By Richard Deitsch
January 07, 2008

With his jaw clenched and the adrenalin flowing as if he were pitching the seventh game of the World Series, Roger Clemens pounced on the question from Mike Wallace. It came 250 seconds into his interview on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday night, and the response was pure defiance.

"My body never changed," Clemens declared, after Wallace read a passage from the Mitchell Report in which trainer Brian McNamee claimed he injected Clemens in the buttocks four to six times with testosterone during the middle of the 2000 season. "If he's putting that stuff up in my body, if what he's saying, which is totally false, if he's doing that to me, I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead. I should be pulling tractors with my teeth."

The long-running newsmagazine has always been a forum for rehabilitation, most famously when Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on Super Bowl Sunday in 1992 to address accusations about his extramarital affairs. On Sunday night in front of millions, Clemens took his pitch to the American public. He offered more than a dozen denials, uttering "never happened" or "it didn't happen" seven times in the first five minutes. It was compelling theater, and guaranteed to draw strong ratings -- especially with the NFL playoffs as a lead-in. Last week's repeat episode of 60 Minutes drew 12.4 million viewers, the fourth-highest rated program for the week.

CBS breathlessly promoted the interview during the afternoon. "What do you get when Mike Wallace interviews Roger Clemens?" an announcer bellowed. "The biggest sports interview in years." You also get a pal interviewing a pal. Wallace's friendship with the pitcher was a red flag the size of China and the skepticism was not limited to these shores: "Wallace has long been regarded as one of America's tougher interviewers, but, sitting across from his friend, how persistent and skeptical will he be?" asked the Sunday Times (UK).

He proved to be moderately skeptical. Over the course of his long career in broadcast journalism, Wallace has dueled with some of history's most memorable figures, from Yasser Arafet to Deng Xiaoping. At 89, his work rate has understandably slowed. He has morphed from the bulldog reporter who worked on double digit stories annually to his current role as the show's correspondent emeritus. In years past he would have likely handed the show's other signature get: an interview with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Instead, it was Lara Logan who fiercely interrogated Musharraf.

It is now up to the public to decipher how Clemens answered Wallace's queries, but the reporter asked the requisite questions during his interview at the pitcher's home in Katy, Texas. Columnists had demanded Wallace ask Clemens why he refused to discuss the steroid and HGH allegations with Mitchell. He did. "I listened to my counsel," said Clemens. "I was advised not to. A lot of the players didn't go down and talk to him. But if I would have known what this man, Brian McNamee had said in this report, I would have been down there in a heartbeat to take care of it."

Wallace asked Clemens why McNamee would betray him. "I don't know," Clemens said. "I'm so upset about it, how I treated this man and took care of him." Wallace asked Clemens what McNamee would gain from lying? "Evidently not going to jail," said Clemens. "Jail time for what?" Wallace asked in one of his best follow-up questions. "Well, I think he's been buying and movin' steroids," said Clemens.

There was other news from the interview: Clemens told Wallace he would "probably" not play again and that McNamee had called him prior to the release of the Mitchell Report to ask about fishing in Cabo. Footage showed Clemens working out with McNamee, which gave viewers some added insight into the relationship. (In a voiceover, Wallace said McNamee declined to talk to 60 Minutes). Not surprisingly, Clemens did not deviate from his on-mound persona. Wearing a purple dress shirt and drinking water throughout the interview, Clemens was angry and defiant, a strategy most crisis communication experts would have advised: You do not deviate from your long-established reputation.

Where Wallace came up short was in not pressing Clemens. He did not follow up on why McNamee injected Clemens with Lidocaine, and B12. Most glaringly, he did not press Clemens about his longtime friend Andy Pettitte, who validated McNamee's account regarding Pettitte's growth-hormone use. "Why would Brian McNamee tell the truth about Andy Pettitte and lie about you? Wallace asked. "Andy's case is totally separate," said Clemens. "I was shocked to learn about Andy's situation. Had no idea about it."

There was no follow-up question, and there needed to be. Clemens has long claimed Pettitte as the Tonto to his Lone Ranger, a relationship not fully explained to viewers on Sunday. To characterize Wallace as sympathetic to Clemens would be unfair, but there was a clear distinction between he and Logan in terms of aggressiveness. (CBS declined to make Wallace available to after Sunday's broadcast.)

The fabled primetime news magazine has been a bit soft on athletes in recent years. The late Ed Bradley's interview with Tiger Woods was more infomercial than informative. Recent interviews with Tom Brady and Derek Jeter revealed little, though CBS might not be at fault with the always-vanilla Jeter. Katie Couric pressed Alex Rodriguez on his contract situation, but never broached tabloid accusations of an extramarital affair on camera. Clemens clearly cherry-picked his interviewer, and it's important to note that such things also happen in the print world. It is up to each news organization to decide when a reporter's personal relationship with a subject compromises the integrity of an interview. CBS decided they wanted the Clemens interview, a sure-fire ratings bonanza, and so Wallace was the network's man, even if the man is a frequent habitant in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's suite and a self-admitted friend of Clemens.

This will not be Clemens' last interview. He is scheduled to face reporters in Houston on Monday. Then comes Jan. 16 where Clemens and Pettitte have been asked to testify before the House Oversight committee, along with their former trainer. Set your DVR: If everyone shows up -- and call us skeptical at this juncture -- that's can't-miss television.

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