Mr. Anderson Cooper, Superstar

The day before his first vacation in a good while, in a jewel box of a West Chelsea teahouse, Anderson Cooper sat reading The New York Times beside a small reflective pool. Sleek in his near-black pinstriped suit, he looked like a commercial. The teahouse was otherwise empty, except for a waitress busy arranging these extraordinary flowers. The titanium-haired CNN anchor was drinking from an obnoxiously tall glass of juice with humongous chunks of fruit in it-and he was pulling it off with élan.

This vision of high Manhattan privilege-Gloria Vanderbilt’s son, no less-could easily be one more do-nothing playboy, his nights spent leering for Patrick McMullan at Lizzie Grubman–sponsored Marquee parties, his Sunday afternoons on the Sag Harbor yacht, mixing up that first cocktail just a little too early in the day. He does have the icy good looks, but Mr. Cooper isn’t wired for fey leisure. The vacation, in fact, was presenting something of a problem. “My plan had been to go to Haiti for a couple days,” he said, “but CNN suggested I should try and take a vacation.”

Yes, Haiti in mid-coup: how very relaxing.

“My last vacation, which I ended up not taking, I was going to go to Baghdad for a week.”

He ended up in L.A. instead, visiting old friends for a few days, but he sounded restless on his return. “I don’t know if I’m ever really refreshed. I’m somewhat refreshed,” he said, back in New York. In his fourth-floor Time and Life building office (not quite as well-placed as Paula Zahn’s), a jumbly wardrobe of shirts and ties hangs from the back of the door, and framed messes of press passes decorate the walls-nearly all of them real. Paper was taped over the intra-office windows around his door, and he had changed in his office into Levis (button-fly), a gray T-shirt and New Balance sneakers after the 10 a.m. morning production meeting. He looked less near-robotically perfect and shiny, nearly a normal guy with his feet up on the desk. “My job is an extension of what I care about in my off time,” he said. “Work does not really feel like work. The down side is that play doesn’t feel like play.”

Two origin myths of Anderson Cooper are propagated; both are true. In the news-world version, he’s a scrappy youngster who paid his dues with a borrowed camera on his shoulder. He slept on hotel roofs and worked the Third World crisis tour until someone would put him on TV. He’s a hard-core news man with the blood on his Betacam to prove it, risen to CNN anchordom all the way from Channel One fact-checker and ABC News reporter (and, just for some pop-culture cred, a stint as a reality-TV-show host). “From the time I was very little on,” he said, “I wanted to be independent and wanted to see great things and take part in important events, and I didn’t really know how at the time. I didn’t know in what way.”

On air, he shows his news chops: Last week, Mr. Cooper did a live phoner with exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and he nailed Mr. Aristide’s balls to the wall on his claims that the U.S. forced him out of Haiti.

Then there’s the Page Six version of Anderson Cooper: flashy Manhattanite in sharp tailored suits. Dalton fed him to Yale. Not only is his mom the designer-jean queen, his great-aunt Gertrude founded the Whitney Museum. He writes for Details , for chrissakes. All this means that Mr. Cooper is, in fact, the epitome of the East Coast media elite that Fox News and their gang harp on. “I’m sort of guilty on all those counts-I’m from New York and went to an Ivy League school. I do think how one is born and how one chooses to live one’s life are often two different things-or should be two different things,” said Mr. Cooper. He seems in his chronically polite and understated way to be saying by this: Fuck off.

Last September, CNN plunked down the contradictions of Mr. Cooper in the middle of their evening lineup and threw a buttload of money into advertising, promoting his elite face in a 7 p.m. show that consciously traffics in the meanings of his double life. The show is self-conscious and self-referential, very nearly MTV-styled. It begins in breaking news and ends with just-shy-of-cruel digs at pop culture. Mr. Cooper is far from traditional anchor material, which makes the show inherently interesting. For starters, Mr. Cooper’s voice is one organ pipe shy of nasal-it’s only casually authoritative.

But as far as numbers go, the experiment hasn’t worked yet. In the cable ratings war-if it can still be called that-CNN has been thrashed. Mr. Cooper pulls a bit under half a million viewers. In the same slot over on Fox News, Shepard Smith gets around three times that. Still, focus-group research released in house at CNN last week shows Mr. Cooper testing strongest of all their anchors, a CNN source said, and the hope at CNN is that ratings will follow.

