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Anderson Cooper’s on-air breakdown was an honest expression of his complicated personality—and a breakthrough for the future of television news.

On Saturday, August 27, it became obvious to Anderson Cooper that Katrina was going to be a very big storm and a very big story. So he cut short his vacation in Croatia, got on a plane to New York, and then headed south.

He landed in Baton Rouge on Sunday night and rented an SUV with plans to drive to New Orleans, but he was a few hours too late—the storm had already begun to pummel the city. He decided to wait for the hurricane to come to him, and then weathered it on the air as it slowly exited the Gulf Coast and churned northward.

Over the next day or two, largely cut off from his producers in New York, he struggled to figure out where he should go. By Tuesday night, he was anchoring his show on CNN, Anderson Cooper 360°, from Gulfport, Mississippi, standing in front of a giant floating casino that had washed inland. The next day, he went to some of the hardest-hit towns in that state: Bay St. Louis and Waveland. By the time I finally am able to get through to him on a satellite phone, it is Friday, though he doesn’t seem to know what day it is. At this point, he has been in the field for more than 100 hours, gotten into an on-air tussle with a senator, and been hailed by some as a model of what a television journalist should be. As I talk to him, he is sitting on what used to be someone’s front yard in Waveland, an antique-toy-car collection scattered all over the ground around him. He is a stew of emotion: dejection, regret, sadness, anger. “I was really affected by the bodies,” he says, his voice cracking. “I’ve seen a lot dead bodies before, and I’m not sure why these dead bodies affected me so much, but I sort of haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.”

When I ask what his life has been like for the past few days, he says, “I’m fine.” Long pause. “It’s a horrible story to cover.” Another long pause. “Frankly, I feel privileged to be here. I’m really . . . I don’t want to leave . . . Um . . . ” He starts to cry. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m going to have to call you back in a second.”

When I first met Cooper a month earlier in Manhattan, there were much more mundane things on his mind, like where to go for lunch. Because he sticks out like a silvery human hood ornament, I spotted him talking on his cell phone from two blocks away. He was standing in front of Vinyl, a self-consciously hip restaurant in the far West Fifties. Though it was midday on one of the hottest days of the year, Cooper couldn’t have looked more put-together in his impeccably modern black suit, crisp pink shirt, and perfectly knotted purple-and-blue tie. What is it about people with that particular combination of icy blue eyes, pale skin, and silver hair? Cooper’s appearance lends him an aspect of otherworldly knowingness and inner calm. But appearances can be deceiving.

The restaurant was his choice, but it was crowded, close, and loud. He quickly realized that it was a bad idea, and that’s when things started to get a little strange. We stepped back into the heat and bustle of Ninth Avenue, and Cooper began to do some restaurant calculus in his head. After a few mumbled half-sentences, he said, “Well, there’s a greasy spoon in the next block, or there’s the Italian place across the street.” Finally we headed in the direction of the diner, but halfway down the block he changed his mind. “Let’s be grown-up and go to the Italian place,” he said, and we turned around. But in that restaurant he was equally unhappy, so we walked out once again. As he pointed out a bistro and a Thai place across the street, I could see the wheels of indecision spinning again. “Thai places are always quiet,” he said, and within a minute we were finally seated in . . . a tiny, noisy, hot Thai restaurant.

Even after the decision was made, Cooper was restless and uncomfortable. In an attempt to break the ice, I paid him a compliment about his show.

“Um.” He stared at his water glass. “Um.” He picked up the glass and took a sip. “You know, we try to do a mix of stories . . . um . . . ” He put the glass down, played with his chopsticks. “I don’t know.” He was squirming in his seat. “I really hate talking about myself.”