Since Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the name of CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper ’89 has been on everyone’s lips, from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu to comedian Jon Stewart. Cooper the journalist has become the subject of news himself. Whether traveling to those towns hardest hit by the hurricane or giving first-hand assistance to a doctor during a chance rescue in the middle of an interview, Cooper’s reporting has been both praised and criticized for its emotional involvement.
“There is a value to personal story telling and intimate journalism, and talking to people and showing them what your reactions are — as long as they’re real,” Cooper said.
While an undergraduate at Yale, Cooper, a political science major and the coxswain for the lightweight crew team, was not actively involved in journalism. Yet his friends, coaches and professors said that his interest in politics was always a noticeable characteristic and one which, along with his sharp wit, logically led to his career as a news anchor. As someone admittedly “always drawn to places in crisis,” Cooper’s research on Nicaragua and Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi while at Yale would eventually parallel his intense involvement covering famine in Somalia, the tsunami in South East Asia, and other similar global strife as a news anchor.
Despite Cooper’s illustrious family background — his mother is socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and his father was the screen writer Wyatt Cooper, who died of a heart attack when Cooper was 10 — Cooper never chose to ride the tide of comfort. As a student at the Dalton School in New York City, he decided to begin amassing his own income by modeling — a short-lived career, but a career nonetheless.
The ambition he exhibited early on is certainly characteristic of the drive he showed at Yale, those who knew him during his time at the University said.
An interest in political science and political turmoil led Cooper to an avid interest in Nicaragua, a country often in the news during the mid- to late 1980s due to its involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
“I do recall a heavy interest in political science and political events,” said Peter MacKeith ARCH ’85, the dean of Trumbull College from 1986 to 1990.
Cooper became more politically oriented during his freshman year and, though he chose to not participate in the Yale Political Union or other groups of that nature, he pursued his political science interests academically. Next to his senior picture in the 1989 Yale Banner, Cooper lists his future career, as well as his major, as “Political Science.” He wrote his senior essay on operations against Qaddafi during the Reagan administration.
“He could definitely hold his own and then some in a political argument,” his roommate of three years Peter Marks ’89 said.
Academically, Cooper was known not only for his strong arguments but for the remarkable artifacts he would turn in with his papers. Because of connections made through his mother or with professors with whom he developed close connections, his friends said, Cooper was able to do things like turning in a weapon actually used during fighting in Nicaragua when he turned in one of his many papers on that country.
Cooper said some of his favorite classes were college seminars, because of their intimacy and the fact that they are taught by people with “real-world experience.”
Cooper’s friends also said they saw in him the ability to think on his feet which would later lead to his broadcasting success. Marks, who took “Study of the City” with Cooper, recalled a group assignment to design a set of buildings. After another group presented its building plans, Cooper was charged with the task of promoting his own group’s designs.
“He got on stage to defend our group’s position and had a very clever way of doing it,” Marks said. “Another group had come up with a series of buildings they would build and he made fun of it by calling it a ‘Higalty-gigalty hodgepodge of buildings.’ He reduced their position in an instant way.”
Pulling his weight
Instead of devoting extracurricular hours to honing his journalistic skills with one of the campus publications, Cooper devoted himself to the crew team.
After failing to keep up with his teammates and having his dreams of rowing dashed, Cooper found another seat for himself at the front of the boat. At 5-feet-10., Cooper decided to go down to 125 pounds to make race weight as a coxswain.
“It was sort of absurd,” Cooper said. “I was probably normally 145 or 150 regularly, so it was a little extreme looking back on it. It’s probably why I went grey early. I think I’ve always been sort of intense or obsessive … I wanted to stick with the sport. I don’t know if that was a very good idea, but it was a great experience.”
Joel Furtek ’90, Cooper’s fellow coxswain, remarked on the physical rigor through with Cooper put himself to succeed as a coxswain. Furtek said that, at 5-foot-6, making weight was difficult enough for himself, and he could only imagine how hard it was for the lanky Cooper.
