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."
Yet Rivera chose to be here, relinquishing millions of dollars and a nightly platform on another cable network in order to do so. For seven years before coming to Fox he was the anchor of Rivera Live, a highly rated nightly news-talk show on CNBC. But on 9/11 he was in Malibu, and when he saw the Twin Towers go down, he went over to NBC's Los Angeles bureau, where he was told that his services weren't needed at the moment—his show was being pre-empted for the night because his arch-nemesis, Tom Brokaw, would be simulcast on NBC and CNBC. Rivera spent the next several weeks pleading with the NBC brass in New York to send him to Afghanistan, or at the very least Jerusalem. He was incensed. He wasn't Ashleigh Banfield, for God's sake: he'd covered Cambodia and Chile, Laos and Lebanon; hell, he'd been in Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded, in 1980. But the network, which had already dispatched much of its news staff to Afghanistan, told him to stay put. A little over a month afterward, saying that he refused to be marginalized, he used an exit clause in his contract and took an initial $3 million pay cut to sign on as a war reporter for Fox. With his signing came his pledge to kill Osama bin Laden—and to bring his head back to the United States, to be bronzed.
"Osama," he said to me one Saturday night, sitting in the largely deserted Fox newsroom before At Large With Geraldo Rivera went on the air. "That's the story. I can't tell you how many caves we crawled into looking for that sucker."
"We'll go back to Afghanistan," he said. "One more Afghanistan trip, because of all the unfinished business. I just want to go crawling around there one more time."
"You promised to—" I said.
"Kill him if I see him?" Rivera said, interrupting. "I will, I will."
"And bronze his head," I added.
"Those things are so outlandishly Geraldo," Rivera said.
As both of us laughed, he said, "I don't care."
I asked him whether he had made his Osama pledge for effect, or really meant to deliver on it. "They won't let me carry a gun, so what am I going to kill him with?" he said. "A Swiss army knife?"
But when I brought the subject up again a few weeks later, Rivera seemed very serious. "I would still shoot him," he said. "I will still shoot him. They won't let me carry a gun. But I should have just carried a gun and fucked everybody."
Rivera hasn't always been so "outlandishly Geraldo"; he hasn't always been "Geraldo" at all. The son of a Jewish waitress and a Puerto Rican dishwasher, Gerald Rivera was the first member of his immediate and extended family to graduate from college. At Brooklyn Law School, where he went after college, one of his classmates was Gerald Shargel, who is now a powerful defense attorney. Shargel recalls coming home from class and telling his wife, "This guy Gerry is the smartest guy I ever met." Rivera did extraordinarily well, winning a Reginald Heber Smith fellowship, awarded to the most promising law students in the country who aspired to practice public-interest law. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he worked at Community Action for Legal Services, in Manhattan; there he gained attention representing the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican activist group along the lines of the Black Panthers, who established many community programs but sometimes resorted to intimidation. Once, when a church in Spanish Harlem refused them space in which to serve free breakfasts to neighborhood children, the Lords seized control of it; on another occasion they occupied a hospital they claimed was providing substandard health care to Latinos.
At the time, the legendary Al Primo, who is generally credited with inventing the format now ubiquitous in local TV news, was the news director for ABC's local affiliate. Watching Rivera speak about the Lords to the press, he saw great on-air potential, so he offered him two things: a chance to go to a summer program at Columbia's journalism school on a fellowship, and a suggestion that he always use the Spanish version of his first name: Geraldo. Rivera asked Herman Badillo, a prominent lawyer who would go on to become the Bronx borough president and the first Puerto Rican representative in Congress, what he should do. "'Go into television,'" Badillo recalls telling him. "We didn't have any Puerto Ricans on television at that time. He would be the very first one. And I knew Geraldo was very aggressive, and that if he found a way to be a reporter on television, he could find a way to get to be known."