Never mind: At a time when cable news is a cesspool of partisan shit-stirring, rehashed war feed and cheery, white-toothed weatherman smiles, Mr. Cooper distinctly stands out. He’s turning out to be something even more unexpected-and much more compelling-than the Gen-X sex symbol/anchor of his do-me CNN marketing: the return of the TV journalist as humanist.

And that’s the problem with his job. Every hour Anderson Cooper spends anchoring tarts him up with another layer of celebrity-and Mr. Cooper seems rightly worried about becoming a star. As he sees it, “reporting and anchoring are at odds with notoriety.” He admits, however, that “there are some advantages to being more well-known-better booking-but at the same time, part of what I liked about being a reporter is a certain amount of anonymity, and the ability to run in just for a glimpse.” Soon enough, Mr. Cooper’s deal with the devil of anchoring could ensure that he’ll never get that glimpse again.

Like seemingly everyone at CNN, 360 executive producer Jim Miller is a raving Cooper fan. “There’s lots of people who have confidence and ambition, and many of them don’t manage it that well,” said Mr. Miller, a gruff-voiced machine of a man who wouldn’t look out of place in a Park Avenue South banker bar. “They’re reeking of opportunism. And it’s an egocentric world-all the time, it’s about them, them, them. I had a dinner party at my house one night for Anderson. I realized about two-thirds of the way through the dinner he hadn’t even used the pronoun ‘I.’ He was so interested in other people’s experiences. How many people do you meet that are confident and want to work hard in their careers, and at the same time they don’t make it about themselves?”

Last spring, Mr. Miller-formerly of ABC and USA networks, and co-author of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live -was brought in to build CNN a new night from the giant smoking crater that remained after the cancellation of Connie Chung’s famously tabloid evening show. Paula Zahn was anchoring that 7 to 9 p.m. slot; last fall they put Mr. Cooper, her frequent sub, in permanently for the first hour. “Having Anderson be a field reporter for another anchor would be like driving a Porsche 40 miles an hour,” Mr. Miller said. 360 always reopens its second quarter hour with the jarring guitar chords and cowbell of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” But instead of scary old Iggy singing “I am the passenger, I stay under glass … ,” we have Mr. Cooper safe-maybe too safe-in his glass box jutting from the Time and Life building. The studio (temporary quarters, as the show will move to the glass tomb of the new Time Warner Center in June) is no bigger than a really rich person’s dining room. Outside on Sixth Avenue, beyond the orange gels covering the windows, tourists wave for the cameras inside. But like disenchanted TV viewers, they soon enough get bored and wander off.

When Mr. Cooper was a boy, he spent a summer waiting tables at Mortimer’s, the late Glenn Bernbaum’s monstrous uptown society restaurant. Just a few years later, he took his first press pass-a fake-and hopped a troop transport to Somalia from Kenya.

He filed his first aired piece of foreign correspondence for the in-school network Channel One from Baidoa, using only a home video camera and two paid gun-toting guides. The video as cut is about seven minutes long. In it, young Mr. Cooper’s hair is a plain dirty brown, done in a sort of 80′s ski-enthusiast cut. His nose is still slightly too big for his face. He looks insanely out of place, like Alex P. Keaton in an abattoir.

The seven-minute-long report is astounding, intensely graphic, but without any tear-jerking Sally Struthers–style appeal. “On the sides of the road, the animals and humans lie rotting where they fell,” the young Mr. Cooper voice-overs quietly. “I tried to distance myself. Tried to find ways to forget the sight, the smells of the dead and dying.” And later: “You want to grab someone and get them to help, but there’s no one around. There’s nothing you can do.” (“It’s a little overwritten,” the adult Mr. Cooper apologized.)

The video ends with footage of a father using his last remaining water to wash his dead son’s body. The boy’s already-skeletal face is clearly visible through a cloth.

What compelled him to file this story? “To me, the question is not why, the question is always why don’t more people want to do it? It seems to me a privilege to be able to do it, and a privilege to be able to go to Sarajevo during the war. Why wouldn’t you want to go? Why wouldn’t you want to see these things that are happening and bear witness to what is going on?”

Bearing witness, of course, can be a dicey proposition; portraying global horror does not necessarily engender assistance, or even understanding. But Mr. Cooper’s personal motivations make the picture more complicated. This video was shot in 1991, just a few years after the 1988 suicide of Mr. Cooper’s brother.

