Wallace: Tough but fair interragator

CBS Reporter Mike Wallace, the master of prime time interrogations and an influencer of a generation of journalists, died Saturday. He was 93.

Wallace's style often left viewers with the impression that a crew would soon join the interview to mop-up blood from the killing-room floor.

The toughest questions came with his trademark prelude of "forgive me."

When he sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt “calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” The translator blanched, but the Ayatollah responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.

He also used the phrase to cajole close friend singer Barbra Streisand to answer a tough question. She wept, but their friendship never wavered.

In another incident, Wallace blistered Nixon's right-hand man John Erlichman beginning with a single word: “perjury” during the Watergate investigations.

He continued the withering fire by saying  “Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon.”

Ehrlichman gulped and asked, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”

Wallace indignantly conceded there was no question, but it made spectacular television during President Nixon's fall from grace.

Wallace once asked mobster Mickey Cohen how many men had he killed. He also lectured Vladimir Putin and criticized Palestinian strongman Yassar Arafat.

Over the years Wallace was joined by a stable of some of the greatest TV journalists of the 20th century: Harry Reasoner, Morey Safer, Ed Bradley and Andy Rooney.

Bradley died in 2006 at the age of 65. He first joined the series in 1981 and produced more than 500 segments.

CBS curmudgeon and former war correspondent Andy Rooney joined the show as a producer in in 1978. He left 60 Minutes on Oct. 2, 2011 and died a month later.

Most people remember Rooney's cranky commentaries. Few remember the landmark reporting with Rooney as producer and Reasoner as the reporter during the civil rights era. Part of their experiences were intertwined in the film of "Mississippi Burning."

Hewitt was shown the door in 2002 when the show slipped to No. 20 after decades in the top 10 of all TV shows. He died Aug. 19, 2009. He was 86.

Hewitt was executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, leading the famous broadcast of John F. Kennedy's assassination as the story developed.

Cronkite, Reasoner and Hewitt held the nation's hand as it wept through the days following the Dallas shooting.

Of the original crew, only Safer, 80, remains as a regular contributor.

"His visits were preceded by the four dreaded words: Mike Wallace is here," Safer said. " He took to heart the old reporter's pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

I never met Wallace, but he wrote me a letter that I treasure. He thanked me for kind words I said in a letter about his 1980 essay on founding father Thomas Jefferson.

In the essay, he quoted Jefferson: "No government ought to be without censors and when the press is free, none ever will. It serves to keep the water pure."

To this day, when I write about government corruption or bureaucratic bungling, those words ring true.