He wore a suit, but the Anderson Cooper who showed up at CU Boulder March 6 was hardly buttoned up.
Optimistic, enthusiastic and clearly relaxed, the silver-haired celebrity CNN anchor even let loose a few bursts of salty language during a public appearance at Macky Auditorium that drew so much applause, he assured spectators it was ok to dial it down.
“You all don’t have to clap after everything I say,” he said in apparent surprise and amusement.
He also poked fun at himself and other prominent people.
A veteran of war zones and disaster areas who is among the most recognizable faces in television news, Cooper covered a lot of ground in roughly 90 minutes onstage, first in prepared remarks, then in a longer Q&A moderated by two students from the Distinguished Speakers Board, which organized the event.
The newsman, 50, touched on the perpetual news cycle, the personal tragedies that have shaped his career, acts of inspiring humanity amid catastrophe, information leaks from the White House (he called it a “leaking sieve”), the thrill of delivering breaking news with a blank teleprompter and a lot more.
He also poked fun at himself and some other prominent people.
Thanked by a student moderator for “coming out” to Boulder, Cooper, who is openly gay, quipped, “I actually came out a couple years ago, but I get your point.”
The audience, which included a huge contingent of undergraduates, loved it.
When the moderators projected a tweet from President Donald Trump attacking the news media, including CNN, on a giant screen above the stage, Cooper said, “Oh, did he tweet in? That’s so nice. I’ve actually muted him, so I don’t get them anymore.”
It was one of the biggest laugh lines of the night. (The tweet was an old one.)
And in recalling the time he asked his mother, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, for job interview advice, Cooper reported that she took a few days to think it over, then said, “Wear vertical stripes, because they’re slimming.”
At the time, he said, he was a teenager and hadn’t considered that “my mom hasn’t really had a lot of job interviews.”
There was more to the night than clever quipping.
Reviewing dramatic episodes from his 25 years in the news business, Cooper talked in sometimes graphic terms about horrors he’s seen, including the deaths of children amid genocide. He said journalists should strive to experience their work as feeling humans despite their profession’s expectation of dispassionate observation.
It’s important, he said, “to be able to walk in other people’s shoes.”
Cooper addressed two major personal tragedies and their influence on his career: The death of his father when he was 10, and the suicide of his older brother before Cooper’s senior year of college.
“He had jumped off the balcony of our apartment building in front of my mom,” he said.
Those losses stripped him of a sense of safety, he said, and paradoxically fed his interest in experiencing dangerous parts of the world.
“I wanted to go places where the language of loss was spoken,” he said.
Despite his own role as an information provider, Cooper lamented the perpetual news cycle and the state of information overload enabled by social media. It’s exhausting for him, he said, and feeds a broad, pessimistic sense that humanity is in worse shape than it’s ever been — a view Cooper rejects.
“By all measurements,” he said, “the exact opposite is true,” citing statistics showing greater literacy and less poverty worldwide than ever before.
But the deluge of news and opinion available to us in the social media age intensifies awareness of the suffering and danger that is and has always been inherent in life and society.
In his work, Cooper has seen a lot of suffering up close — after earthquakes in Haiti and tsunamis in Sri Lanka, amid genocide in Rwanda and war in Somalia, after mass shootings in the United States.
Over the years, Cooper, who also works for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” has balanced the painful drama with a healthy diet of celebrity interviews. But, having grown up in a household visited by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Truman Capote, for instance, he long ago came to see them as less than extraordinary, he said — often far less so than the ordinary people he’s encountered in extraordinary circumstances.
Of himself, the ubiquitous newsman said he never set out to be well-known, describing himself as a “very shy” introvert.
That may be true. You’d never know it.
Photos by Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder