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To live in this city is to move through a landscape of quasi-familiar faces, senators and philanthropists, anchormen and quarterbacks, people you see often enough to confuse with someone you’ve met at a bar or restaurant. They arrive and disappear in two- and four-year cycles, the regular movements of terms of office or military postings. Sometimes all Washington seems to be is a way station between other cities, other careers. The rarest citizen is one who comes from elsewhere and makes the city his own, conquers it, becomes the very definition of a Washingtonian. That was Jim Vance.
The day of his death, Mayor Muriel Bowser told Channel 4, “He’s been on NBC my entire life, so I don’t really know a time in Washington without Jim Vance.” He has been the anchor of my lifetime too, both when I lived here, and especially once I moved away.
I left a career in politics in 2003 to write, and as my teaching career took me to Iowa City, Tallahassee, Jackson, and now Tampa, the only constant was that anytime I came home, there was Vance. The other faces of the 6 p.m. news had moved to other channels, retired, passed away. Still, from my father-in-law’s leather chair in Potomac, I could tune in and see the voice of my life in the city.
To grow up in the Washington of the 1970s was to learn that national news was local news, too. You would see the great network correspondents of the era, back from Saigon and grabbing a meatloaf sandwich at Bligh’s Lunch near the White House. Men like Douglas Kiker of NBC News, one of Vance’s colleagues and mentors, had traded in their safari jackets for the East Coast establishment uniform—Brooks Brothers, Arthur Adler, J. Press. Not Vance. Vance was custom tailored. Vance had swag.
Whether it was the single, quarter-inch stripe on his otherwise white-collared shirts, or the gold hoop in his left ear that appeared in tribute to his friend the late Ed Bradley, Vance on television was the walking embodiment of cool. He was bespoke, original, and contrarian. In an era when consultants told anchors what to wear on air and news directors not to hire those who didn’t comply, Vance was the original voice that said, to hell with that. If you watched Vance, you know that is exactly what he would have said, taking great delight in emphasizing the minor swear within. Read that phrase aloud. You will hear it in Vance’s voice.
The last time I saw Jim Vance on TV was earlier this summer, as I passed through town on my way to a West Virginia vacation. His face adorns the new mural that overlooks Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, and he made some remarks to the assembled crowd. On the afternoon of his death, I re-watched the clip I’d seen and noticed a new detail. Even though cancer treatments had thinned his frame and left his voice a shallower, raspy instrument, he came to U Street that day with a pen in his pocket. He covered all seven of the city’s elected mayors. He was, first and foremost, a reporter.
I hope his face stays there forever. U Street NW is the perfect place for Vance, rooted in the core history of the city’s African-American community. It was, he told us that day, one of the first places he spent his own money when he moved to D.C. in 1969. The “black Broadway” is the perfect metaphor for Vance as a Washingtonian too, a living example of the city’s modern history. From the WOL-AM studios just off U Street, disc jockey Petey Greene talked a city down from the precipice in April 1968; Metro and revitalization of the corridor both came 20 years after they should have. U Street is evolution, a movement from Home Rule to No Taxation Without Representation, and like H Street NE and Georgia Avenue NW, one of a handful of city corridors that shuttles us through the uneasy parts of our past. These are streets that move from money to poverty, and too often, they are the dividing line between have and have not. Maybe the only one of us who always had guaranteed safe passage, as if he carried a card that declared I am a citizen of Washington, was Jim Vance.
When Warner Wolf left Channel 9 in the 1970s for the greener pastures of network television, his job was offered to the late Glenn Brenner, another icon. Brenner, then the weekend guy, turned it down. You don’t want to be the guy to replace the legend, he said. You want to replace the guy who replaces the guy. And that still holds true at Channels 5, 7, and 9. But at Channel 4, you know the seat should just remain empty.