So after finishing the Columbia program, Gerald was introduced to the world as Geraldo when he went to work for ABC's Eyewitness News in New York. In 1972 he used a stolen key to investigate the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded, on Staten Island. His televised report on the rampant abuse and neglect of the residents led to changes in state law, and to new standards for the treatment of the mentally disabled across the country. More than thirty years later his Willowbrook story is still legendary among advocates for the retarded.
"That seems so long ago, in a way," Rivera says of his Eyewitness News days. "In some ways what I do now isn't all that different from what I was doing then. It kind of gets all muddled together. I get my decades mixed up now. I just can't remember not being Geraldo."
Willowbrook made Rivera a national star. He began hosting the ABC News magazine program Good Night, America and then became part of the inaugural cast of Good Morning, America. The night David Berkowitz—"Son of Sam"—was arrested, in 1977, Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, called on Rivera to do eighteen minutes on the capture. And as part of the original cast of 20/20, Rivera helped pull the show out of the ratings depths, with investigative pieces and interviews with Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, John Lennon. His fame and fortune grew. During this period he was, by his own account, reckless and "a slut" in his personal life.
But that chapter of his life—the 20/20 part, not the slut part—ended in the fall of 1985, when he objected too loudly to ABC's decision to spike a story by his colleague Sylvia Chase about Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy family. Rivera publicly chastised Arledge, saying his boss was acting out of friendship with Ethel Kennedy rather than sound journalistic judgment. His contract was not renewed.
Today Rivera owns lots of houses and even an island—so it's hard to imagine him in need of money. But by the end of 1985 he was. He had been making $1.2 million a year at ABC (while spending, by his own reckoning, $50,000 a month), and suddenly he had no income and, for a while, no good job offers. So when he got a call about doing a special on Al Capone's vault—the mysterious sealed crypt beneath the shuttered Lexington Hotel in Chicago, where Capone used to live—he jumped at the opportunity. Even though Capone's vault famously turned out to be empty, Rivera's professional prospects actually improved: the program, which aired in April of 1986, was the highest-rated show in the history of syndicated television. So he followed it with similar specials, including Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground, which in 1988 became the highest-rated two-hour "documentary" ever on network TV.
Meanwhile, in 1987, Rivera's daytime extravaganza, the Geraldo Rivera Show—known as Geraldo—made its debut. For an audience used to the quiet tones of Phil Donahue, Rivera seemed to tear apart the airwaves. His topics included "Wanted: Elvis! Dead or Alive," "Drag Queens on Parade," "Exploring Satan's Black Market," "Sexual Secrets … To Tell or Not to Tell," and "Teen Lesbians and Their Moms." And those episodes were all in one week! Then there was "Young Hate Mongers": that's when a skinhead referred to a black guest as an "Uncle Tom," producing a melee in which a hurled chair broke Rivera's nose. As Donahue begat Oprah, Geraldo begat Jerry Springer and Montel Williams and dozens of other trash-TV knockoffs—something he deeply regrets.
"I was sick of it," Rivera said recently of his decision in 1997 to leave the daytime talk-show format. "Maury Povich was my neighbor [in New Jersey], and he and his wife, Connie Chung, are two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. I saw his show just a couple of days ago, and it was all paternity tests and lie-detector tests, all stuff that I pioneered, and I look at that stuff now, and I know how smart Maury is, how sensitive he is, and for him to still be doing that—humiliating all those poor trailer-trash and mostly black people, Hispanic people—I don't know how you do that, how you bear that. I could not do that no matter how much you pay me. [My daytime talk show] was like a money tree growing in the back yard. It still could be on. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't face myself. I couldn't walk out there and pretend it had any social justification. It was just exploitation."
In 1991 Rivera published an autobiography called Exposing Myself, in which he detailed his sexual encounters with (among many others) Margaret Trudeau and Bette Midler, and recounted an anecdote about arriving at the bar mitzvah of the Hollywood mogul Jerry Weintraub's son with two hookers. He was taken aback by how many people felt hurt by the book. Publishing it, he now says, ranks up there with crossing Roone Arledge among his greatest personal and professional mistakes.
