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Wallace gives a look behind the scenes of history

Between You and Me: A Memoir, By Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates, Hyperion, 304 pp., $25.95

You can probably count on one hand all the people who have talked to both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Jimmy ''The Weasel" Fratianno and still have a couple of fingers left. Mike Wallace is one of those people, and he takes us behind the scenes of his interviews in ''Between You and Me."

Since he's been around television for 60 years and is in many of our living rooms every Sunday night, Wallace is somebody you feel you know, and the tone of the title reflects this. But it's also a sly remark Wallace once made in an interview that won't be given away here.

Wallace starts off with presidents and first couples. He lets us in on an off-camera, toe-to-toe confrontation with former president Lyndon B. Johnson in which Wallace uses the vernacular to goad LBJ into discussing Vietnam. In a similar vein, he quotes then-governor James Rhodes of Ohio noting that ''watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football."

Wallace was playing hardball while Chris Matthews was still in Little League, and his persistent image is that of a tough questioner. Because Nancy Reagan was an old friend Wallace had known since her childhood, she apparently expected underhand pitches and became ''flustered" and ''miffed" when he refused to let friendship stand in the way of good journalism.

Richard Nixon, shocked when Wallace told him he was leaving the campaign trail to cover something else, baffled Wallace with ''We're going to win this thing, Mike. And later, after we get to Washington, we're going to take some great trips." Nixon, of course, went on to visit Moscow and Beijing.

It's hard to imagine Wallace being afraid of anyone, but he admits to being intimidated by Vladimir Horowitz. The nervousness disappears, however, when Wallace and his ''60 Minutes" crew are doing a preliminary visit to Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Horowitz shows up unexpectedly and announces, ''Mike Wallace. I watch you every Sunday night."

The Shah of Iran turns the tables on Wallace when he tries to be diplomatic by referring to what the Saudis call the Arabian Gulf and the Iranians call the Persian Gulf.

The Shah: What do you call it? You have been to school, haven't you?

Wallace: Yes.

The Shah: What was the name that you read during your school days?

Wallace: Persian Gulf.

There is such an aura of power around Wallace that it's surprising to learn that he still has to answer to ''the suits." Such was the case when CBS backed off on an anti-tobacco story after coming under pressure, an episode later depicted in the movie ''The Insider." Of the film, Wallace wryly notes that the fact that he was played by the handsome and urbane Christopher Plummer was obviously typecasting.

On the lighter side are tales of interviews with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Johnny Carson, and Mel Brooks, who takes over the interview, calling Wallace cheap for having a $40 watch.

To read ''Between You and Me" is to re-view some classic television, some of which you'll undoubtedly remember, with some new and juicy bits thrown in.

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