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Remembering Mike Wallace's dark secret -- depression

Evan Agostini / AP / Today
Mike Wallace in 2008.

I met Mike Wallace on a waning summer afternoon less than a decade ago. He was golden brown, stripped to the waist and came crashing through the back door of Art Buchwald's porch on Martha's Vineyard.

"Hi, I'm Mike!" he said, extending a hand, his white teeth flashing.

The man was a legend, and I shrunk back instinctively. But instead he proceeded to grill me about who I was, why and where I was a journalist, my next career plans and did they make any sense.

I was smitten. For as long as I could remember, Mike Wallace and "60 Minutes" managed to do what seemed otherwise impossible: great journalism on television.

Wallace always seemed fearless, and in fact on that day -- vibrant and powerful late in his 80s - he seemed timeless too.

Wallace was one of Buchwald's closest friends. They would spend summers on the Vineyard together (that day Wallace had just come up from exercising on the beach, visiting Art who was recovering from a stroke).

And Art was a friend of mine, a late-breaking relationship during which we talked for hours. One of the things we talked about was Art's recurring bouts with depression. It was the thing that he shared with two of his closest friends: William Styron, the novelist, and Mike Wallace.

The three of them would discreetly appear together at support groups, calling themselves "The Blues Brothers," Buchwald told me.

I could understand Buchwald and Styron as suffering from depression: a humorist (a common affliction among them) and a novelist who wrote about the illness in "Darkness Visible."

But Wallace was a surprise. Because he was familiar to us all as the aggressive journalist who asked the fearless questions of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Malcolm X, his struggles with depression seemed hard to fathom.

But it was the case. In 1996, Wallace went public with his illness, and asked the Senate's Special Committee on Aging for more federal funds for depression research.

He told the committee that he had felt "lower, lower, lower than a snake's belly," and had tried to commit suicide. (The depression apparently first appeared after being sued for libel by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who sought $120 million for a 1982 "CBS Reports" documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.")

I don't know if Wallace succeeded in winning funds for research. But he overcame his depression and went on to continue one of the most storied careers in American journalism.

He is missed, and a man worthy of our great admiration. RIP, Mike Wallace.

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