2010-02-26 / Dining & Entertainment

Globe-trotting CNN anchor has witnessed tragedy, triumph

‘Once you’ve peered over the edge of life, it’s hard to return.’ — Anderson Cooper
By Joann Groff

Anderson Cooper Anderson Cooper ` Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and “60 Minutes” contributor on CBS, has worked in more than 50 countries, covering war, disaster and other atrocities across the globe.

The farther he goes, the harder it is to return, Cooper said.

“You’re literally on the edge of life,” he said. “You run toward where everyone is running away from. Coming home is difficult. Life seems dull. You don’t feel like you speak the same language. Once you’ve peered over the edge of life, it’s hard to return.

“I wonder sometimes if that’s how astronauts feel.”

Cooper spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Reagan Library last Friday. Nancy Reagan sat in the front row and Cooper received a standing ovation when he stepped on the stage.

“It’s weird hearing myself being introduced as a news anchor,” Cooper said. “I never set out to be that. And I’m always skeptical when kids tell me that’s what they want to be, just like when they tell me they want to be a politician. I think you should be a real person before you be a fake one.”

Although Cooper inspired many laughs throughout his talk, his focus remained on the conflicts all around the world and the lessons he’s learned from covering them.

Cooper was the first major news anchor to arrive in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.

“In the last month, I’ve spent about three, three-and-a-half weeks there,” Cooper said. “People ask, ‘Is it better?’ and I hesitate. Yes, it’s better, but it’s not even close to acceptable.”

The Haitian people are hardworking and inspiring, he said.

“You expect to see the horror, but you also see the humanity that emerges,” Cooper said.

The tough part is that, just a month later, the spotlight on the ravaged country is already dimming.

“People aren’t as interested in it anymore,” Cooper said. “It’s kind of old news. And that’s always hard.”

Cooper said he and CNN are dedicated to covering the aftermath of the quake, much like he did after Hurricane Katrina.

“So much of what happened in Katrina threatens to be forgotten,” Cooper said. “We all know governments failed in the wake of Katrina, but individuals did not. The tens of thousands of volunteers since Katrina have a lot to do with the progress there. Americans are the most generous people in the world.”

When he was young, Cooper had trouble deciding on a career path, so he asked his mother, famed fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. She told Cooper, “Follow your bliss.”

So Cooper left high school early and “drove a truck around Africa.”

“It was the first time I had a gun held to my head. . . . It was the first time I had to talk my way through a roadblock,” he said. “I fell in love with the differences in the various countries. That’s when I decided to be a war correspondent.”

After graduating from Yale, Cooper applied for an entry-level job at ABC. When he didn’t get the position, he had a friend make him a fake press pass, borrowed a camera and began filming, first in Burma, then in Somalia.

“I couldn’t stop the starvation and war going on there, but I could bear witness to their struggles and give testimony to their lives,” Cooper said.

Melissa Giller, director of communications and programming for The Reagan Foundation, said it was an honor to have such a “great humanitarian” at the Library.

“He had the audience laughing at his stories from his early career days, and had the same audience holding their breath as he discussed the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Haiti,” Giller said.

Cooper’s older brother, Carter, committed suicide at age 23 in 1988. Cooper said the loss was a big part of his decision to cover world struggles.

“I wanted to go to places where they spoke the language of loss,” he said. “I wanted to be somewhere where the pain was palpable and the people were consumed with emotion and struggling to survive, just like I was.”

Cooper said he’s learned many times over about the frailty of life.

“The line that separates the living from the dead, the rich from the poor . . . it’s as thin as a thread,” Cooper said. “All of us dangle from a very delicate thread. You can fall asleep one night and the world can swallow you whole. People’s lives can change in a split second.”

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