Chris Wallace grew up pretending to be a newsman. As a child, during car rides with his stepfather, former CBS News president Bill Leonard, the two would pretend together.
“If the car hit a milestone, say 20,000 miles,” Wallace recalls, “we would do a special report. He would be the anchor, and I would be on the assembly line in Detroit with the guy who had made the car. And then I'd be the White House correspondent talking about what this meant for the balance-of-trade deficit because this was a terrific General Motors car.”
Unlike GM, a victim of its failure to adapt to the changing marketplace, Wallace has long recognized the market forces converging on the television industry. In 2003, after more than 25 years in broadcast news at NBC and ABC (plus five years at local stations in Chicago and New York), he left for cable and Fox News, where he presides over political coverage and hosts the public affairs program Fox News Sunday.
For a pedigreed newsman like Wallace, the move to cable made perfect sense. “It struck me as almost silly to work at a news organization that wasn't on the air most of the time,” he says.
Wallace actually began his career in print. It was a move his stepfather Leonard suggested, putting him at odds with Chris' father, Mike—a towering figure in television journalism. (Wallace's parents divorced when he was a baby. His relationship with his father really began when he was a teenager.)
After graduating from Harvard in 1969, Wallace spent four years as a reporter at the Boston Globe, eventually covering national politics and the 1972 campaigns. A grateful Wallace calls being a print reporter “absolutely the best training you can have.”
He took his first TV job in 1973 as a political reporter for WBBM Chicago. A few years later, he turned down a job at CBS News in Washington, in part to quash any hint of nepotism. Instead, he took a job at WNBC New York, where after two years he was promoted to the network. In four years, he rose to be chief White House correspondent and, later, host of Meet the Press. He was then lured to ABC by network news president Roone Arledge, becoming chief correspondent on PrimeTime while filling in for Ted Koppel on Nightline.
“[Roone] understood why people watch TV and what attracts an audience,” Wallace says. “It's one of the things he shares with another great boss I've had, [Fox News Chairman] Roger Ailes.”
At Fox News, Wallace is in his element, mixing it up with Beltway insiders. “I love politics,” he says. “I love the strategy of it.”
He's been known to spar with colleagues, competitors and, in one famed case, a Clinton. In a 2006 interview with the former president, ostensibly to discuss climate-change initiatives, Wallace made headlines when he asked why the Clinton administration had not “put [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaeda out of business.” And during the most recent election, Wallace took the hosts of Fox & Friends to task on the air for their “Obama-bashing.”
“Whatever he thinks is the appropriate thing to do, he does,” says Sam Donaldson, Wallace's onetime competitor when both covered the Reagan administration, Wallace at NBC and Donaldson at ABC.
Donaldson recalls Wallace's tenacity with Ronald Reagan, who was known to be reticent with the White House press. After the U.S. military forced down an Egyptian passenger jet carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro, it very nearly sparked an international incident. As Reagan deplaned from Air Force One and headed for his motorcade, recalls Donaldson, “We all jumped on him.” The press corps was asking en masse if the U.S. would apologize to Egypt.
But it was Wallace who got the prime quote. “[Reagan] was about to speed off, and Chris said, 'Mr. President, do we have anything to apologize for?' And he reared up and said, 'No!' It was a great sound bite. It illustrated what Chris does so well. He knows how to ask the right question.”
One could argue that such chops are in Wallace's genes. Donaldson disagrees: “If there had never been a Mike Wallace, we would just be looking at Chris as one of the premier interviewers.”