I had just endured a grueling but successful campaign in 1996 for Proposition 209 the statewide ballot initiative to prohibit preferential treatment based on race, color, sex or ethnicity when I received a call informing me that Mike Wallace wanted to interview me for a segment on "60 Minutes."
Although I had been interviewed by countless radio, television and print reporters and columnists as a University of California regent and during the Prop. 209 campaign, none provoked the fear that I instantly felt by the mere mention of Wallace's name.
When the doorbell rang on the day that interview was to be conducted, to say that I was apprehensive would be an understatement. I was in awe of this news personality and I am not easily awestruck, but such was the personal influence of Wallace on his subjects. While his persona was bigger than life, Wallace was friendly and down-to-earth, and his voice had a way of setting me at ease.
As we chatted for a few minutes while the camera crew set up their equipment. I knew that I could answer any question that Wallace threw at me. Nonetheless, I sat in the chair across from him in fear of what the questions might be.
The thing about Wallace was that while the questions were not particularly difficult, his iconic stature seemed to heighten the difficulty. He also had a way of marshaling facial gestures that created a certain level of anxiety after he had asked a question that was obviously contentious.
At one point, Wallace interrupted the interview, raised a hand and to one of the cameramen and said, "noise." I didn't hear a sound, nor did anyone else. About 10 seconds later, an airplane could be faintly heard in the distance. Wallace was in complete control of all aspects of the interview, and nothing slipped by him.
After the sit-down interview had been concluded, Wallace and I went for a stroll in the backyard. I was aware that the cameras were still rolling and, therefore, remained slightly on guard. I noticed, however, that the tone of the questions changed ever so slightly. In a more formal setting, Wallace's questions were more structured and related to policy. As we strolled, Wallace posed questions that were more of a personal nature. But I realized that while the questions were personal, policy implications were also inherent in them. I had no doubt that this was deliberate on Wallace's part.
When the stroll had been concluded, Wallace wanted to visit the neighborhood where I had been raised. As a result, we took a trip to Del Paso Heights, past Grant Union High School and to the house where my grandmother and I had lived for several years. I showed him the old vegetable garden that had been the source of many meals of tomatoes, collard greens and peppers. He said little but I could sense that he was carefully processing the information before him.
During the Prop. 209 campaign and as a UC regent, I interacted with more than 100 journalists from all over the nation and, indeed, from around the globe. Wallace was in a class of his own. If his reputation hadn't preceded him, from the moment of being in his presence I knew that Wallace was something special, professionally.
When we shook hands and prepared to go our separate ways, Wallace said something that has stayed with me. He said, "I didn't think I was going to like you, but you're all right." He added, "You're probably right about this issue."
Late in his life, his enormously talented son, Chris, interviewed Wallace. The final question Chris asked of his dad was how did he want to be remembered. The answer was "tough but fair." I would add "in a class of his own" to this memory.