Chastened by the response to Exposing Myself, and souring on his own talk show, Rivera was saved when Andy Friendly, a cable-TV executive and the son of Fred Friendly (a legendary journalist and media executive who had mentored him early in his career), recruited him to CNBC. Roger Ailes, who took over the network in 1993, completed the negotiations, signing Rivera up to do an hour-long nightly show that focused on the news of the day. Within months of Rivera Live's debut, O.J. was cruising down a Los Angeles freeway in his white Bronco, a trail of policemen following behind. During both the criminal trial and the civil one that followed, Rivera Live was effectively the show of record; all the case's principals (prosecutors, defense lawyers, legal experts, Nicole Simpson's family, prominent commentators—everyone except O.J. himself) appeared on the program. The JonBenet Ramsey mystery followed, and soon Rivera Live was bringing in the network's highest ratings, besting both the news program hosted by Brokaw-in-training Brian Williams and Hardball With Chris Matthews. Rivera's soaring viewership even began to worry those at CNN, who feared that the moustached marvel might overtake Larry King.
When Ailes was hired to launch Rupert Murdoch's new all-news network, in 1996, he tried to lure Rivera aboard. Rivera was tempted, but NBC wanted to keep him and made it worth his while (or so he thought) to stay. He got a $6 million salary; the chance to host, in addition to his regular show on CNBC, an earlier evening-news program called Upfront Tonight; and the opportunity to produce four documentaries a year for NBC. He would also serve as a legal analyst for the Today show, and (he hoped) potentially for Dateline and the Evening News. He wanted to be "the anchor of the next millennium."
Things didn't go as planned. Though he interviewed Bill Clinton in China for Today, and reported from Kosovo, he was always kept far away from Brokaw, who by all accounts wanted nothing to do with him or his approach to newsgathering. (In 1997 Brokaw told The New York Times, "He does what he does, and I do what I do. There's very little common ground between us.") To compensate for the snub, Rivera says, NBC gave him an office bigger than Brokaw's—though of course "mine was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and his was in Rockefeller Center." Upfront Tonight was eventually canceled; and when Rivera reported on air that a source had disclosed to him that genetic evidence had been found on Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress, the rest of the division was told to ignore the story, on the grounds that it was mere innuendo.
"Show me someone who had more," Rivera says of the semen-stained-dress story. "I was the person who had the information about the DNA. We broke so much on the impeachment story, and it was overlooked—NBC's loss. It was Brokaw. It was Brokaw. He may be the most noble of creatures, but he was as ungracious as you could possibly be with me."
The day following our tumultuous voyage on the Belle ("There's always a near-death experience with Geraldo," his wife, Erica, later told me), I arrived at Rivera's house—or, rather, houses—in the seaside co-op colony of Riverside, New Jersey. The first house, which has a dock and an elaborately appointed gym, is where Rivera and Erica (who was then newly pregnant) live. The second house is for Rivera's four children from previous marriages. A third house is being built, mostly of glass; it will have its own swimming pool, and will serve as a guesthouse. Though the houses individually appear relatively unassuming from the outside, the complex as a whole is far from modest. The decor of the main house, which was originally a bachelor pad (Rivera bought it while in the process of separating from his fourth wife), resembles the interior of Captain Nemo's submarine. This house, the one closest to the water, is full of exotic artifacts, including knives and masks from Latin America, Africa, and Asia; in a detached garage Rivera keeps two 1954 Jaguars. Soon, he explained, the third floor would be converted into a nursery for the new baby, with the weaponry removed.