“I was feeling a lot of pain inside and wanted to go places where that was O.K., where other people understood pain, and where I could learn from other people about how they survive and why some people survive and other people don’t-and why good people die and bad people survive and thrive,” Mr. Cooper said. “People don’t talk about issues of survival in polite conversations,” he added dryly.

Mr. Cooper’s brother’s suicide took place at Ms. Vanderbilt’s Manhattan apartment, a decade after the death of her husband Wyatt Cooper, the boys’ father. At the time, Anderson Cooper was nearly finished at Yale. “A lot of the questions about why do people survive were raised by his death and all the questions surrounding that. And you want answers to questions, and you go out seeking them wherever you can.”

Gloria Vanderbilt was the original poor little rich girl. She suffered through a child-custody battle between her mother and her Aunt Gert that set a new standard for tabloid reporting. Over her career, she’s made fortunes in designing and licensing fashion and merchandise, and-like many women of her generation-had large pieces of those fortunes stolen by managers. She married four times in impressive succession, and it’s said that she found the love of her life in Wyatt Cooper.

Ms. Vanderbilt sent the young Mr. Cooper to Dalton “because it was seen as being sort of liberal, and I think it was sort of the reverse of the schools you see in movies,” Mr. Cooper recalled, “because actors and artists were on top of the heap, and the athletes were lower in the high-school caste system.”

Mr. Cooper just recently revisited Dalton, to give a speech to the students-just as Barbara Walters had done when he was a student. The suggestion, however, that he may end up as the next Barbara Walters seemed to throw him. “I have a long way to go before I can walk in her Manolo Blahniks,” said Mr. Cooper. “I have a huge new respect for people who have longevity in the business. You know, Barbara Walters has been at the top of her game for years-it’s pretty incredible.” There is a popular impression that top-rated news stars can do whatever the hell they want, which Mr. Cooper is quick to dismiss.

“I think she works harder than most people,” he said. And, tellingly: “A correspondent at ABC once said to me, ‘No one ever gives you the ground.’”

At Dalton, Mr. Cooper applied early to college and didn’t get in, so he took off for his last semester to drive around Africa. “They were sick of me,” he said of his classmates. He was undoubtedly sick of them. “I think there’s nothing more boring than meeting someone I went to high school with who works with their parents, and they’re still here and haven’t really done much.”

During his early reporting, Mr. Cooper said with a bit of machismo, he “was always eating network dust-and CNN always had the vehicle.” Seemingly, no one ever gave him the ground. It’s odd, perhaps, that the fancy young Mr. Cooper would have this aggravated outsiderish sense. But it goes well with his self-deprecation. Take the night a few years back that he talked on-air about the inevitable (and deeply misguided) offer from Playgirl to pose nude: “The last thing America needs to see is my pale skinny little chicken legs running around. Maybe I could pose for American Poultry .” Funny stuff, coming from a man whose hot-and-heavy devotees have littered the Internet with ga-ga fan pages.

CNN is a real dog pound of anchors now-some you’d love to adopt, and some you wouldn’t mind drowning in the river. There’s young Miguel Marquez, who’s getting more air time from the L.A. bureau these days as he works patiently backstage toward becoming the next prime-time hunk. There’s Aaron Brown, who as the air-filling day anchor of Gulf War II might be that war’s second-most-hated personality, right after Chemical Ali.

There’s the rising star of Soledad O’Brien, billed on her bio page as a member of both the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists-and who in 1998 was also named to Irish America Magazine ‘s “Top 100 Irish-Americans” list.

During Mr. Cooper’s L.A. vacation, his anchor qualities were actually made more apparent with the guest-host presence on 360 of Ms. O’Brien’s partner on American Morning , Bill Hemmer. The affable, white-bread and strangely youthful-looking 39-year-old anchor’s red tie was a bit too wide, but there was nothing wrong with his anchoring. It was smooth and competent-but it was tonally unvaried.

Jim Miller-not speaking specifically of Mr. Hemmer-notes the trouble with temps replacing Mr. Cooper as well. “When people sub in, they say, ‘Wow, this is a tough show.’ And there’s some people that can feel really out of place with it. This is meant to be something that’s for Anderson.”

Mr. Cooper is a good anchor, and it’s because of his ear for tonal range. “To me, the important thing is to not cover the Grammys with the same sense of urgency” as the hard news, said Mr. Cooper. It’s the anchor pitfall-like the famously mocked “poetry voice,” there is anchor voice. While it may be as comforting as codeine cough syrup, eventually it becomes a sick stream of meaninglessness stridency, death made palatable over America’s Lean Cuisine dinners.

