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The Sunday Conversation: Chris Wallace’s convention approach

Chris Wallace, Host of Fox News Sunday, gets ready for his day at the Tampa Bay Times Forum before the start of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, 2012.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” spoke to us about convention politics and good Italian reds on the eve of last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. He will also be the network’s podium correspondent at the Democratic conclave this week in Charlotte, N.C.

Did you see any evidence of Mitt Romney understanding common folks when you visited the Romneys at home for Fox News?

Yeah. Clearly they’re involved in a charm offensive, and that’s why they invited us up there in the first place. And they want people to understand that he’s not some corporate raider or Gordon Gekko but that he’s a compassionate and sensitive individual. The fact that he’s nice to his own family and gets along with them doesn’t say a lot. But the fact that he talked about shopping at Costco, the fact that they don’t have maids and cooks but they clean their own house, certainly it doesn’t speak in a deep way to it, but I think it gives you a sense that he’s not as out of touch as he’s been portrayed.

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Your first-ever Republican convention was in 1964, when you assisted Walter Cronkite. Apart from the obvious, what are some of the behind-the-scenes differences with conventions today?

Back in ’64, real business was still done at conventions. You’d have fights over the platform, you’d have fights, I can remember in 1964 at the Democratic convention, about which delegation was going to be seated to represent Mississippi — one was the African American delegation and one was the lily-white delegation. So there was real drama happening at the conventions. With all the primaries now, much less business is done, and they’ve turned into packaged TV shows. But having said that, there are interesting things that happen. It’s interesting to see how the candidate, either directly with his acceptance speech or through the speeches by his wife and his supporters, is going to try to get a message out and appeal to various voting blocs. I think it’s still a very interesting political exercise, but it’s certainly different than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Do you think much of it, for both conventions, is preaching to the choir?

Well, no. I think two things — one is you certainly want to rally your base. But you hope to have done that already by the time you get to the convention, because this is a national stage, a national platform, and really what you’re trying to do is move to the center, both parties, and appeal to those key undecided or persuadable swing voters in the 10 or 12 key states that are going to decide this election.

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As a Fox host, I’m guessing you’re more warmly received at the Republican convention. Is that right? Do you guys get better access at the Republican convention?

It’s interesting. I remember at the Obama convention in Denver in 2008, he held this big acceptance speech inside the football stadium, Invesco Field, and I, as the podium correspondent for Fox, was going to be right near the stage, I think second row, and surrounded by 85,000 pretty committed Democrats. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as warmly received or had as many people ask for autographs and to take pictures. I bet in the end, celebrity trumps perceived ideology. I’m on the news side. I’m not an opinion guy, I’m not especially conservative; in fact, I’m a registered Democrat. I certainly thought that was the way I was going to be perceived on the field, but what people really were acting on was the fact that they’d seen me on television.

Speaking of celebrities, I understand you recently visited Obama supporter George Clooney in Lake Como, Italy. How did you guys become friends?

I interviewed him in April after he came back from a trip to South Sudan, and we hit it off. Of course, his dad was a newsman and so was mine, and he invited me to come spend some time at his villa in Lake Como, and it was great.

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Do you guys agree on much?

We agree on pasta, we agree on good Italian reds, we agree on the beauties of Italy. And as far as politics are concerned, he’s a committed liberal. I would not say I’m a committed conservative; I’d like to think I’m middle of the road, but he’s certainly to the left of me. We disagreed about politics, but we did it in a very civil fashion, and one of the things that we both said is that it’s too bad that the political discourse in America has become so uncivil and that people demonize each other.

Why are you a registered Democrat?

Because I live in Washington, D.C., and it’s basically a one-party town, and if you don’t vote in the Democratic primary you have no say in who’s going to get elected. I’m talking about things like City Council and mayor.

When you interviewed Romney, you asked him whether he’d been thinking about his dad much recently and what would he say. Have you been thinking about your dad, Mike Wallace, or your stepdad, former CBS News President Bill Leonard?

Well, I certainly have been thinking about my dad a lot recently. He only died a few months ago, in April. I miss him every day. And coming to a convention, he, for a number of years, was the quintessential floor reporter and then he passed the torch to me in 1980, and I started as a floor reporter at NBC. Sure, I think about him all the time.

What about your stepdad?

He’s been gone now since 1994. My stepfather, I would say, has the greatest influence on me, personally and professionally, of anyone. My mother and stepfather were married when I was 9, and he just taught me so much about being a man, about the news business, about how to act properly and, I hope, with some class. I’d like to think the way I live my life is the way my stepfather taught me to.

Both men were part of an earlier generation that generally had the goal of objective news coverage. What do you think they would have said about dropping that goal at Fox?

We don’t think we have dropped it at Fox News. There are two sides to Fox News — there’s the news side and the opinion side, and I would defy anyone to watch “Fox News Sunday” and see any bias at all. I can think of a show about a month ago that I’m particularly proud of where the first segment I had Jack Lew, who’s the White House chief of staff, on the Sunday after the Supreme Court ruling about “Obamacare,” and I really went after him pretty hard about whether or not the mandate was a tax. And I think he felt he’d been put through the wringer. And I said to him, listen, don’t worry, because I was going to interview Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, right after, and I said, “It isn’t going to get any easier for him.” And he said, “I know that. That’s why we come on ‘Fox News Sunday’ routinely,” the White House does.

I like to think I follow the Vince Lombardi code, which is he doesn’t discriminate: He treats them all like dogs. Sure enough, I had Mitch McConnell on and I said, “You guys want to repeal ‘Obamacare.’ What are you going to do about the 30 million people who would lose health insurance?” And he finally said, “That’s not the issue.” So I think if you were to look at what we do on “Fox News Sunday” every week, I think I’m living up to the standards that my father and stepfather set for me a long time ago.

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