Not long before last week's announcement that he was was being admitted into a drug treatment program, WRC-TV anchorman Jim Vance appeared on camera with cigarette smoke billowing from his mouth as he read the nightly news. It was as if the man was on fire. In a manner of speaking, he was.
After 15 years as one of the smoothest, most potent personalities on Washington television, Vance had miscalculated the duration of his cigarette break. Now the commercial was over, and there he was -- live, in a smoky haze, with a puffy face and dull, baggy eyes.
"A lot of people look at what I do -- the money I make, the life style I can afford, the recognition I get -- and assume that I must be on top of the world," Vance said during a 1980 interview with Washingtonian Magazine. "But they don't know some of the frustrations and confusion I've gone through in trying to pull myself together as a whole person. Fact is, man, my s--- is pretty jive."
The article was titled with a question: "Why is this man so insecure and unhappy?" In it, Vance admitted that he had tried cocaine, "but it made my nose itch so I quit," he said.
Now, five years later, it seems that walking away from drugs was not so easy. Indeed, part of what troubled him must have been his double life, a contradictory existence in which nearly a half million television viewers regularly saw him as a streetwise, down-to-earth commentator while, off camera, he flirted surreptitiously with a high life that only a man with a $250,000-a-year television contract could afford.
The son of a plumber from Philadelphia, Vance was never comfortable with his new-found fame and fortune -- but he seemed intractably drawn to the life style, the result being a friction that set a fire in his brain. Unfortunately, he tried to douse it with what amounted to high-octane narcotics.
Although he drove a Porsche ("one of my big symbols of hedonism," he called it), he spoke harshly of the black middle class and even berated himself for being a success.
"Sometimes the black bougie is into blackness, but it's calculated blackness," Vance said in the magazine interview. "They have black art on the walls, but it's not for the sake of identifying with the culture. They have an original African mask and Mercedes 450 SL, they serve collard greens with cordon bleu."
He could have been talking about himself.
"Yet, you ride around this city and you see as many poor black folks as ever," Vance continued. "You wonder: 'Goddamn! Is my success worth anything at all? . . . For every one of me there's 10 of them.' "
The origins of his conflict, the paranoia and second-guessing are not unusual. Many people who cannot afford a Betty Ford Treatment Center are in the same boat. But as a public personality, Vance put a lot on the line.
He had frequently expressed an obligation to those blacks who had paved the way for his generation of professionals, but it was that very obligation that was being compromised. Although he wanted to help those blacks less fortunate than himself, he sank into a nether world darker than poverty, where time and money go up in smoke.
But it appears that this community is inclined to give Vance a second chance. At the time of his announcement that he was going in for treatment, Vance was working on a story that was bringing him closer to the heart of his personal conflict -- why some kids make it in this world, and others don't.
He should get his act together and bring his butt back to finish it, as he would say.
Meanwhile, with his public drug bout coming so close to the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, perhaps some will find in it a message for the youth of Washington, whom Vance has worked so hard to help.