“Sander Vanocur’s passing marks the end of an era. He was the last participant in the ground-breaking debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. He was also the last survivor of a quartet of NBC reporters, all of them quite good, who roamed the floors of the national political conventions in the 1960s and 1970s. (The others were John Chancellor, Frank McGee and Edwin Newsman),” said Lou Cannon in an email he sent from his home in Summerland.
The well-known journalist, a former senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post during President Ronald Reagan’s administration and prolific biographer of Mr. Reagan, died Sept. 16 at the age of 91 in Santa Barbara.
Mr. Cannon and Mr. Vanocur became good friends after they met at a political convention.
“But I came to really know him in the mid-1970s when Sandy was temporarily out of work, and Ben Bradlee hired him as a television critic and columnist at The Washington Post,” said Mr. Cannon. “Sandy wrote some excellent columns for the paper. We became good friends, and that friendship continued when Sandy moved to Montecito, and my wife Mary and I moved to Summerland in 1990.
“As a journalist, Sandy was skillful, skeptical and diligent. Everyone remembers that he asked a tough question of Nixon at his debate with JFK. But he asked an equally tough question of JFK, who handled it so well that no one remembers it,” said Mr. Cannon.
The Nixon question referred to President Eisenhower’s comment that
it would take him a week to think of a contribution that Nixon, his vice president, had made to his administration, according to Mr. Cannon.
“Sandy asked Nixon about the statement, a question he should have anticipated. Instead, Nixon appeared flummoxed and finally said he thought Ike was being facetious,” said Mr. Cannon, adding that “as a friend, Sandy was witty, interesting and loyal. Mary and I valued our friendship with Sander and his wife Virginia. He was a big figure, and he will be missed.”
For many years, Mr. Vanocur was on the board of directors for the Channel City Club in Santa Barbara.
“Sandy was a good person. While personifying the ultimate in his profession, he devoted himself and his talents to the Channel City Club and to the betterment of our community,” said Edward Birch, former chairman of the Channel City Club board of directors. “Good guy to boot. I loved chatting with him, though because I was in awe of him as a highly regarded media pro, I was a bit timid around him. Wish now I would not have been. What a valuable resource he was to our CCC Speakers Program,”.
In 2001, a month after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Vanocur and Mr. Cannon spoke at a forum titled “How Can Citizens Support Their Government During a Crisis?” sponsored by the Media Committee of Santa Barbara at the Veterans Memorial Building.
During his short speech, Mr. Vanocur “blasted presidential press secretary Ari Fleishcher for telling Americans to mute criticism of the government,” according to an article in the News-Press.
“I don’t think we need advice from the president’s secretary on what we can and can’t say,” said Mr. Vanocur, who drew the biggest response “with a pointed jab at United Airlnes, which recently announced it was ending 65 years of service to Santa Barbara — yet ordered 20 corporate jets carrying a $600 million price tag from a French manufacturer.
“He said the airline had received $802 million of the $5 billion in cash grants offered by Congress to counter the financial drubbing U.S. airlines suffered when air travel was suspended in the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
“Ask Congress why United Airlines is spending money to grow while laying workers off at home,” he said as the crowd cheered. “Ask if it is unpatriotic to lay off workers when a nation faces a crisis.”
Mr. Vanocur was among the last people to interview Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy was assassinated shortly after winning the Democratic primary in his run for president in 1968.
In 1967, Mr. Vanocur interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, 11 months before King was assassinated.
As a correspondent for ABC News, Mr. Vanocur was the moderator at another historic debate in the 1984 vice presidential contest between George H. W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president from a major party.
Politics and war took up much of his time, but the civil rights issue was his favorite subject to cover because he believed in the cause, said his son, Chris Vanocur.
Born in Cleveland, Mr. Vanocur moved to Peoria, Ill., when he was 12 and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in 1950. He also attended the London School of Economics.
Along with his stints at The Washington Post and ABC News, he worked for the Manchester Guardian, The New York Times, NBC News, PBS and the History Channel.
The longtime Montecito resident is survived by his wife, Virginia Backus Vanocur of Montecito; his son, Christopher of Salt Lake City; and his step-daughter, Daphne Wood Hicks of New York City. He was preceded in death by his son Nicholas, from a previous marriage to the late Edith Pick, fashion designer and writer.