TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.

Sander Vanocur of Montecito is the only panelist still alive from the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960.

By TJ Sullivan
Published: 09/24/2000
Ventura County Star

Sitting in a swivel chair, the tips of his fingers on his knees, Sander Vanocur turns the seat on its ball bearings, twists his neck and looks over his shoulder at an imaginary camera.

"I'm Sander Vanocur, NBC News," he says, glancing back at what is really the glass door of his artist studio in Montecito.

He's recalling one of the more memorable times he's said those words.

Forty years ago, in a similar swivel of a chair on Sept. 26, 1960, Vanocur entered one of the more significant chapters in the tale of American politics, introducing himself to 70 million people, nearly 40 percent of all Americans at the time, all of whom were tuned to CBS to witness the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history.

It was the first time the U.S. Congress had made possible direct-to-TV debates, responding to a trend that began with 4 million televisions and antennas in 1950 and blossomed into a wiry rooftop crop 10 years later, when there were 44 million TV sets.

Now, Vanocur, the last surviving panelist from that debate and one of only two on-air participants alive -- the other is Howard K. Smith who moderated -- is preparing for an anniversary celebration at the same WBBM studio in Chicago. On Tuesday he will gather there with the debate's moderator, Smith, and its director, Don Hewitt, to talk about what happened and to remember the other panelists, Charles Warren of Mutual News, Stuart Novins of CBS News and Bob Fleming of ABC News.

But, despite the significance of that evening in 1960, Vanocur, 72, treats his role modestly, almost assigning greater distinction to the artist studio he has the privilege of inhabiting, a single room used by his late father-in-law, the famous watercolorist Standish Backus.

Before sitting down to discuss the debate, Vanocur proudly waves his hand to introduce the Backus paintings on the wall, images from an era gone by. He then slips slowly into talk of that night 40 years ago when the "Andy Griffith Show" and "Hennesey" were replaced by an hour of questions and answers between two of the most intriguing men in U.S. politics -- Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

A journalist who got his start in newspapers, Vanocur had less than three years of experience as a television news reporter when he was handpicked by NBC President Bob Kintner to be the network's representative on the panel of four men who would question the presidential hopefuls.

At the age of 32 he became part of a remember-when moment in U.S. politics, the ingredients of a legend -- Nixon's face glistening with perspiration and Kennedy's charisma beaming into living rooms and the hearts of women voters across America. It was the night the "blah, blah, blah" of presidential campaigns was fused with the "ooh la la" of television.

Yet, as tempting as it might be to puff up his own role in the event, Vanocur downplays it, painting himself as a watcher and nothing more.

"As time goes by, people tend to build these things into great moments, which they may have been, but the participants weren't," Vanocur said. "I keep remembering an old line from the theater. A method actor was trying to find out what his motivation was and I'm not sure if it was Noel Coward or Spencer Tracy who told this young man to 'Just memorize your lines and try not to bump into the furniture.' "

So, he watched his step and memorized his questions.

The questions were his greatest worry. If one of his fellow panelists used one of his first, he'd have to scramble for an alternate. But that didn't happen.

Vanocur, who had written his questions on the train ride to Chicago two nights earlier, was honest and without mercy. Some have called his questions the most difficult of the night for Nixon, who must have seen them swinging toward him like a clock pendulum as the microphone bounced from panelist to panelist.

It began with Fleming of ABC asking Kennedy about Nixon's characterization of the senator as "naive and at times immature." Then Novins of CBS asked Nixon whether his experience was "as an observer, or as a participant, or as an initiator of policy-making?" When the microphone swung to Vanocur, a crucial point was struck.

"Republican campaign slogans … say it's experience that counts … implying that you've had more governmental executive decision-making experience than your opponent," Vanocur said, introducing his question to Nixon.

Vanocur then contrasted that slogan -- experience counts -- with a comment made several weeks before the debate by President Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was asked in August to provide one example of a Nixon idea that had been adopted, but replied "If you give me a week I might think of one. I don't remember."

Vanocur asked Nixon to clarify which version of his experience was correct -- the message put out by Republican campaign leaders, or President Eisenhower's implication that Nixon did little.

Nixon's reply was unfortunate.

"Well, I would suggest, Mr. Vanocur, that if you know the president, that was probably a facetious remark," Nixon said.

He continued to answer, but the damage had been done. Nixon had tried to downplay the biting commentary of the president, who hadn't sought to retract or clarify it in the weeks that followed.

It's one of the most memorable moments of the entire debate, one that still lives in America's memory. One colleague told Vanocur it was the toughest question he'd ever heard a reporter ask a politician. The cartoon series "The Simpsons" even parodied it in a brief scene in a 1993 episode. But Vanocur doesn't characterize it as anything more than an essential question.

"It just stuck out like a sore thumb," said Vanocur, who keeps a videotaped copy of "The Simpsons" episode on his bookshelf. "It had to be asked. It was central to the campaign. I didn't feel like I was facing him down. I just was curious about this slogan, 'It's experience that counts.' "

Vanocur's other two questions in the debate also highlighted contradictions, including one for Kennedy.

Vanocur reminded Kennedy of his claim that he could push important bills through Congress as president, and then pointed out that as a senator Kennedy had been unable to do that, despite his candidacy and an overwhelming Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate.

Kennedy blamed Republicans and the Republican president's threat of a veto.

Still, despite being a part of the debate, sitting there and seeing the faces, feeling the energy, Vanocur says he "didn't have a clue" who won, or what it all would mean to the campaign and the future of politics.

He still doesn't know who won.

"I was trained in a school of reporting that was best expressed by the late Eddie Lahey of the late Chicago Daily News -- 'Every good general assignment reporter should have the depth of a one-pound box of candy,' " Vanocur said. "We didn't have deep thoughts in those days.

"In the first place, as is often the case … sometimes eyewitnesses are the last persons to really know what happened. This had never been done before. Television really had not been that big a factor in the campaign that far. But it certainly was that night and thereafter."

At the 25th anniversary celebration in Chicago, Vanocur characterized it in a similar way.

"There are things I should have been aware of," he said in 1985. "I should have been aware that here were two men, the first products of the World War II generation, the first two presidential candidates in this century to be born of this century -- Adlai Stevenson had been born in 1900, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been born in the last century. I should have thought this was the beginning of the new age, political television … I didn't."