Political Reporter Takes a Sideline View for '92 : Television: Sander Vanocur is retiring after almost 30 years of network news. He notes change not only in the coverage of campaigns but its effect.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The networks won't be on the campaign cutting edge this election year, according to veteran ABC News political reporter Sander Vanocur, who is retiring from network news this week after nearly 30 years on the tube.

Instead, CNN and C-SPAN will be where political junkies like the 63-year-old Vanocur will be tuning in next month to watch the 1992 presidential campaign unfold.

"I never met a campaign I didn't like," Vanocur said during a phone interview Friday from his Santa Barbara home. "But I think the networks are cutting back and there's going to be a vacuum this year."

On the eve of yet another presidential primary season, Vanocur recalls a time not so many years ago when there was virtually no TV at all on the campaign trail.

"In '60 and '64 (for the Wisconsin primary), we had a single camera in the Milwaukee Journal city room and I wrote the figures with chalk on a blackboard," he remembered. "As my friend Russell Baker said, 'In the age of TV, what happened two weeks ago is as old as the pharaohs.' "

Television has the technology and youth necessary to deliver the finest political reporting ever, but Vanocur despairs that it will happen, chiefly because the medium has, in fact, become the message and media stars like Peter Jennings and Dan Rather are more familiar to most Americans than the candidates.

"The networks have people who (are) just as bright and work just as hard as my generation, but television has come to so dominate politics that the very act of political reporting becomes part of it," said Vanocur. "I'm not sure that's good or bad. It's just a fact."

Like many of his generation, Vanocur's roots were in newspapers, not broadcasting. He remembers his first byline piece published in February, 1951, in the London Observer, where he was a stringer before joining the Manchester Guardian as a staff writer.

"Young people who entered journalism after Watergate wanted to be Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein," he said. "They wanted to do the Lord's and John Peter Zenger's work, to be avenging angels. My generation went into newspaper work because, in the immortal words of Boston Globe (editor) Marty Nolan, 'Journalism is inside work and there's no heavy lifting.' "

And there was even less heavy lifting in broadcast journalism, Vanocur discovered in 1957 when he left the New York Times to join NBC. Besides, if one were clever enough to land a job as White House correspondent, one could schmooze with some fairly powerful people. Vanocur became as close to the Kennedy clan before and after the 1960 presidential campaign as any reporter in America.

He has not yet seen "JFK," Oliver Stone's current big-screen indictment of the Warren Commission report, but he does have an opinion.

"I have always been a greater believer in random insanity than in conspiracy," he said, "but after 31 years in Washington, from what I've read, I think Oliver Stone is perfectly entitled to raise any questions he wants, and I can't wait to see the movie."

He was also in the nation's capital during Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon, but he refuses to play the Deep Throat guessing game that has become nearly as fascinating a long-running Washington riddle as the question of Kennedy's assassination.

He does recognize two subtle but significant political results of Watergate that continue to affect the nation nearly 20 years after the fact, however.

"Watergate was terribly damaging to the Republican Party and, almost unnoticed, it stopped the rise of Republican state legislatures in this country. That would have put Republicans in charge of the states.

"Secondly, it brought in the congressional class of '74: Democrats who forever changed how politics were conducted in this country."

Throughout the 1960s, power was vested in a few congressional leaders who exploited the seniority system on Capitol Hill, consistently overriding dissent even from the congressional majority, according to Vanocur. The post-Watergate reforms altered, if not totally destroyed, that power monopoly, he said.

In his final years at ABC, Vanocur shifted away from political reporting and into business news, hosting ABC News' weekly "Business Times" which he characterized as "an orphan" that the network has failed to nurture with the same resources it pours into such high-profile shows as "Nightline" or "PrimeTime Live."

He hopes to resurrect a Pacific Rim version of the business news show for syndication, along with a second project that he loosely describes as a consumer news program for people over 50.

But his first love will remain politics. While he may not participate on camera this year, he will be watching closely, he said.

During his time in the early days of broadcast news, when he was a political correspondent for Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the fledgling "NBC Nightly News," Vanocur remembers being able to bring back tape from the primaries, hone his scripts and edit and re-edit for up to a week or longer before actually putting the finished segment on "The Huntley-Brinkley Report."

"What we had was more time," he said. "Now, we have the capacity because of technology to be almost everywhere almost at once and, because we are there, that in itself becomes significant.

"And, because everything's significant, nothing is significant."

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