The truth about Chris Wallace’s stepfather, Bill Leonard

If you want to spend your time worrying about anybody before the upcoming 2020 presidential debate, presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden might deserve it. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace learned his razor-sharp interview skills from legends. “You’re a great questioner, and, frankly, every guest who comes on hates you,” Roger Ailes once said of Wallace (via Town and Country). 

“I think that it’s in the Wallace DNA to come at stories and come at people straight on. Not a lot of foreplay,” Wallace reflected to Parade. Wallace’s father, 60 Minutes legend Mike Wallace, sat down with Malcolm X and Vladi­mir Putin (via The Washington Post). His step-father, 60 Minutes creator and CBS News president, Bill Leonard, was the only one in the industry to convince the ruthless Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, to give his only full-ranging interview (via The New York Times).

As an adult, Wallace was close to both of his father-figures. He nonetheless thinks of Leonard as “the single most important person in my life” (via The Washington Post). Long before Leonard got a 16-year-old Wallace his first news-related internship, he used to play pretend newscaster with his step-son. (In 1959, two years after Leonard married Wallace’s mother, Kappy, he became a fulltime CBS News correspondent. By 1979, he’d risen through the ranks to become chief of CBS’ news division.)

Both Bill Leonard and his stepson have both made waves in election news broadcasts

September 2020 will be the second time that Chris Wallace moderates a presidential debate. In 2016, when he facilitated a Clinton-Trump presidential head-to-head, he became the first Fox news anchor to moderate a general election presidential debate (via Detroit News). Then, Wallace made headlines for reprimanding Trump, telling him off for treating Wallace like  “a potted plant” (via BBC).  

In many ways, Wallace was following in his stepfather’s groundbreaking election-reporting footsteps. As head of the CBS News election unit, Bill Leonard helped develop a new method to predict election results: the exit-poll (via The New York Times). In 1964, CBS-superstar Walter Cronkite first used the method to declare the winner in the New Hampshire Republican Presidential primary, a full 39 minutes before any other network did. A few months later, Leonard hooked Wallace up with his first internship, helping Cronkite during that year’s Democratic and Republican conventions (via Parade). 

“To be able to go to the convention and see all …  of the historic figures like Nixon and Eisenhower … it just struck me as, this is the greatest job in the world,” Wallace remembered. Wallace has been covering presidential conventions since. It was, for example, during the 1988 Republican Convention that Donald Trump first predicted a future presidential win to Wallace. “I think I’d have a very good chance,” Trump told Wallace in 1988, “I mean I like to win” (via Newsweek).

Wallace turned down an offer to work at his stepfather's former network

Bill Leonard wanted to work for CBS as early as 1937, when he graduated from Dartmouth (via Christian Science Monitor). They hired him in 1945, and until his retirement in 1982, Bill Leonard remained a CBS man (via The New York Times). First as a radio-anchorman, then as one of the geniuses behind 60 Minutes, and finally as president, Leonard never jumped ship.  

But Chris Wallace, beyond his stunt as a 16-year-old intern, never worked with his stepfather’s network. Instead, Wallace made a name for himself with almost all of the competition: NBC, ABC, and, of course, Fox News (via The New York Times). It wasn’t until after Bill Leonard passed away that Chris Wallace fielded offers to join CBS.  

In 1999, CBS reached out. Would Wallace like to join the upcoming 60 Minutes II?  If he’d succeeded in taking the job, Chris would have had the opportunity to work with his father, Mike Wallace, on a groundbreaking program developed by his stepfather (via Town and Country). Back then, he couldn’t escape contractually from his job at ABC. In 2019, CBS reached out to him again, this time asking if he’d like to take over CBS Eve­ning News. Wallace declined, voluntarily this time. Fox News, it seems, will be the 72-year-old anchorman’s last pit-stop. 

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