Sander Vanocur, the television newsman who became familiar to American viewers as a prominent White House correspondent during the Kennedy administration and as a tough questioner in presidential debates, died on Monday night in a hospice facility in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 91.
His son Christopher said the cause was complications of dementia. Mr. Vanocur lived nearby in Montecito.
Mr. Vanocur (pronounced van-OH-kur) was the last surviving journalist of the four who, as a panel, questioned Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon in America’s first televised presidential debate, on Sept. 26, 1960. (The others were Robert H. Fleming of ABC, Stuart Novins of CBS and Charles Warren of Mutual Broadcasting. Howard K. Smith, then of CBS, was the moderator.)
In a memorable moment, Mr. Vanocur asked Nixon about a damaging remark that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made about his vice president — that he could not remember a single idea of Nixon’s that was adopted.
Nixon replied that it was “probably a facetious remark.” But in his 1962 book, “Six Crises,” Nixon admitted that Mr. Vanocur’s question had hurt.
“I am sure,” he wrote, “that to millions of televiewers, this question had been effective in raising a doubt in their minds with regard to one of my strongest campaign themes and assets — my experience as vice president.”
Mr. Vanocur also asked Kennedy a tough question: How could he fulfill his promise to push legislation through Congress when he had failed to do so as a member of the House and then the Senate? (Kennedy deftly shifted the blame to Republicans, saying the main reason for his thin legislative résumé was the threat of a Republican presidential veto hanging over legislation proposed by Democrats — a situation that would be remedied, he said, by the election of a Democratic president.)
Mr. Vanocur went on to cover the Kennedy White House, becoming a regular presence at the president’s frequent nationally televised news conferences. He was granted the first televised interview with Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, prompting some competitors to view his access as evidence of a questionable closeness to the Kennedys.
Mr. Vanocur was the first reporter to ask a chastened Kennedy about the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion by a C.I.A.-sponsored Cuban paramilitary group in 1961. The question elicited one of the president’s more well-remembered quotations: The episode, he said, recalled “an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
Mr. Vanocur, along with John Chancellor, Frank McGee and Edwin Newman, was one of NBC’s “four horsemen” — correspondents who prowled the floor of national conventions in the 1960s in search of news developments and tantalizing tidbits to report. (He was also the last surviving of those four.)
Mr. Vanocur reported on politics for NBC from 1957 to 1971, along the way conducting one of the last interviews with Senator Robert F. Kennedy before he was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.
After a brief interlude at the Public Broadcasting System in the early 1970s, he was a television columnist for The Washington Post in the mid-1970s. He then returned to political reporting, for ABC News, where he was also a vice president.
As a senior correspondent for ABC in 1984, he moderated the vice-presidential debate between the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, and Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York. In 1992, as a freelance correspondent, he was a panelist for a presidential debate between Mr. Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and the Texas business tycoon Ross Perot.
In his 1991 book, “Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News,” Reuven Frank, a pioneering news producer for NBC, called Mr. Vanocur “the best political reporter I ever worked with.”
For a time NBC was grooming him for more visible roles, making him its weekend news anchor in the first half of the 1960s and, in 1969, host of a new monthly newsmagazine, “First Tuesday,” to compete in part with the weekly “60 Minutes” on CBS. “First Tuesday” ran until August 1973.
Mr. Vanocur was also Washington correspondent for the “Today” show. Hoping to be promoted to NBC’s top anchor post in 1971, a disappointed Mr. Vanocur left the network for PBS when Mr. Chancellor got the job.
Mr. Vanocur had a fraught relationship with President Nixon. One of Nixon’s aides, Patrick J. Buchanan, told reporters that Mr. Vanocur was “a notorious Kennedy sycophant.” When Nixon heard that Mr. Vanocur and Robert MacNeil were to co-anchor a weekly PBS program about the 1972 presidential campaign, he reacted angrily, remembering that Mr. Vanocur — in interviews, not in his reporting — had said that the conduct of the Vietnam War reflected “stupidity” and had castigated the administration’s secrecy, according to the 1998 book “Made Possible by …: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States,” by James Ledbetter.
That book reported that after Nixon’s staff discovered Mr. Vanocur and Mr. MacNeil’s salaries ($85,000 and $65,000, respectively; the equivalent of about $530,000 and $405,000 today), the White House encouraged cartoonists and columnists to criticize their pay as excessive.
Under White House pressure, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting voted to stop funding news, news analysis and political commentary on PBS, effectively killing the election program before it ever aired. Mr. Vanocur quit PBS.
“I couldn’t get any work in television for a long time,” he was quoted as saying. “Richard Nixon drove me out of public broadcasting.”
After a two-year stint at The Washington Post, Mr. Vanocur was hired by Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, to set up a special unit in Washington for political and investigative reporting. He became part of a news team that pushed ABC’s evening news broadcast to the top of the ratings in the 1970s.
He was born Sander Vinocur in Cleveland on Jan. 8, 1928, to Louis and Rose (Millman) Vinocur. His father was a lawyer. After his parents divorced in 1941, his mother took Sander and his sister, Roberta, to Illinois to live and changed the spelling of their surname to Vanocur because she “was mad at the old man,” he told The Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Fla.
He graduated from the Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., now closed, in 1946 and then from Northwestern University with a degree in political science. He studied at the London School of Economics in 1951 and 1952.
After serving two years in the Army in Germany and Austria, he was discharged as a first lieutenant and returned to England to be a reporter for The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian). He also did freelance work for CBS News. (“What other job lets you sit around drinking beer and reading newspapers all day while you get paid for it?” he said in an interview with The Evening Independent.)
Still in his mid-20s, he was hired by The New York Times in 1955 after a series of well-positioned newsmen had paved the way with their endorsements: the paper’s London bureau chief, Drew Middleton; the Washington columnist James Reston; and the CBS commentator Eric Sevareid.
In his 1966 book about The Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” Gay Talese described Mr. Vanocur appearing in the office of the managing editor, Turner Catledge, for an interview.
“He was tall, husky, dark-haired, and rather handsome,” Mr. Talese wrote, “and he wore a finely tailored suit and brown suede British shoes. Catledge was impressed.”
His stint at The Times, as a reporter on the New York metropolitan staff, was relatively short. He joined NBC News in Washington in 1957 and was sent to Chicago the next year to cover the Midwest. He became acquainted with John Kennedy and his family when Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, visited Wisconsin to compete in the presidential primary there in 1960.
In response to critics who said that both he and the Kennedys had abused their relationship, Mr. Vanocur said fawning on the family would have been counterproductive. “They would know they owned you and need give you nothing,” Mr. Frank quoted Mr. Vanocur as saying.
Mr. Vanocur’s first wife, Edith Pick Vanocur, a fashion designer who became a food columnist for The Washington Post, died in 1975. He married Virginia Backus that same year. She survives him, as do Christopher, his son from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Daphne Wood Hicks; and two grandchildren. Another son, Nicholas, also from Mr. Vanocur’s first marriage, died in 2015.
Over the years, Mr. Vanocur taught at Duke University, consulted for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and hosted “Movies in Time” and “History’s Business” on the History Channel. He also occasionally played a newsman in movies, including “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (1971), “Raise the Titanic” (1980) and “Dave” (1983).
Mr. Vanocur remained a regular commentator on journalism, declaring that he preferred the days before the news media behaved like “avenging angels.”
“I’m a strong advocate of freedom of the press,” he said in a speech at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 2004, “as long as they have something to say.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.