After taking me on a tour, Rivera sat at his desk, speaking to his producers—Christina Timothy and his brother Craig—about his show for the coming weekend. The night before, he had received a call from Michael Jackson's camp, asking if he wanted to cover a children's-charity event the pop star was throwing at Neverland in two days. Rivera was leaning toward going. (He has subsequently promised to shave his moustache if Jackson is found guilty in his current trial.) He rejected an idea about pursuing a piece on the disgraced Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerik—unless they could get an interview with the man himself. No Scott Peterson, Rivera said. He was sick of the case (although he would be open to doing a segment in which someone would describe what Peterson could expect on death row). And there should be plenty of Iraq, he said, with reports from three locations across the region. "Just go balls-out on Iraq," he told Christina and Craig. Soon he would be headed there himself.
For better or worse, Rivera does not avoid difficult situations; in fact, he moves toward them. I spent several hours in the office of Craig Rivera, who for thirteen years was a senior correspondent on Inside Edition, watching tapes of his brother covering war zones. The footage often shows Rivera, a black bandanna around his neck, running straight into—not away from—gunfire. In Somalia, where he and Craig had gone in search of al-Qaeda operatives, they found themselves in the midst of guerrilla fire. When Rivera walked toward the source of the shots with his arms in the air, declaring that he was an "Americano" in the hope, evidently, of ending the firefight, he was met by another volley that finally forced him to retreat. Footage from Afghanistan, where a Humvee in his convoy hit a landmine, shows Rivera sprinting toward the downed vehicle, yelling, "I've got to help. Please let me help, man."
"I'm not going to tell you again," the military commander traveling with the convoy yells at Rivera. "I need you back and over here. Look, I need you back over here. You can film it, but I need you back over here."
"I'm not afraid," Rivera told me later, as he diagrammed his approach to combat on a paper tablecloth. "If you're going backwards, you tend to be standing straight up. If you're going forward, you're a much lower target. This guy [the backpedaler] is much more likely to get it than this guy [the forward-creeper]. That's always been my theory. And with my crew I almost lead them. It's like this barrier of guys coming behind me. Horatio Nelson, Lord Nelson, always said, the captain cannot do far wrong who lays 'his ship alongside that of his enemy,' and that's always been my advice to any journalism student. Nothing happens in a studio. You have to get out there and get as close to the action as you can. That's where history is made: at the point of contact."
Because reporting is such a personal matter for him, Rivera responds viciously to questions about his methods or his fact-gathering.
On December 6, 2001, soon after arriving in Afghanistan, he and his brother traveled through the hills of Tora Bora, where the United States was carrying out combat operations against the Taliban. Rivera heard of a friendly-fire incident that, he was told, had happened close by, and he filed this report for Fox.
We walked over what I consider hallowed ground today. We walked over the spot where the friendly fire took so many of our—our men, and the mujahideen [anti-Taliban fighters], yesterday. It was just—the whole place, just fried, really, and bits of uniforms and tattered clothing everywhere. I said the Lord's Prayer and really choked up.
There was a problem, however. As David Folkenflik, who at the time was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, subsequently revealed, the friendly-fire incident Rivera referred to had actually happened in Kandahar, hundreds of miles away—not on the "hallowed ground" he was walking over. Rivera responded that there had been confusion—that he had actually been at the site of another friendly-fire incident. Folkenflik, who now covers the media for National Public Radio, reported that in fact, yes, there had been a friendly-fire incident in Tora Bora—but, according to Pentagon officials, it took place three days after Rivera filed his report, and it involved only Afghan soldiers, not U.S. troops. Fox News and Rivera both called the matter an honest mistake, but he remained livid. Rivera accused Folkenflik of "penis envy" and eventually met with Folkenflik's editors at the Sun to show video evidence of what he had seen at Tora Bora. When Folkenflik was awarded the $10,000 Paul Mongerson Prize for Investigative Reporting on the Media (sponsored by the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs and the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies), Rivera publicly demanded that the award be taken back, to no avail: the award stood.
"What [Rivera] tried to do was turn it into a referendum on my reporting as opposed to his own," Folkenflik told me. "He had talked about wanting to break my nose. I mean, it's amazing to see a guy go on Regis and The O'Reilly Factor and talk about this, but he straddles this world between celebrity and journalism, and he has the venues to do it to get what he wants."
