Four years ago I was taken aback by an unexpected invitation to a luncheon at the Harvard Club in New York City. From prior experience I figured the food would be mediocre at best, but since I'd been asked to break bread with the hitherto mysterious octogenarian president of the Mormon Church, and because the invitation was tendered on the president's behalf by a Jewish-owned public relations firm, it was too tantalizing to pass up.
I'd been trying for decades to get some top Mormon leader, any top Mormon leader to talk to 60 MINUTES about himself and his church, and I'd regularly been turned down. Mormon friends of mine had volunteered to put in a good word; they'd let the Salt Lake hierarchy understand that an investigation was not what I had in mind, but rather an exploration of what kind of individual led the Mormons, how did he get his job, what about Mormons and polygamy, what about Mormons and black folks, and did the leaders of the Mormon Church really believe that tale about Joseph Smith finding himself anointed at the age of fourteen on a farm in upstate New York? Merely the kind of nosy questions we regularly put to all manner of highly placed figures on 60 MINUTES. We hardly expected "Yes" for an answer, any more than we expected "Yes" for an answer to our similar invitations to the Pope of the... Catholic Church.
So I was totally unprepared for a cordial, even a sunny greeting at the luncheon from Gordon B. Hinckley. And I was still hesitant when, following his postprandial remarks, he threw the floor open for questions from any and all of us. Timorously, I wondered aloud to him if he might entertain the notion of an interview-cum-profile for 60 MINUTES. President Hinckley's bespectacled eyes literally twinkled as he good-naturedly allowed that it sounded like an appealing notion, that after all he really had nothing to hide, and that he imagined he'd have little difficulty handling whatever queries I loosed at him. He'd heard and answered worse, he was sure, during his young missionary years in London where he'd taken on whatever the skeptics and nonbelievers had thrown at him in his Hyde Park appearances and/or confrontations.
So all the necessary details and arrangements were quickly made. He put at our disposal just about anyone we wanted to talk with from the Salt Lake infrastructure, he put up no objections to our talking to his critics inside and outside the church, he gave us all the camera time we needed, and when we asked for a second sit-down some weeks after the first, so that we could put some questions we'd missed in the first go-around, he was perfectly agreeable. It turned out he was as good as his promised word back at the Harvard Club.
As a result, we came away with a fascinating profile of a genuinely remarkable man. Which confounded more than a few Mormon friends of mine who let me know, later, how chary they'd been when they first learned what I'd been up to. Their original take: Hinckley's going to talk to Wallace? Is he dotty? Doesn't he understand what can happen when 60 MINUTES sets out to do one of its hatchet jobs?
Well, what happened was that my 60 MINUTES colleagues and I learned, from the time we spent with Gordon Hinckley and his wife, from his staff, and from other Mormons who talked to us, that this warm and thoughtful and decent and optimistic leader of the Church fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets. I know that may sound more than a trifle corny coming from a dyed-in-the-wool, jaded, New York-based reportorial cynic. But it was difficult not to arrive at that conclusion after talking not only with him, but about him with hard-headed folks such as Orrin Hatch and Bill Marriott and Steve Young and Dave Checketts. The last-named individual runs Madison Square Garden in New York and was one of the Mormons who had worried about what could result if President Hinckley laid himself open to our abrasions. Checketts was so surprised when he saw our piece on the air that he told me (I mention this only in the interest of full disclosure) to call him any time I had trouble getting tickets to a fight or a basketball game at the Garden.
Further in the interest of full disclosure, as an 81-year-old myself, perhaps I can be excused for recalling the exchange I had with President Hinckley near the end of that 60 MINUTES profile.
WALLACE: There are those who say: "This is a gerontocracy... this is a church run by old men."He is far from dotty. As you read on you'll find an agile, thoughtful, and engaging mind bent on persuading us to ruminate, along with him, on old-fashioned values: by name, Virtue and Integrity.
HINCKLEY: Isn't it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head? A man who isn't blown about by every wind of doctrine?
WALLACE: Absolutely, as long as he's not dotty.
HINCKLEY: Thank you for the compliment.
Since President Gordon B. Hinckley's book "Standing for Something" was released to books stores nationally February 15, it has been making history.
Publishers Weekly, an international magazine for book publishing and book selling listed "Standing for Something as No. 11 in its best seller's category for hardcover non-fiction. This is up from No. 12 last week. Jana Riess, religious book review editor for Publishers Weekly, said that this is a historical event.
"It's a major milestone for a small religious group, considered by many as a cult, to be able to compete with books in all categories," Riess said.
"Standing for Something," has gone to printing eight times to meet public demand, according to Will Weisser, of Random House publishing. Weisser said Random House has printed 394,000 copies in the books first six weeks of existence.
Weisser, who usually takes care of publicity for authors that receive recognition, said President Hinckley wants to keep a low profile. "Not every one does that," Weisser said, "I think it's a wonderful thing for publishers and for the church."
Other best sellers lists featuring "Standing for Something" this week are 40th USA Today (fifth appearance, up from 49th last week), and fourth in New York Times Advice and How to category (second week at fourth).
President Hinckley has not released an official statement about the success of his book, but in response to a question following his address to the National Press Club on March 8 in Washington D.C., he said that he guessed the preface by Mike Wallace is what is selling the book.
Q. A questioner writes: Why did you write a book which is not about your church? What are you trying to accomplish through this book?
A. President Hinckley: To see if it could be done. Well, we wanted to reach out further to other people. I talk of values in this book, virtues. I talk about America. I talk about a lot of these things that I think are very, very important. I felt that the people of this nation -- perhaps some of them -- might be helped by it. Now it isn't a book of theology, but is a book of virtues and values that are a part of theology. The teachings of the gospel bear fruit in the virtuous lives of the people. By dealing with those lives I hope to accomplish some good in reaching out to people who may not be interested in our theology but would be interested in our position and stance on some of these values that are of everlasting benefit to this nation and people across the world.