Anderson Cooper’s greatest conflict is now against himself, against whatever craving for security compelled him to take this anchor job. It is against the marketable appeal of his extraordinarily pretty eyes and his pitch-perfect sense of how news should be delivered. It’s with the stardom issue-isn’t that obviously the ratings plan? Ted Turner at CNN always insisted that the news came first, no matter who spat it out on air, but in the later reigns of Walter Isaacson and now Jim Walton, there’s no namby-pamby crap about the uncleanness of telegenic faces becoming big names to pull in big numbers. It’s easy enough to fame up Mr. Cooper: He’s pretty close already. On the streets of Manhattan, at least, he doesn’t go unrecognized.

Mr. Cooper recently purchased an apartment on West 38th Street, on what he calls “sort of this weird wholesale-buttons street” in “a little parasitic neighborhood on top of the garment district-like the little fish that sucks on the shark.” He’s happy there. “I didn’t know there was such a button industry,” he said, “but literally, like on a Sunday morning, the button stores are packed with random people searching for buttons. I don’t know who these people are, I don’t know if they’re buying single buttons. And now the porn stores have moved into the neighborhood. I miss that neighborhood feel. But for now, at least, it’s the least fashionable place on the planet.”

What, one wonders, does Mr. Cooper do on the weekends? On a recent weekend past, he was at his house in Quogue, busy not watching TV. “I didn’t really leave the house much. I have all these books that both my mom and my dad and my brother and I grew up with. Thousands and thousands of books. They’ve been in boxes in storage, so I’ve been putting them on shelves and reading them.”

There’s a picture of Anderson Cooper as a baby, his face filling the whole frame of a soft black-and-white shot. It was taken by Diane Arbus, and it’s on view now at N.Y.U.’s Grey Art Gallery. Looking at it now reminds you that the adult Mr. Cooper still conveys a sense of little boyness, alone, but not lonely: a preternaturally grown-up child in a fancy suit, sitting erect and absolutely still on endless airplane trips. Mr. Cooper, even with his natural sexual charisma permanently set on high-beam, brings out an unusual parental urge in the people around him.

Mr. Cooper was very excited about a planned trip to Baghdad earlier this month, but his surrogate parents at CNN now won’t allow it. “I think that he should go if it makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense in terms of security, we’re gonna postpone,” Jim Miller warned in February. Yesterday, CNN confirmed that, after a month of negotiations, they’ll allow send Mr. Cooper to go to Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

The complications of Anderson Cooper dissolve when he talks about field reporting, and his face changes and comes alive-mostly with sadness. Finally, finally, his highly controlled and reflective surface, his dirty adoration of the ironies of celebrity culture, his gorgeous suits, his very anchorness, all that is overwhelmed by his conception of the role of journalist as conduit for the endless story of human inequity.

From his time in Sarajevo, he said, he learned that “the person who lived a life of dignity and culture was reduced to panhandling their watch in the marketplace. And the person who knew how to put two wires together and run a gas line becomes president.” In other words, he can’t forget what’s real: that life is chaotically unfair, and that news reporting is the flawed medium we use to try to make sense of that.

“People I enjoy interviewing the most are people caught up in circumstances-and not necessarily a world leader or a politician. It generally tends to be people who are just sort of very real, very human. The interviews I’ve learned the most from have been in Sarajevo, during the war. I met a girl at a water pump and she brought me back to her home, and I met her grandmother and her father.

“It was an interview which was not earth-shattering, and there was no discussion of geopolitics. She went to another room and put on makeup. She had a little baby. It turns out her husband was missing from the front and she was hoping he was alive, and her grandmother told me really that he was dead but she was just in denial about it. The grandmother served me coffee and the last of the rations. It’s in these little tiny moments and these … just these glimpses of reality. That was an interview, which to me … I will never forget, she said to me: ‘Paradise is a tomato,’ because they had this one tomato they’d been saving for a long time. Those are the interviews I enjoy.”

One wonders if Mr. Cooper will ever have these essential experiences again-ever get to confront the world just like in the badass old days, crappy camera dangling from one hand, maybe broken-hearted but at least not bound into a pinstriped suit, tethered to the island of Manhattan. In the meantime, Anderson Cooper is a media control experiment, a new kind of specimen-crisp, cool and intelligent-being displayed within the confines of CNNs hermetically sealed glass. Will he ever be allowed to run free again?