Cooper in Conversation
In one of the most confusing electoral years in recent history, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is doing something new by doing something old: remaining impartial.
Anderson Cooper has long gone his own way when it comes to his career. As he recounts in his 2016 book, The Rainbow Comes and Goes—written as a correspondence with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt—while his high school classmates enjoyed their second semester of senior year, he convinced his school to allow him to backpack across Africa instead. After Cooper graduated from Yale, he had a friend make him a fake press pass so he could report from conflict zones.
“I am always planning, preparing myself for what comes next, and what may come after that, and after that,” Cooper writes in The Rainbow Comes and Goes. “I find looking backward too painful; there is no reinventing the past for me.”While Cooper is best known for his nightly news show Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and as an anchor on 60 Minutes, he had a major year in 2016 with an array of new projects from books to film to comedy, proving that at nearly 50 years old, he still cannot be pinned down. Coinciding with The Rainbow Comes and Goes, HBO released the documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, a companion piece to the book that explores the life of his famed, but misunderstood, socialite mother, who has long been in the public eye yet still elusive to him. He and TV personality Andy Cohen also embarked on AC2: Deep Talk and Shallow Tales, a multi-city tour, showing the Emmy-winning reporter’s lighter side in candid conversations with his longtime friend. But perhaps most uniquely, one of Cooper’s major feats in 2016 was his ability to navigate a contentious and often chaotic election cycle with cool, calm, and no clear bias.
Cooper kept a steady hand while challenging the powerful to own up to their words, as one of few anchors to interview both top presidential candidates face-to-face and hold both accountable to tough questions while never losing his grip. Whether interviewing a Democrat or Republican, Cooper didn’t pull away from difficult topics: In his sit-down interview with Donald Trump on 360, he challenged the then-candidate to explain his comments about contentious remarks about Islam; in the democratic debate with Hillary Clinton, he asked whether she thought she would be indicted for her use of a private e-mail server. Later, in his Republican Presidential Town Hall with Donald Trump, after Trump claimed he didn’t start the attacks that led to his questionable Tweet about Ted Cruz’s wife’s appearance, Cooper retorted, “The argument of a five-year-old is he started it.”
Cooper’s coverage of the year’s most important stories still showed the characteristic empathy and evenhandedness that characterizes his reporting, and showed a sense that the anchor is willing to break way with tradition when necessary. During his segment on the June 2016 terrorist attack at the Orlando nightclub, Pulse, he made the decision to read the names of all the victims, some along with photos and personal anecdotes, while specifically choosing not to say the name of the shooter or show his picture. “It’s been shown far too much already,” he said on air. “We want to try to keep the focus where it belongs.” As Cooper read the names, he nearly broke down in tears–the first time, he admitted in the press, that he has ever done so. A subsequent interview with Florida attorney general Pam Bondi attracted attention as Cooper relentlessly questioned Bondi’s record fighting against gay marriage, seemingly opposing her stance toward the LGBT community targeted by the attack. A small feud developed between the two, with Cooper eventually going on air to dismiss claims by Bondi that she had been misled by the interview request. “As a rule, I think it’s important that reporters not become part of the story,” Cooper said of the incident. “It’s my job to hold people accountable. If on Sunday a politician is talking about love and embracing ‘our LGBT community’ I don’t think it’s unfair to look at their record and see if they have ever actually spoken that way publicly before.”
Cooper’s interviews have made headlines for his ability to pin his subjects to their words. He has interviewed figures caught in national scandals such as Donald Sterling, the Clippers owner whose racist remarks were made public and whose explosive interview with Cooper made headlines in 2014 when Sterling was ousted from the team and the NBA.
Cooper’s new projects about his relationship with his mother show a sense of getting back to his roots and a truthful look at the emotional hardships that have defined his own life. He has often said he didn’t want his mother’s heritage to impact his career, and refrained from divulging his famous family connections as he built his journalistic reputation.
“I was always glad I don’t have that last name,” he told Stephen Colbert in an interview about the book on The Late Late Show. “There’s a lot of preconceived notions that come with that name.”