Though more than three years have passed since the incident, Rivera still refers to Folkenflik's reports as "the most grievous wound." He says his biggest error was not going after the Sun immediately after Folkenflik had filed his reports.
"I believed that the Baltimore Sun reporter was despicably unethical," Rivera told me. "I got back after Tora Bora, first of all bitterly resentful, because I should have had a fucking parade. Nobody was braver. Nobody was more out front than us; nobody got more than us or was deeper with all the fighters. Nobody pegged the Osama story more clearly than we did. Nobody. Nobody. Instead I came back to the bullshit controversy."
"I have video," he continued, "that I think can prove in a court of law by any test that it was a friendly-fire incident that I came across at Tora Bora, and that I had confused it with the one that had been reported."
A little more than a year later, in March of 2003, Rivera was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. After two hours of reporting, Rivera was told he needed to come up with something for another Fox program. What he came up with was this: during his on-air report he drew lines in the sand, outlining where his division was located and where it intended to go.
Rivera was pilloried in the media for giving away American troop movements, and accused of compromising security. At the insistence of the Pentagon, Fox temporarily withdrew him from Iraq. NBC and MSNBC—which had been compelled to fire its own correspondent, Peter Arnett, a few days earlier, for criticizing U.S. policy in an interview with Iraqi television—declared in a promotional ad that their reporting would never "compromise military security or jeopardize a single American life." There was no doubt what the ad was referring to.
Today Rivera deems the incident "total bullshit," calling it a "non-story" generated by a single spokesman at the Pentagon. Indeed, he says, his drawing was far less revealing than the graphics that former generals, sitting alongside the network anchors in New York, used to detail the military's plan of attack. And Rivera points out that when he returned to Iraq, a week after the incident, he was welcomed back by the same unit he had supposedly put in danger.
"Attacks like this are more illustrative of the people who hate me than they are any way of me—because action talks and data walks," he told me. "That's why I said [the CNN anchor] Aaron Brown would shit in his pants if he had been in some of the places I was. That's true. That's absolutely true. It's the same way about all of them—every one of those Geraldo detractors. How many times have you been shot? How many times has your car been blown up? How many times have you ever been winged? How many times have you gone into it, taken a gulp, and stepped out of the airport?"
Rivera cheerfully admits that he's a hard man to kill—both literally and professionally. So while Peter Arnett sulks in the tomb of former-war-correspondent obscurity, joining the likes of "Scud Stud" Arthur Kent, Rivera has managed, as Robert Evans might say, to stay in the picture.
Rivera's brashness is less pronounced in real life than it is on TV, and it dissipates even further over time, especially when he's with his family. Spending the days before Christmas with them in Puerto Rico, I saw the Rivera family as less Brady Bunch than X-Men—some kind of social-psychology experiment gone terribly right. Four children from three different mothers, along with one young wife, they are a group of disparate individuals who have no particular reason to get along, but are drawn together by something. That something, of course, is Rivera. His oldest child, Gabriel, twenty-five, lives in Lake Tahoe and works with computers; he had brought along his girlfriend, currently in graduate school at UCLA. His son Cruz, seventeen, attends boarding school in Portland, Oregon. The two girls—Isabella and Simone, twelve and ten respectively—would meet up with the group later.
Erica, the fifth Mrs. Rivera, is a pretty, dark-skinned thirty-year-old who grew up in the Jewish bastion of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The daughter of a labor lawyer and an educator, Erica Levy went to New York in her early twenties, with a degree from the University of Wisconsin and experience in business television; she landed a job at CNBC in 1998. Two years later she met Rivera through friends, and on their first date—dinner at Café Luxembourg—she fell in love.
Twenty-five at the time, leading the usual exhausting New York romantic existence, she had been on countless dates, never really liking anyone. But that night she was powerfully drawn to Rivera, who is thirty-two years her senior. And he was a persistent suitor, sometimes calling five times a day. Before long Erica had moved out of her three-person share in Murray Hill and was living with him in New Jersey.
