'He Wasn't Afraid': How Chris Wallace's Start In Boston Foreshadowed His Future As Presidential Debate Moderator

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Chris Wallace moderated a presidential debate in Las Vegas in October 2016. He returns as moderator in Tuesday's debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Chris Wallace moderated a presidential debate in Las Vegas in October 2016. He returns as moderator in Tuesday's debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

When Chris Wallace joined the Boston Globe in 1969, fresh out of Harvard, his colleagues didn't know much about him. But they did know his father.

"Everybody knew his father," said Martin F. Nolan, now retired after a long career as one of the Globe's top journalists.

Wallace's father, of course, is the late “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace, a Brookline native who already was a prominent figure on CBS News when Chris got his first job.

Nolan says the younger Wallace quickly made his own name. Now, more than 50 years later, he will moderate the first presidential debate of the general election Tuesday in Cleveland.

Wallace, the host of "Fox News Sunday," is a rarity on a cable channel best known for conservative commentary. He is widely respected by Democrats and recently won praise for a tough interview with President Trump.

He first showed his mettle as a young reporter in Boston.

Nolan recalls covering the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors with Wallace and watching the rookie Globe scribe pursue an interview with the powerful mayor of Chicago at the time, Richard J. Daley. Flanked by three bodyguards, Daley stepped into an elevator to avoid reporters, "and Chris Wallace just walks right on," Nolan said.

"That impressed me; he wasn't afraid," Nolan added. "And the mayor of Chicago didn't know he was the son of Mike Wallace."

According to Nolan, Daley rewarded Chris Wallace's boldness by agreeing to an interview.

He's scored many more interviews since then, including one with Trump over the summer. In that sit-down, Wallace delivered some instant fact checking, such as when the president falsely claimed that Democratic nominee Joe Biden wants to defund police departments. He also added context to Trump's boast that he'd aced a cognitive test.

"Incidentally, I took the test, too," Wallace quipped. "It's not the hardest test. ... They have a picture, and it says, 'What's that?' And it's an elephant."

Wallace's pushbacks set the interview apart from Trump's usual appearances on Fox News. Other hosts on the popular cable channel often don't challenge the president when he says something misleading or untrue.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says Fox News tries to exploit Wallace's reputation for tough questioning.

"They use that as a fig leaf to cover up the fact that it's really a pro-Trump network and not truly a news network, in many ways," she said.

Sullivan expects Wallace will do a good job as moderator Tuesday night but worries his performance could lend credibility to Fox News programs that aren't as rigorous as his.

Fox News declined to make Wallace available for an interview, but I spoke with him in 2016, when he moderated three Republican primary debates and a general election debate. He acknowledged that he's viewed differently from some of his colleagues at Fox News, and shared a bit of an off-camera conversation with then-President Barack Obama to make the point.

"He said, 'As I've told you before' — and, in fact, he has told me before — 'I have problems with some Fox shows, but I always feel that you treat me fairly,' " Wallace said.

All eyes now are on how Wallace treats Trump and Biden in Tuesday's debate. Topics which Wallace released in advance include the Supreme Court, the coronavirus and the integrity of the presidential election. Wallace has already received criticism from some activists and fellow journalists for framing the topic of race in relation to "Violence in our Cities." He's also been criticized for omitting climate change from the list.

The co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates has said that, unlike one-on-one interviewers, moderators will not be expected to fact check the candidates in real time or push back if they contradict prior statements. Wallace recently said on Fox News that his role is to be "as invisible as possible," and to get the candidates to engage each other. Still, some viewers may notice that his no-nonsense style resembles his father's.

"I think it's in the DNA," he said in 2016. "I certainly haven't intentionally went, 'Gee, my father did this, so I'm going to do it.' But it — well, let me say this: Certainly, one of the things I learned from my father was preparation."

Preparation, in this case, means being ready to manage the candidates for an hour and a half, with tens of millions of voters watching live.

This segment aired on September 29, 2020.


Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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