Anderson Cooper Gets Personal

The Emmy-winning journalist candidly discussed his career and sexuality at Lisner Auditorium.

School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno interviews Anderson Cooper. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
March 01, 2016
By Julyssa Lopez
Anderson Cooper has covered famine in Somalia, warzones in Iraq and violence in Bosnia. He shadowed a rescue team retrieving dead bodies after Hurricane Katrina and saved a bleeding boy from looters in Haiti. 
So when he had to move his appearance at the George Washington University back six hours on Monday, people wondered what major news event had shifted his schedule.
He was actually in New York, interviewing Melania Trump in the opulent, over-glossed apartment she shares with her husband. 
“It’s not a particularly news-making interview, but she seems lovely,” he told students with a shrug once he had made it back to Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon.
When it comes to Donald Trump, Mr. Cooper said the brash candidate is someone “smart about making himself available for interviews” who has “a very good chance” of winning the Republican nomination. Mr. Cooper’s comments come from his experience reporting on the frontlines of the primary election as anchor of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°.” He has covered numerous candidates, moderated the first Democratic debate and led a town hall before the Iowa caucuses. 
Mr. Cooper joined GW just before Super Tuesday to share his views of the political landscape and to discuss his career and his personal life with School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno. The event was part of SMPA’s Silver Anniversary celebration and was co-sponsored by the student organization Allied in Pride. 
The journalist is known for being unabashed and unafraid to challenge others. During the discussion, Mr. Sesno rolled news clips of Mr. Cooper snapping at Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) for her rehearsed remarks during Katrina and grilling Hillary Clinton about speaking fees she accepted from Goldman Sachs. In Mr. Cooper’s view, his job is to observe and push people based on facts.
“I’m not there to sort of confront somebody based on what I believe and the politics of the situation,” he said. “I am genuinely interested in walking in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand where they’re coming from.”
His career started when he packed a camera, forged a press pass and snuck into Burma. He reported for Channel 1 News, a scrappy station similar to “what Vice is now,” he explains. It could have been luck that led him to continue covering conflict zones—Bosnia, Vietnam, Rwanda— but he was also fueled by his personal experience with grief. His father had died when he was a child. When Mr. Cooper was 21, his older brother committed suicide in front of his mother.
“It made me want to be around others who were experiencing loss—and to be places where the pain I was feeling inside was matched by the pain outside,” he said.
The son of socialite Gloria Vanderbilt—who he affectionately says reminds him of “a space alien who came from another planet”—Mr. Cooper was in the spotlight early. Diane Arbus snapped his baby pictures, and he modeled for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren as a teenager. While Mr. Cooper says he doesn’t think too much about his status as a celebrity, his fame did cause great speculation about his sexuality until he publicly came out in 2012.
“The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud,” he wrote in an email to his friend Andrew Sullivan. Mr. Cooper allowed the email to be published on Mr. Sullivan’s website, The Dish.
Today, Mr. Cooper explains that he keeps his personal life private because he’s often reporting in areas where he might be targeted for being gay. But his experience as a gay man has given him perspective, empathy and a much better understanding of the world around him.
“Being gay, for me, is one of the greatest blessing of my life. It’s made me a better person,” he said. “It gives you a vantage point on the larger society a lot of people don’t get.”
Mr. Sesno opened the floor for questions from audience members eager to hear his advice for aspiring journalists and young LGBTQ people. He encouraged students to “out-hustle” others and follow their gut instincts.
Mr. Sesno ended with a final question: If Mr. Cooper could go back to school for a Ph.D, what subject would he pursue?
The Yale graduate laughed and said his school days are behind him. Rather than look to the past, he explained he’s more confident in himself and his abilities now. 
“As far as I’m concerned, life just gets better and better and better,” he said.