Telling her folks back in Ohio what she was doing was not as easy. The response was certainly understandable: outrage and heartbreak and concern from parents who had sent their daughter off to Madison in hopes she would meet a nice Jewish boy and settle in Cleveland, only to have her move to New York and fall in love with a four-times-married fifty-seven-year-old. Erica, they said, what are you doing? Three months passed. Finally, one morning, Erica and her father, who seldom fought, exploded over the phone. That day she went to work, and that night her folks called, saying they had watched Rivera Live and had agreed with what Rivera said. They asked if they could come to New York to meet him. According to Rivera, he and the Levys became "instant best friends." And so two years ago Erica entered Manhattan's Central Synagogue in a strapless Vera Wang wedding dress to join Rivera for, perhaps, the rest of his life.
When I brought up the assertion of his fourth wife, C.C. Dyer, that he is simply "incapable of being faithful" to anyone, Rivera said, "That certainly has been my story. But not now. I've been clean and sober [sexually speaking] for four years, and I've had a million opportunities, obviously, being on the road, especially being in Asia. But I've been studious about it. I figure, I've got a thirty-year-old wife—why am I going to be greedy about it? I've finally given it up. Socrates was free of it at eighty. I was free of it before Socrates."
Incidentally, Dyer's comments about Rivera's unfaithfulness—and about everything else—were made with deep affection. "He's the world's best ex-husband," she told me. And Rivera, for his part, says that his relationship with Erica was able to work only because it started almost a year after his final separation from Dyer: "None of the women that existed before the dissolution of the marriage could have been my partner, because C.C. would not have tolerated it. And C.C. is in some ways closer to me than my siblings. I wouldn't say she's my best friend, because of Erica, but those are my two best friends."
The first day of our visit to Puerto Rico, Rivera, his son Cruz, and I drove from a plush resort in the northeastern part of the commonwealth to Salinas, a town on the southern coast, off which Rivera had bought his own private island. Driving past rain-forest-like vegetation, we spoke about George Pataki (whom Rivera likes a lot); about Dan Rather, his favorite anchor, who has always—unlike Brokaw—been friendly to him; and about his own career. Iraq was getting too dangerous, he said, and he wanted his next trip to be his last. He loves Afghanistan, unlike Iraq—particularly the people. "Once they commit to you, once they give you a cup of tea or do work for you, they would die for you. There's amazing pride and loyalty and dignity—much more so than any Third World or undeveloped country. They're the coolest poor people on earth."
Rivera's island, twenty-five acres big, lies three miles off the coast from Salinas, and is under federal protection. Certain plants can't be touched, he told me, and no concrete can be used in the buildings he's planned. That's all right, though. Soon enough a three-story "floating home," powered by its own generators, will dock next to the island. It will be as big as his home in New Jersey, and it, too, will have its own gym.
The island looked like a construction site—from 1836. Five or six workers were building a wooden gazebo, while a couple more were drilling through to a spring that will provide fresh water. There will be a big stone barbecue pit. Rivera—with his shirt off and tied around his waist, revealing tattoos on both biceps—pointed to the future site of his hammock. Wooden bridges are all over the island, leading to various beaches, where dead coral will be removed to uncover soft white sand. There will be a sunset beach and a sunrise beach and, at the center, a wooden watchtower. "I'm really a hippie at heart," Rivera said. "I'd love to live on my island and look like Howard Hughes and have the kids come and pick the lice out of my hair."
Back on the main island, Geraldo, Cruz, and I settled in for a late-afternoon lunch outside at a restaurant by the water. Next to us a family waited for their meal. The mother was a tall woman with blonde hair and long red fingernails. The father was a heavyset man with a ruddy complexion. Two young boys ran around the table, while the parents glanced frequently in our direction.
Finally the mother said, in Spanish, "You look like Geraldo."
Speaking for his father, Cruz said, "He is."