Born in New York City on June 3, 1967, Cooper is the child of Gloria Vanderbilt and actor-writer Wyatt Cooper, his mother’s fourth husband. His brother, Carter Cooper, was two years older. He describes a normal childhood with a father committed to family values and a close relationship between parents and children. In the book, he recounts he and his brother being included at dinners at their home with luminary guests such as Truman Capote, where the boys would be seated at tables with the guests. His childhood, though idyllic, was in a sense, a mature one, marked by life in the public eye. Diane Arbus photographed him as a baby; he appeared on The Tonight Show at age three; and he worked as a child model for Ford. When Anderson was ten years old, his father died of a heart condition, and when he was in college, his brother Carter committed suicide at age 23. Cooper has said these experiences of loss at a young age have had a huge impact on his work as a journalist.
“My work is autobiographical. It has a lot to do with loss, pain, and telling people stories,” Cooper reflects in Nothing Left Unsaid. “In regular life, people don’t talk about death, they don’t talk about loss, they don’t talk about grief. It makes people uncomfortable. And that was a language that had been spoken in my house, always.”
Cooper earned his journalistic stripes reporting from some of the most dangerous places on earth, filing from Myanmar, Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, bearing witness to the loss of people’s homes, lives, and loved ones. Despite his privileged upbringing, Cooper felt he could connect with their grief. In 1995, he began to report for ABC News, then joined CNN in 2001. He gained widespread recognition for his humanistic reporting on the devastation reaped by Hurricane Katrina, for which he won the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. It was an experience, he has said, that united the past and the present for him: his father, Wyatt, was from Mississippi, and Anderson found himself visiting the wrecked sites of places he had visited with his father as a child.
Cooper initially kept the professional and personal separate, a line he still tries to keep intact. But as his popularity has skyrocketed, he has opened up more about his life. Long silent on his sexuality, Cooper came out publicly in 2012, deciding that his silence on the subject was sending the wrong message. “The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud,” he wrote in an e-mail to journalist Andrew Sullivan, adding, “It is not part of my job to push an agenda, but rather to be relentlessly honest in everything I see, say, and do.”
Nothing Left Unsaid and The Rainbow Comes and Goes take a close look at another aspect of Cooper’s personal life that has long-been talked about but infrequently addressed by him: how the pain surrounding his nuclear family impacted him and his mother.
“I always imagined we would be friends as adults,” Cooper says in the film of his late brother, Carter. “It’s crazy to me I’ve lived longer without him than with him. There are moments where it still hits me like a punch in the gut and I get vertigo or nausea. I still cannot believe the way he died.”
The film opens with a present-day Cooper and his mother walking along the beach, as flashes of archival footage of Cooper as a young man appear, wearing the same Yale sweater, and his mother as a young girl, holding a camera. Though it is a film mainly about the life of Vanderbilt, now in her 90s, the result is a compelling portrait of Cooper as well, who always identified more with his author father than his artist-entrepreneur mother. As the film and book prove, he realized he shares the drive and determination that has kept her afloat through hardship.
Cooper also has a lighter side, another anomaly in the age of personality-driven media. AC2: Deep Talk and Shallow Tales paired him with longtime friend Andy Cohen of Watch What Happens Live fame for an evening of frank talk about everything from politics to sex to reality TV in venues all over the country. (The two also held a benefit performance in Orlando for OneOrlando, providing support to families of the Pulse tragedy). The free format, Q&A-style show combined Cooper’s reserve with Cohen’s rambunctious public persona. And Cooper, no stranger to comedy, regularly hosts the CNN New Year’s Eve special with Kathy Griffin, a close friend.
Cooper and his partner Benjamin Maisani have been together since 2009 and own homes in Connecticut as well as Trancoso, Brazil. But even as Cooper approaches middle age, he’s not ready to settle down with a family.
“I always thought I wanted kids but I also realize my limitations,” he says in Nothing Left Unsaid. “I need, sort of, time in my head. And I don’t think that you can have that when you have kids. I would also have to change my career totally. I would want to be the kind of dad that my dad was.”
Cooper shows no signs of slowing down. As 2017 brings in a new president and a host of new challenges, undoubtedly Cooper will be there to take them all on.
“I remember soon after my dad died seeing, I think it was in a Jacques Cousteau special, that if sharks stop moving forward that they die because they can’t breathe without forcing water through their gills by the forward motion,” Cooper says in the documentary. “That notion has always really resonated with me. The need to continue to move forward, to continue to breathe.”
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