Anderson Cooper spoke at Hard Rock Live last night, not representing CNN or his new daytime talk show in particular but just him as a guy, telling stories, making perfectly timed self-deprecating jokes, and winning over everybody. But at some point, it went deeper than that. I realized: I want Anderson Cooper to be my friend.
He's the perfect example for our times. Raised in relative privilege, given lots of opportunities, told from an early age that he could do anything. "Follow your bliss" was Gloria Vanderbilt's sole career advice to her son, and she cribbed the line from a TV show. He graduated with a liberal-arts major from the Ivy League. He didn't know what to do with himself. The world was his oyster. Sound familiar, Gen-WTF pals?
But somehow he found the perfect thing to do, because standing in front of people and talking -- not as an anchor or host or -caster but as a pal, the Vanderbilt kid next door -- is something he does like no one else.
"You do realize I'm not Julio Iglesias?" he said when he stepped onto the stage. "He's tomorrow night." The arena was half-full of Democrats and Republicans, women and men, 100 percent entirely normal people. They applauded and laughed. Outside, it was a normal night in Hollywood. Red lights at the Asian Massage. Drive-up liquors at Happy Pappy's. People talking about luck in elevators. But in here, we were rapt. Anderson had something to show us.
"The smell of cooking food fills the air and taunts the hungry." It's a video clip of a brown-haired Yale-grad Anderson crouching among corpses in Somalia. "You don't realize they're bodies at first." He sounds almost impossibly sincere. It's the first broadcast story he ever did, from 1992.
"I wanted to be places where pain was palpable," he told us about that trip. His brother had just committed suicide. "I wanted to learn from people how to survive."
His travels have taken him to more than 60 countries, and this is where the other part of my longing for friendship comes in: I found myself, rather embarrassingly, being inspired by his speech. Sure, it was peppered with lines like "We're all capable of anything," but Anderson Cooper really meant them: We could all, under some circumstances, be the cokehead socialite or the child soldier wielding a machete, watching his family get raped. We're all hanging by a thread. This is what you see when you're a Vanderbilt who travels to every corner of the globe to find whatever raw stuff is under our comfort and privilege. In his words, "the truths that are revealed in the dwindling light of day." Tell me he didn't write that one in advance.
"It's about not turning away from a combat zone," he said, speaking to veterans in the room. "You're running towards what everyone else is running from."
Shit, I think. My friend Anderson could teach me some things about doing my job.
For most of my life I've had that one friend who is good-looking, extremely polite, and seems to be good at everything. Sports, music, academics, writing: They make everything look easy. Anderson is one of these people. But we're all capable of anything. See what I mean?
He shows videotape of him in Egypt for CNN, getting punched in the head. He had never been in a fight before. On the tape, he's telling his Muslim assailants, "Calm down! Calm down!" as if that would help. He laughs at how silly that was. But he does the same thing every night, in front of the nation. Anderson spends his life struggling not to be partisan.
"Bias is the number-one thing I think about when reporting stories," he says. "I try to hold people accountable on facts. I try to do it to Democrats as much as I do it to Republicans." This, perhaps, is the flaw that keeps him from being entirely interesting when he's not taking punches or sidestepping bodies. It's also the reason we all like him so much. It's Obama 2007.
He tells us some anecdotes. Obama keeps the Oval Office hot -- enough to make people sweat. "Politicians don't sweat," Anderson remarks. "I, right now, am like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News."
Someone asks him about celebrities. He says he grew up around celebrities, and they don't really fascinate him. They're just as screwed up as us, if not more.
He talks about moderating presidential debates. "They're all staring at you with, like, these daggers of death, because they want you to call on them," he says. "Hillary will just stare at you. John Edwards would raise his little finger. That should have told me something right there."
He answers questions smoothly, like a pro, as they're read to him in a voice-of-God over the PA system. One 13-year-old girl asks, at the end of her question, "Also, can I touch your hair?"
He says yes and invites her up onto the stage. She touches his hair, and they pose for a photograph. Somehow, the segues between bodies in Africa and this kind of stuff seem practiced and effortless. Because these are all things that are interesting to humans, and Anderson Cooper is just a guy.
He's just like us. But why can't we be more like him?