When Anderson Cooper betrays emotion, it’s in the service of something important.
CNN’s soft-spoken, silver-haired uber-Wasp can be exquisitely composed yet relentless when grilling bloviating politicians, or indulgent yet gently sardonic with preening celebrities. He is never showy, unlike any number of his competitors in the television anchoring business. But he has been stripping his soul bare over the past two days as he covers the carnage in Orlando.
On Tuesday night’s installment of AC360, his two-hour prime-time weeknight program, the 49-year-old Cooper, wearing a black sport shirt, held hands with Christine Leinonen, the mother of one of the Pulse Club victims, as he interviewed her about her dead son Christopher (aka “Drew”), who perished Sunday morning with his fiancé, Juan Guerrero.
Drew’s mother was the lady on Sunday’s news reports—mere hours after the killer methodically gunned down 49 mostly gay and lesbian club patrons and wounded dozens of others—who desperately, heartbreakingly, appealed to the news cameras to help her locate her missing Drew.
On Tuesday night, standing beside Cooper in front of the Orlando Regional Medical Center, where many of the wounded were given emergency treatment Sunday morning, she was smiling beatifically as she recounted her 32-year-old son’s accomplishments, including winning the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award in high school for starting the Gay-Straight Alliance. Drew’s mom gripped Cooper’s hand, and he gripped hers right back, refusing to let go, as though he needed the comforting physical contact just as much as she did.
“They were madly in love in a way that I’ve never seen him,” she told the anchor about Drew and Juan, noting that her son had had other serious relationships but that this was the big one.
Cooper asked how she could confront her raw grief with such a seemingly sunny disposition, and she replied: “Because I loved him. I could be sad, and I have been, and I could be angry, and I’ve been given license to be angry… But the love is going to usurp the hate.”
At the end of the interview, Cooper reached out and they encircled each other in a fierce and lingering hug. Looking drained, he threw to a commercial break.
If the scene bore little resemblance to a journalism-school model of detachment and objectivity, that was only fitting. Of all the human tragedies Cooper has coped with professionally over the past-quarter century of reporting on wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and other catastrophes, to say nothing of a high-society upbringing as the son of Gloria Vanderbilt in which his father died young and his brother committed suicide—Orlando has perhaps cut closest to the bone.
Cooper—who came out publicly four years ago in The Daily Beast to his friend, blogger Andrew Sullivan—is no longer simply an empathetic observer. The attack on Pulse was an atrocity he is bound to take personally as the TV newsbiz’s most prominent gay man.
Albeit shattered by the story it was his job to report, he was composed, although once during Tuesday’s broadcast the camera caught him in a sharp intake of breath and an equally sharp exhalation, as though banishing a sob. (On Monday’s program, when Cooper read out the names of the dead and provided thumbnail sketches of their lives, he was on the verge of breaking down and had to stop several times to collect himself.)
Yet, while Cooper has been gracefully sensitive and attentive in his on-camera talks with survivors and bereaved family members in the aftermath of American history’s worst mass shooting, he has also shown a steely, no-nonsense impatience for bullshit.
His uncompromising interview earlier Tuesday with Florida’s conservative Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi—in which Cooper calmly but repeatedly called her out for the “sick irony” and “hypocrisy” of litigating against the legalization of same-sex marriage a few years ago and posing now as a “champion” of the LGBT community—quickly went viral.
It was a textbook example of how to hold a dissembling politician accountable, cutting through spin and prevarications with the incisive elegance of a surgeon, but without anesthetic.
Bondi looked shaken when her ordeal was over—much like then-Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu looked after Cooper made short work of her bureaucratic rosy-scenario-ing during the Hurricane Katrina disaster; or addle-brained Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, whose demagogic shouting about nonexistent “terror babies” withered under Cooper’s unforgiving demands for evidence; or, for that matter, Donald Trump, whose explanation for attacking the looks of Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi—“He started it”—was met with Cooper’s stern remark, “With all due respect, sir, that’s the argument of a 5-year-old.”
Cooper ended Tuesday’s show—in which he explicitly refused to name the murderer—with a more comprehensive roll call of the victims, mostly men and women in their twenties and thirties, but with one girl only 18, accompanied by heart-wrenching photographs of vibrant, good-looking, happy people with a great deal to live for.
Cooper made no bones about his solidarity with them.
“As gay people, we share strands that are common no matter where we were born, or how we grew up, or what we do for a living, we share those strands of a bond,” he told his viewers, adding that the gay and lesbian survivors of Sunday’s mass shooting, and the community as a whole, will “stand up and continue to love and show the world that they are not afraid.”