“He was definitely very driven and very intense,” Furtek said. “I remember he would have to cut his weight very hard every week to get down to racing weight … So in addition to just practicing and all of that, he put his body in a world of hurt.”
But current Yale crew coach Andy Card said that, as Cooper’s weight went down, he also managed to keep his spirits up, something Card said is rare for rowers trying to make weight. Card, who was the assistant men’s lightweight coach during Cooper’s senior year, said Cooper’s physical transformation did nothing to affect his consistently dry and acerbic sense of humor and his ability to successfully direct and inspire the boat for which he was coxing.
“Anderson always maintained equanimity,” Card said. “How you see him on TV is the way he was then, too.”
Despite his heavy commitment to crew and his academics, his friends remember him for many of his other qualities: his ability to sleep through anything, his propensity to borrow clothing, the toys he accumulated, the impressions he could do of people, the way he always had a bevy of girls with crushes on him, his generosity — upon graduation, he gave his motorcycle to Card — and, above all, his wit.
“He was very sleepy and cold a lot of the time and he would walk around the suite in a down comforter, which I think had something to do with him being so lean,” Marks said. “It was peach colored, or maybe a beige-ish down comforter. We nicknamed him ‘Papoose’ at one point because of the way he crept around in it. His cocoon was in the suite.”
Somewhat of a homebody, Cooper was also very close with his mother. The relationship only intensified after Cooper’s older brother, Carter Cooper, committed suicide the summer before Cooper’s senior year at Yale. Vanderbilt told New York Magazine that Cooper wanted to stay home with her and protect her, but she told him he had to return to Yale.
Cooper said that because of his brother’s sudden death, his senior year was “sort of a blur,” and he did not feel very engaged with Yale, despite the fact that he continued to row and was a member of the secret society Manuscript.
Cooper’s friends said he would often talk about his brother before he passed away, and his brother’s suicide was terribly upsetting for him — so much so that many of his friends declined to comment on it.
“That was a devastating, horrible thing,” Marks said. “I felt so badly for him. I had met his brother a couple of times, and he was a nice boy, really funny. It was just horrible. I don’t think anybody saw it coming at all.”
From Yale to CNN
Cooper said his emotional detachment senior year could be another reason that he found himself with a diploma but without a job. He took a year off, working for a while on Long Island and then traveling in Southeast Asia, before deciding that reporting was what he wanted to do.
MacKeith, the Trumbull dean, said that while he does not remember that Cooper’s hair had already turned its steely grey during his time at Yale, he does remember that Cooper’s personality seemed suited to his current career, especially coupled with Cooper’s “star quality” that his friends said he possessed.
“When I knew of him coming on CNN, it made sense to me given his interest in political affairs and political science as a student,” MacKeith said. “I wasn’t surprised at all by that.”
But not everyone recognized Cooper’s talent so quickly: he was unable to get an entry-level job at ABC, and thus took it upon himself to travel to remote locations with a fake press pass and a camera until someone hired him.
Cooper finagled himself a stint with Channel One. From there he served as a correspondent at ABC and then went on to host the network’s “The Mole,” before he was picked up by CNN’s “American Morning.” He now hosts his own show on CNN, “Anderson Cooper 360.” Having spent the past month reporting on Hurricane Katrina, Cooper has lately been put on the defensive, accused of being too involved in his stories.
Yet, Cooper explained, while he should not make himself part of a story, he cannot act like a “fly on the wall.”
Still, some say that Cooper’s “Hurricane Katrina theatrics” are more based on ratings than emotions.
The authors of the blog “Power Line” said Cooper unfairly “asserts the ‘moral authority’ to dish out blame without analysis and without rejoinder. He cannot (or does not wish to) distinguish between his anger and the story.”
But Cooper said he will continue to stick to his convictions and report on what he sees.
“In my view, to artificially remove yourself from a story is as big of a mistake as to artificially insert yourself in a story,” he said. “I don’t believe in doing that. I don’t believe in making yourself part of a story, but at the same time, I don’t believe in pretending that I’m not there.”