Being Geraldo

Yes, he knows exactly what he is. But he still can't help it. (And anyway, it's not quite what you think)

On summer evenings the Boat Basin at Seventy-ninth Street, on the far western edge of Manhattan, hums with the primordial fears and ambitions that fuel the city itself. People stumble out of the nearby open-air restaurant and bar to stare across the Hudson, looking condescendingly at the shores of New Jersey, happy to be here in the capital of the world. Young Wall Streeters, faces rosy with alcohol, quietly ponder whether their long hours are worth it. Couples make promises to each other that won't last till August—which is fine, just fine, for the moment.

But in winter the restaurant is closed and shuttered, and the basin is a cold and forlorn place, devoid of life save for a few dock employees and compulsive joggers. No sane person would choose to be there. Yet there I found myself one day in mid-December, trying to keep warm, looking for a man whose face millions of people know, but whose essence and motivations remain mysterious: the lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-talk-show-host-turned-journalist Geraldo Rivera.

You would be hard pressed to find a sentient adult in America who does not know who Geraldo is. Like Madonna and Kobe, Martha and O.J., Hillary and The Donald, Geraldo has achieved single-name status—he is fully absorbed into the warp and woof of our time. He is a cultural phenomenon and often, it seems, the punch line to some pop-culture joke. But he was also once, and now aspires to be again, a newsman and a serious journalist. He broke major stories as far back as thirty years ago, and there is no more fearless war correspondent around. This is hard to remember, however, when seeing footage of him having fat from his buttocks injected into his forehead, or contending with brawling neo-Nazis on his talk show, or vainly searching "Al Capone's vault" for two hours on live TV, or promising to personally kill Osama bin Laden, or simply strutting and preening and boasting the way he does. Some smart, prominent people (Harvard professors, high-powered lawyers, distinguished journalists) who know Rivera well call him brilliant—and yet he can't seem to escape the larger-than-life circus act that is "Geraldo." So I had come to the Boat Basin on this frigid day, when he planned to put his thirty-six-foot jet-powered Hinckley away for the winter, to see if I could begin to figure out what lay behind Geraldo the Pop-Cultural Phenomenon, and whether there might, in the end, be redemption for Geraldo the Reporter.

A little after noon Rivera appeared at the end of the dock. Unlike some television personalities (Katie Couric, Jon Stewart), he looks in person exactly as he appears on the screen: muscular, with wildly windswept graying hair. Thanks in part to an intense daily workout that would debilitate most people (including me—I tried it), he appears two decades younger than his sixty-one years. And then there's his signature moustache, so prominent a beacon that it stands out even from twenty or thirty feet away.

Rivera planned to leave his boat in a New Jersey marina run by his friend Chick. So with me as his crew (evidently he likes to subject reporters to nautical experiences), we cruised down the Hudson toward the Atlantic Ocean. Steering the boat—named Belle, for his daughter Isabella—while drinking a Sam Adams, Rivera pointed out some landmarks from his life: Chelsea Piers, where the parents of his current wife, Erica, threw the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, in 2003; sitting on the ground alongside a ferry dock, the giant clock that was removed from the shuttered Colgate Palmolive plant in Jersey City, where his mother was born and raised; and the Parachute Jump at Coney Island, where his dad proposed to his mom after the ride had gotten stuck, leaving them suspended in midair. As we approached the Sandy Hook channel, he warned me that the relative calm of the Atlantic would soon pass. The northwest winds were bad, he said, and the ocean would be choppy.

He was right. Water began to splash off the bow; it seemed there was a real danger the boat would submarine, or that it would get hit broadside by a huge wave and capsize. As the winds broke in from seemingly every direction, Rivera's grip on the joystick tightened, and he handed me his beer so that he could concentrate.

"Can I have some of this?" I asked, clinging to the side of the boat with one hand and the Sam Adams with the other.

"Sure," he said. "Help yourself."

The beer was warm, but I finished the bottle in two swigs. Rivera whistled gaily, and joked that the waves were cleaning the front of his boat. I tried to imagine that I was tucked safely under a blanket in my Brooklyn co-op, far away from the violently pitching Belle.

Mustering a coherent sentence with great effort, I asked, "Is this a typical ride?"

"Yeah, it's typical," he said. "Typical of my life."

One of Rivera's most surprising qualities is his self-awareness: at every moment, at every stage of life, he seems to know exactly where he is. Of all the people I've interviewed, Rivera is the best at knowing when he's at the top of his game, when he's down, and when he's sunk. At this point in his career, he will freely say, he is at neither the top nor the bottom. He is no longer a dashing contrast to the slow and deliberate Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, on ABC's 20/20 (which is what he was in the early 1980s), and he is no longer CNBC's official anchorperson for the O.J. Simpson murder trial (which is what he was in the mid-1990s). Nor, however, is he dodging flying chairs, or appearing on television in bed in his bathrobe (both of which he did on his daily talk show in the late 1980s and early 1990s). He is in a kind of career stasis—a condition perhaps not uncommon for those fortunate enough to have more than two acts in American life. Now on his fifth wife and in at least his fourth or fifth professional incarnation, he is a war correspondent on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, a self-described liberal at what many consider to be the official news network of red America. He is not a signature part of the network; it doesn't promote his show the way it does Sean Hannity's or Bill O'Reilly's. At Large With Geraldo Rivera, the show he anchors on Saturday and Sunday nights at 10:00 P.M., is, Rivera acknowledges, "nothing." "It's hard to be a show of record," he says, "when you're on weekends."

Presented by

Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His article on the advice columnist Amy Dickinson appeared in the January/February issue.

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