A life seriously damaged by smoking

Jeffrey Wigand still can’t believe he is the main character in a Hollywood blockbuster. “Are you kidding me? I didn’t think I’d survive.”

It has been more than five years since the man now known as the first tobacco industry whistleblower became the most senior executive to break ranks. But neither “The Insider”, the Oscar-nominated film starring Al Pacino, nor the publicity that surrounded Wigand’s crusade against big tobacco companies has bestowed on him even the slightest touch of celebrity.

I expected to meet a bitter and emotionally withered man who, after an infamous 1995 interview with CBS’s Mike Wallace, would carefully measure every word he uttered to a reporter. But I couldn’t have been more wrong…

Uncle Walter

Delayed by a raging New York storm, Walter Cronkite deftly opens the door of his spacious office at the CBS Black Rock television headquarters. “Good morning!” he cheerfully greets his small staff, then adds, matter-of-factly, “But I enjoy saying ‘Good evening’ much more.”

For 19 years, this statesman of the airwaves brought the world into the living rooms of millions of Americans. And, though he stepped down from the “CBS Evening News” in 1981, he remains “the most trusted man” in the US, one whom many fellow journalists call the “original anchorman”.

At 83, the silver-haired legend has allowed little of his imposing figure to succumb to ageing, and his gravelly voice still rings with authority. His schedule is as busy as ever, full of speaking engagements, interviews, high-profile events and journeys across the US and around the world. Television still occupies much of his time — albeit as a viewer — but he’s not impressed with what he sees today on America’s evening news…

It’s show time

Conan O’Brien has no regrets that the longest election in US history is over. True, Campaign 2000 and the 36 agonising days that followed were a gift from heaven for late-night TV hosts. They were courted by both Al Gore and George W. Bush, who made “nice-guy” appearances aimed at winning young voters (keener viewers of late comedy shows than the prime-time evening news). At the same time they had a ball firing jokes at the candidates.

But now, with a new president in office, “it gets even better”, says O’Brien, beaming at the thought of the mocking monologues probably being born in the writing room of his show, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, as we speak.

“Presidents get funnier all the time,” he says. “Nixon was a lot of fun for comedians — a good target. But Clinton may be the funniest. The bonus when you are finally president is that you don’t have to come on these dreadful shows any more”…