WHEN I WAS A COLLEGE NEWBIE, sitting at the scuffed Hush Puppies of my journalism professors, they tried to saddle me with their elbow-patched baggage of what a journalist should be: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ernie Pyle--lightweights, all. The poor naïfs couldn't have known about the tectonic shift that was about to rupture the very continental crust of journalism. How the Gregorian calendar was about to be reset, so that now all journalistic history is divided into two periods: BAC and AAC. Before Anderson Cooper and After.
We now recognize the host of CNN's 360 the way we recognize the sun and moon, which are always before us, as Anderson is. He is silvery and sleek, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, the friend of mankind. He is an enigma wrapped in a mystery ensconced in a French blue shirt, which really makes his eyes pop, by the way. Not that he cares about shirts. He doesn't really need one. In fact, if it were up to him, he'd probably do every show naked. Because that's how he comes to the story. And maybe because of that nakedness, he tells better stories. Which, strictly speaking, is a Nissan slogan. But I wouldn't be surprised if Nissan became one of his sponsors, since, they, like Anderson, understand narrative nudity.
Anderson goes where the news is, and even where it's not, sometimes bringing it with him in a carry-on bag, since he packs light, because he never knows when he's going to have to dodge a bullet or a hurricane projectile. Danger is his middle name. Actually "Hays" is, but "Danger" is so much more, I don't know, dangerous-sounding.
His first name is Anderson, which of course means "son of Andrew," as in the first disciple called by Jesus. And like our Lord and Savior, he is omnipresent. He's on two hours a night on America's News Leader, the second-place network CNN. He writes for Details, poses for Maxim, and is called one of the sexiest anchors alive by Playgirl magazine. There he is crying in New Orleans. Wait, no! Now his throat's tightening in Niger. Time out! Isn't that him vacationing in Rwanda at the genocide museum, since he says he hasn't been in a while? Hold up a second! What's that rustling? Is that Anderson under the bed, finding the news, emoting over it, smothering it with a pillow until its legs kick and twitch, then sliding out the bathroom window before anyone notices?
Oh, but we have noticed, Anderson. And not just me--Oprah! As in, Her Majesty, Oprah Winfrey! Like 60Minutes, she's now made Anderson a part-time correspondent on her show with other journalistic titans like Lisa Ling and the Big O's best friend, Gayle. Oprah's producers recently asked viewers to tell them how Anderson's reporting has inspired them. So I told them flat-out. I told them the truth, even though it was a lie, because it was an emotional truth, which I think Anderson would understand.
I emailed how Anderson's reporting in Africa had inspired me to adopt from the Tembe National Park two baby elephants, which had been mistreated after they'd been sold to an abusive circus trainer. In my backyard, I'd imported Tembe-like vegetation to make Kimba and Malaaka feel at home. Then I used their droppings to fertilize my vegetable garden, the produce from which I donated to a nearby orphanage.
Oprah's producers never called. Apparently, too many others had been similarly inspired by Anderson. But, the point is, Anderson taught me, both as a reporter and a man. He taught me to see the truth, not with my eyes, but with my heart, even if my aortic valve needs glasses for reading, so that sometimes the truth looks a little blurry.
Now, there are more words of wisdom from Anderson in his new book, Dispatches from the Edge. I've been in journalism almost as long as Anderson and have datelined from places throughout the world. But never The Edge. I don't even know where it is. Travelocity.com doesn't sell flights there. I checked, just to make sure.
Wherever it is, he's been there, and when he gets there, there's a method to his madness: "I don't really drink, but I like the bar because there's no bulls--here." You gOprah, Anderson! I haven't been to The Edge, but I've been to bars, and I know that's the kind of talk that gets you respect in them. Or a punch in the face. Either way.
But if you want to punch him, you've got to catch him. And you can't catch him. Like a shark, he says, he has to move to breathe. So he'll settle his seltzer water tab, and be on his way, heading back to the front, forever following in disaster's wake: the Tsunami, Katrina, NewsNight with Aaron Brown.