Moderator Chris Wallace Hopes to Be "As Invisible As Possible" at Tonight's Presidential Debate

Annie Goldsmith
·5 mins read

From Town & Country

Tonight marks the long-anticipated first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio; Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, will moderate. Wallace, however, is not your average Fox talking head—a group known for their unwavering support of the President and his party. He's a bit more of a wild card.

“I view my job as being the cop on the beat, walking around with a nightstick and trying to keep people honest—both Republicans and Democrats,” the anchor told Town & Country in 2018.

This "bad cop" attitude prompted something akin to a feud between Wallace and Trump, who expects unwavering support from his favorite network. When Wallace moderated the August 2015 Republican primary debate, Trump lashed out against the anchor.

“The great Mike Wallace was a friend of mine,” Trump said, referring to Wallace's father, the late CBS News reporter. “He was a tough cookie and he was great. And the son is only a tiny action of Mike, believe me.” Wallace, however, brushed off the claim, saying simply, “One of us has daddy issues, and it isn’t me.”

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

The irony, though, is that Wallace admires the President, unlike many other cable news anchors (excluding, of course, his colleagues at Fox)—or at least he did two years ago.

“There are things that trouble me, but I have faith in the American government and the separation of powers, and so far it seems institutions are holding,” he said of the administration at the time.

So which Chris will win at tonight's debate? Bad cop or Fox News loyalist? Perhaps neither, as Wallace has said he hopes to be “as invisible as possible” while moderating.

“I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of, ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other,' ” he noted. "But if I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate. Who was the moderator?’”

But, if you do happen to notice the moderator at tonight's debate, and become somewhat curious about his origins, here's some background on Chris Wallace.

Broadcast journalism is the Wallace family business.

Chris's father, Mike Wallace, was the longtime host of CBS's 60 Minutes Sunday news show. However, Chris did not have a relationship with his father until the 1990s. It was Bill Leonard, Chris's stepfather and President of CBS News, whom the budding journalist called "Dad." Leonard got Chris interested in news and even helped him get a job assisting Walter Cronkite at the 1964 Republican National Convention. He called Leonard “the single most important person in my life.”

It wasn't until Leonard died in 1994 that Wallace became close with his father. Chris was recently divorced and his father was also single; the pair spoke nightly and rebuilt their relationship. Now, at 72, Wallace is out from under his father's shadow.

Photo credit: Fox News
Photo credit: Fox News

“I’ve always in my career been the Kid,” Chris Wallace said to TIME. “I’m kind of the elder statesman now, which I kind of enjoy.”

As for his own family, Wallace has four children from his first marriage to Elizabeth Farrell, whom he would eventually divorce. In 1999, he married his current wife, Lorraine Smothers (who was first married to comedian Dick Smothers), and gained two step-children. They now have six grandchildren.

Wallace has spent his whole life reporting the news.

Starting with that first job assisting Walter Cronkite, Wallace was hooked on political journalism. After attending Harvard, Wallace turned down Yale Law School (where he would have been classmates with Hillary Clinton) to work for The Boston Globe. He eventually moved to TV news, starting at local stations until NBC promoted him to their Washington, D.C. bureau.

Photo credit: NBC NewsWire - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC NewsWire - Getty Images

Wallace rose quickly, becoming the network's chief White House correspondent, and, in 1987, host of the famed Meet the Press. A year later, ABC plucked the anchor for their new news magazine, PrimeTime Live. After some conflict at ABC, Wallace left as soon as his contract was up. In 2003, his friend Brit Hume introduced him to Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News.

Wallace's time at Fox has not been without its hiccups. He has clashed with other anchors, and no longer appears on the network's morning program, Fox & Friends. He cried when he learned of Ailes' sexual assault allegations. (In 2016 23 women made sexual assault allegations against Ailes, after which he resigned.) But Wallace has said that Fox News will be the last job he has in journalism.

He's no stranger to debate moderating.

In 2015, Wallace, alongside other Fox News personalities, moderated the first Republican presidential primary debate. In 2016, Wallace became the first Fox News host to moderate a general election debate, serving as a referee between Trump and Hillary Clinton. There, he garnered praise from both sides of the aisle, from Oprah Winfrey to Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal's deputy editorial page editor.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

That is, Wallace was praised by everyone except Trump himself, who is now preemptively questioning the merit of the upcoming debate. “It’ll be unfair, I have no doubt about it,” the President told Fox News host Brian Kilmeade last Thursday morning. “He’ll be controlled by the radical left. That’s what—they control him.”

Wallace has, however, received more pushback this time around, specifically for the debate's topics. Some liberals have criticized that climate change is not a listed topic, yet the seemingly partisan "Race and Violence in Our Cities" is.

How large of a role Wallace will play in this year's debate is yet to be seen. But, at least in 2016, the anchor took the role of moderator "very seriously." He noted prior to the Trump-Clinton debate, "This is not a TV show. This is part of civics, the constitution, if you will, in action, because this is helping millions of people decide who we're going to elect as the next president."

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