for the presidency in 1968.

White House Press Secretary Mike Wallace! Just musing about what that would have meant is a most provocative scenario to this White House correspondent and, I suspect, to most of my colleagues in the James Brady Briefing Room. Like the late Tony Snow when he was press secretary to George W. Bush, Wallace would have come to the podium at the White House in 1969 as an established figure in the news business. Already well-known from his years as an interviewer on radio and television (in New York and nationally), Wallace as press secretary would have known most of the correspondents by name. Just the thought of the pugnacious Wallace jousting with Helen Thomas and some of the aggressive questioners of the Press Corps is fascinating to contemplate.

As the first press secretary with a background in television, would Wallace have made possible lived televised coverage of the White House briefings more than a generation before they came about in the Clinton years? Would he have used his contacts with the national press to help ease tensions between the president and what Theodore White once dubbed “Nixon’s bad press?”

The possibilities are endless. But what did happen is almost as intriguing. Wallace was a political correspondent for CBS in the late 1960s, as Nixon prepared for a bid for the Republican nomination for president in 1968.  In 1966, when then-President Lyndon Johnson suddenly attacked Nixon as a “chronic campaigner” who “never did really recognize and realize what was going on in government when he had an official position,” Wallace secured a Learjet to help him beat Nixon to the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire to get his response.

Wallace began covering Nixon in the fall of 1967.  At one point, when Wallace was the only correspondent with the candidate-to-be on flight to Oregon, the two had an hourlong conversation.

“And Mike was an admirer,” said Adam Clayton Powell, III, both of whose parents were friends of Wallace and who himself got his start in journalism as an intern with the newsman at CBS. Powell recalled how Wallace later told The New York Times he regarded Nixon “with great respect. He was savvy, smart, hard-working.”

Nixon obviously felt the same way.  In early 1968, Wallace had lunch with Nixon’s law partner Len Garment and Frank Shakespeare, who was setting up the presidential campaign’s press operation.  Two days before the New Hampshire primary in ’68, Garment called up and said: “The boss would like you to join up.”

“To do what exactly?” Wallace asked.

“We’re not sure . . . we’re not that organized.  But I would imagine it would be press secretary or communications director, or something like that,” Garment answered.

In a 1997 interview with James Rosen (author of The Strong Man, the much-praised biography of Nixon campaign manager and Attorney General John Mitchell), Wallace recalled the offer came as he was recovering from illness at a hospital.  The newsman considered the offer and later told The New York Times: “I thought very, very seriously about it.”  But Wallace finally said no to Nixon because he felt, as the Times reported, “that putting a happy face on bad news was not his cup of tea.”

Later that year, Wallace became the first correspondent on CBS’s now legendary 60 Minutes, where he would go on to conduct more than 800 interviews until his retirement nearly four decades later and from which he would become most famously etched in the public mind.

But clearly, had Mike Wallace given a different answer to Len Garment that day in 1968, his career and public persona might have taken a different course. And so might the White House press room.