Jim Vance made people comfortable.
He also made them smarter and better informed.
Jim Vance died Saturday. He was 75, my age. For almost 4 years we were professional partners, co-anchoring the news together on WRC-TV (Channel 4) in Washington from 1985 to 89.
There are so many things to say about “Vance,” which is how he was known to friends, co-workers, and viewers across the Washington area. His last name was enough to make him immediately identifiable.
Everything about Jim Vance was immediately identifiable.
The first time I saw him was, appropriately enough, on television. I was visiting Washington and at 6 o’clock turned on the local news and there was the most electric, the most attractive, the hottest news anchor pair in television history: Jim Vance and Sue Simmons.
Their electricity and attractiveness went way beyond their good looks, which were spectacular. They were smart. They were serious about giving their viewers real news, and did it well. But they were also sassy, and enjoyed the fun of sassing one another, which became fun for all within eye- or earshot.
They were, as the saying goes, “comfortable in their own skin,” and they made you comfortable watching them. They were also both African-American, perfectly appropriate to a Black-majority city, but the pairing apparently made some executives at NBC uncomfortable. So, Sue was moved to New York, where she anchored at WNBC-TV for decades, successfully, and if I may say so, sassily. But aside from the sharply acerbic Jack Cafferty, her always-White anchor-partners seemed anti-synchronous.
Vance anchored at WRC-TV for 45 years, an unmatched arc broken only by his months-long retreat first to the Betty Ford Center, and then at home, breaking his addiction to cocaine. It was this stumble, shared with his wonderfully-supportive audience, that allowed me to slip into town as his temporary sub.
I was on the run from WNBC-TV in New York which was trying to breach my contract by taking away my “columnist’s” prerogatives – self-assignment and a regular allotment of time in the air. I just wanted out. They just wanted to be bossholes, until suddenly the crisis broke in Washington. Vance was on the Disabled List, no one knew for how long.
The NBC idea was, “he’ll fill in while Vance is gone, and we’ll deal with him when Vance is back.” I don’t think they meant “deal with him” in a nice way.
But while he was at home, rebuilding his strength to return to the news, Vance watched, and liked what he saw. Liked me. Liked the idea of working with me. Which us what he told management at WRC.
And so we did.
Like most forms of spoken presentation, anchoring the news is essentially musical, tone and tempo are definitive. Co-anchoring the news means harmonizing tone and sustaining tempo in constant collaboration with your partner. One talks, and stops. Then the other talks, and stops. And the beat goes on. The pause between stop and start cannot be too long. But stepping on one another’s lines is even worse. Such little glitches are almost inevitable, but over time, teamwork smooths things out.
Except with Vance, I caught his cadence from his first utterance, and when I handed off, he “hit the hole” like Jim Brown. And I knew exactly the moment he was handing off to me. It was indeed “like music.”
There is the famous distinction between “smart smarts” and “street smarts.” I’ve never known anyone else who, in College Board test terms, “got 800s on both.”
Vance received national recognition for his live coverage of the 1977 hostage-holding siege by Hanafi Muslims in Washington, and in 1982, of the crash of an Air Florida plane into the Potomac River. His ability to articulate the innumerable details of an ongoing event, while always explaining the context was outstanding. But Vance could write as well as he could talk.
His frequent commentaries focused on small-scale events, sometimes local scenes or
personal anecdotes captured in front-porch prose. But they led to larger points, about life as well as life in DC.
This was reinforced by Vance’s delivery, laconic, bemused, aware. He could make an epigram with an eyebrow.
Vance knew DC’s streets, where they came from and where they could lead. He could follow these trails and intersections to coherent, colloquial, and richly informed stories on the news.
When he spoke about his own life-long process of recovery, Vance not only credited his family, doctors and the Betty Ford program, but openly accounted for the debits — his high life as a celebrity and the lows of his periodic depression. He was always bravely authentic and always authentically himself.
Most Washingtonians will always link Vance to my successor Doreen Gentzler who spent 28 years of glorious collaboration with him at the Channel 4 News anchor desk. I can only guess at the magnitude of the loss she feels.
The only compensation: Vance memories will stick around. And so will the pleasure they give.
As he did for our viewers, Vance made me comfortable, made me smarter and better informed, and the memory of him talking and stopping, and me talking and stopping, and the silent looks we exchanged when either one of us hit one out of the park (or fouled one off our foot) will light up my life as long as it lasts.
2 big news stories headline our HERE & THERE schedule for this week.
On Monday, the superb reporter Tony Cheng of CGTN (China’s global English-language news channel) describes what he has just left behind him, the devastation of Mosul, Iraq. The destruction of the Old City, the historic, iconic heart of town, is almost total. There are no buildings standing, no people remaining, just a lot of rubble and unexploded ordnance and booby-trap bombs. What’s next for the survivors and for Iraq itself is in the hands of a government and military and police forces, for whom a one word description might be “overmatched.”
Tuesday, we go to Brazil, where the devastation isn’t physical, but political. Former President “Lula” da Silva has been sentenced to 9 ½ years for corruption. Incumbent President Michel Temer seems almost certain to face criminal charges. Virtually all the powerful people in Brazilian politics and commerce have already been tainted or are under active investigation. Reporter Mauricio Savarese of the Associated Press Sao Paulo bureau sorts through the wreckage.
Wednesday is City Council Day in Santa Fe, so we have the day off, but on Thursday, we return with Sylvia Ulloa of NM in Depth to that astonishing invented scandal, which killed off 15 mostly very-long-serving New Mexico social service agencies. The state Department of Human Services accused the proprietors of fraud, even though the DHS’ own auditors found no evidence to support the charge. 2 State Attorneys General agreed with the auditors: there was no fraud. But the State continues to dun for (drastically reduced) claims of damages, which means we taxpayers continue to pay for a shameless exercise of injustice.
Our artist-in-residence Amy Marash is heading off for her almost-annual horse-trek across Mongolia. We will miss her and her wonderful illustrations, and will anxiously await her return.
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