The father told Rivera that he was one of the Young Lords that Rivera had represented in New York in the late 1960s. The man, now a merchant—vessel captain, was heading out on a trip to Portugal that evening.
"I was a socialist then," he said, in English.
"We all were socialists then," Rivera said.
"I was a junkie, too," the man said.
"Coming down here cleaned you up?" Rivera asked.
"No," he said, "I did it on my own."
After the family ordered us another round of beers, the man said, "You are an example to us all."
We were sitting in a restaurant on the Upper East Side, warming ourselves with Bloody Marys over brunch while the city recovered from a blizzard. Johnny Carson had died in the early hours of the morning. A couple of days earlier Rivera had hosted an inaugural ball in Washington for wounded soldiers (the soldiers had voted to have him be the host). On his way to meet me he had dropped off his daughters at Dyer's house. That night he would be leaving for Iraq. You know those times when you step back and curse yourself for not marrying that girl when you had the chance, or for not telling off your cousin at your father's funeral? As we talked, Rivera seemed to be experiencing one of those elegiac moments.
"We never had dinner [after my departure from ABC]," Rivera said, speaking of his old boss, Roone Arledge. "But I remember once—it was funny—in the men's room of the Columbia journalism school, where we were doing the Fred Friendly memorial [in 1998], and I was giving an address, and I ran into Roone, and we just stood for five minutes, and it was regretful and conciliatory."
Rivera's departure this evening would mark his sixth trip to Iraq since the U.S. occupation began. Though he agrees with President Bush that the insurgency will eventually die down, he said he felt queasy about this trip. He described the insurgents' capacity for violence as simply "awesome."
"But on the other hand, my going there is a giant fuck-you to [the insurgents]," he said. "They know that I go. They all have cable TV. They know I bring this bravado. These concerns I'm voicing to you—I don't express them on TV. So I go swaggering in there. 'Here I am—fuck with me if you can.' And the GIs get a tremendous kick out of it. I'm going to pump them up at every place we stop. To do my best at any place I stop, and I'll sign as many autographs as I can, do as many 'Hey, Mom's as I can. In a sense it's my duty."
C.C. Dyer says that Rivera gravitates to war zones because he didn't go to Vietnam. "Geraldo tried to avoid the Vietnam War, and I think he's always felt guilt-ridden about that," she told me. "And subsequently he's tried to cover every war since then." I doubted that Rivera would share his ex-wife's assessment. But when I put the guilt theory to him, he readily agreed. "You're damn right," he said of his avoidance of Vietnam. "I felt guilty; there's no doubt about that."
"I was totally against the Vietnam War—I hated the war," he told me. "The war sucked. But John Kerry served, and he hated the war too, and somebody else went instead of me. And I felt guilty about it. That's how I feel about this trip to Iraq, so I can come full circle. How can I not go and make someone else go?"
Rivera says this act of his life will soon end. He has a newborn coming in August. His contract with Fox will end in November. He has one more four-year deal left in him, he told me, after which he'll have a kid starting school. Ideally, he says, he would like to return to television in the vein of Howard Stern, with a daily television-cum-radio show.
"I think this next contract could be my biggest news contract unless I fuck up between now and the summer, and I don't intend to," he said. "Fox has first dibs, but the problem with Fox and me is they're wildly successful. Where are you going to put me? Who are you going to knock out? Every single slot is filled. From three o'clock to eleven o'clock they've got a hit show. Where would they put me? I don't know … But I know wherever I go—I could go to the lamest cable network, I could go to Court TV, I could go to Trio, I could go to Bravo—make one up, and I know my show will do respectably against the competition. And I know that. And they know that. In a sense I'm like a franchise ballplayer at the end of my career. I'm like Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. That's who I identify with: old guys who still can throw ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastballs."
"It's just like Johnny Carson dying," Rivera said. "Johnny Carson snubbed me all those years, never putting me on the show. You know, Brokaw retired, and I'm going to outlive every one of them. I'm going to outlive all of them. That will be my ultimate revenge."