HUNTINGTON BEACH — For KOCE-TV newsman Jim Cooper, it wasn't such a big deal that he used to try to scoop a young reporter named Dan Rather when they both covered then-President Richard M. Nixon in San Clemente.
And he won't even mention--unless prompted--that he reported live for CBS News on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles in 1968.
Instead, Cooper, a two-time Emmy winner for TV news coverage, is more apt to talk about his true love--"doing stories," the Santa Ana resident says, "about the human condition in Orange County."
For more than 40 years, Cooper has covered Orange County for newspapers, radio and TV. With the March 26 primary elections approaching, Cooper, 74, is one of the most visible local pundits around in his role as moderator of KOCE--TV Channel 50's series on candidate debates and issue discussions.
He is known as the dean of county political debates, unflappable, even when a Peace and Freedom assembly candidate once rolled into KOCE's Huntington Beach studio on skates from Long Beach to promote gas conservation.
Cooper "can ask those tough questions--he does his homework," said Orange County Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who has been on his show several times. She added with a laugh: "He probably knows where all the bodies are buried."
It's a role that Cooper still loves, even with more than 4,000 shows under his belt at KOCE-TV, a PBS station on the Golden West College campus. His heart still beats faster when he gets into that moderator's chair under the hot studio lights, and the floor manager gives him the on-air cue.
"There's something magic that happens when the countdown starts," Cooper said dreamily, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . ."
And, sometimes, there are fireworks, or just plain weirdness.
Before the November 1986 elections, Cooper had to cut off Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who accused his Democratic challenger of cavorting with teenage prostitutes and then waved a piece of paper on the air, urging viewers to call an alleged escort service for confirmation. Assemblyman Richard Robinson hotly denied the charge as a "damnable lie," while Cooper tried to rein the two men in.
In 1978, Cooper did three shows with Howard Jarvis on the property tax-limiting Proposition 13. Jarvis was so sure of himself in everything, even insisting that he knew a sure-fire remedy for kidney trouble--a bizarre concoction of lemon juice and rum, Cooper recalled.
Through it all, Cooper tries to picture a typical viewer in a typical living room--maybe "a guy drinking a can of beer in Fullerton"--and ask the questions that any voter would.
"I make certain that both sides get exposure, even if one side is bombastic and loud . . . that the human element doesn't get in the way of getting the arguments on the table," Cooper said.
On the air, he is the picture of the serious, sonorous anchor. Off the air, he boomerangs from topic to topic--segues be damned--and, when the occasion warrants, breaks into song, slams a desk drawer or punches a fist into the air.
The job, Cooper said, is his "youth pill."
He started in 1938 as a police reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. Since then, he has worked as a writer, producer and broadcaster for radio stations, including KEZY-FM and KWIZ-AM. His newspaper experience includes editing stints at the former Santa Ana Independent weekly and a now-defunct daily.
He joined KOCE in 1972, after more than six years with KNXT-TV Channel 2 (now KCBS), where he was a reporter and chief of the Orange County bureau.
Cooper left the network affiliate because he wanted the opportunity to work on longer, in-depth pieces for KOCE, which reaches 2 million viewers in five counties.
He also wanted to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Elinore, have two children and three grandchildren.
He has no retirement plans; he is already planning 10 public affairs shows that will air before the November elections.
"If I died, and they put [on my tombstone], 'Here lies Jim Cooper, newsman,' that would be fine with me," he said.