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Wallace Still in the Hunt

When Mike Wallace retired from CBS' 60 Minutes last spring after 38 years on the newsmagazine, the veteran reporter vowed he would still chase the big interviews. Wallace landed one of those coveted “gets” last week, traveling to Iran to interview President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who rarely speaks to Western media.

Wallace spent an hour and a half with Ahmadinejad. At press time, the report, set to air Aug. 13, was still being edited. The legendary newsman, 88, spoke to B&C'sAllison Romano about how the Iranian leader surprised him and why he turns to CNN for war coverage.

You'd been pursuing Ahmadinejad for a year and then got word he'd do the interview. Did it measure up to expectations?

When we got there, we waited and waited and waited for almost a week. They wouldn't give us a definite date, and then he went to Malaysia. Finally, we made a reservation to come back on Tuesday morning and then we got the call that he was ready.

He has a different point of view [from Americans] on a lot of things. He is smart, savvy, self-assured, self-righteous and a brilliant man. He has his Ph.D. and still holds classes for his graduate students in his presidential office. He knows his statistics of the U.S. very well, like how huge the prison population is, how many wars we've been in and George W. Bush's ratings. He is a very sophisticated man. There weren't any topics he wouldn't discuss.

What does he say about Iran's support of Hezbollah and the war between Hezbollah and Israel?

He doesn't like to use the word Israel. It is well-known that [Iran] has been supplying Hezbollah with at least $100 million a year for 20 years and also supplies them with missiles and rockets. He believes the US is on its way to hell in a hand basket, so to speak, and doesn't understand why we would be so supportive of the Zionist entity, as he calls it. You may not like him, but if we have done our job right, you realize this is a very intelligent man.

When some American journalists interview hostile foreign leaders, they are seen as apologists. Did you have to tread carefully?

No, and I don't think he wanted me to. I said over and over, 'You said Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Holocaust was misreported.' I figured the way for the American public to understand this man was to ask him some of the inflammatory things he's been quoted as saying and let him handle it. He did that to a certain degree, but he also said I was going into the past.

International news is dominating headlines right now. How do you think the U.S. networks are doing covering stories like Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and London?

By and large, adequately. I look to CNN for that sort of news. They are doing an extraordinary job, especially people like John Roberts and Anderson Cooper. Roberts is first-rate, but when he was here, he was considered by some—not by me—to be a lightweight. That couldn't be further from the truth. You can't remake yourself.

CNN uses these pieces three or four times a day in a 24-hour period. When you've made up your mind that you want to be a reporter, and you're on the scene and you're covering a story, you want to know you'll get time for it. A two-minute piece on the network evening news just isn't the same.

You said you were retiring. Have plans changed?

Ahmadinejad asked me that too. I said, 'Mr. President, if you had the same opportunity to talk to someone like yourself, wouldn't you?' He said he understood.