Geraldo’s Last Laugh

Late last summer, as the titans of New York’s insular media world were sharpening their knives for NBC’s newest golden boy, Geraldo Rivera threw a party. As the sun set over Buzzard’s Bay in Marion, Massachusetts, just off Cape Cod, about a hundred guests gathered on the immaculate green lawn of Seagate, Rivera’s postcard-perfect waterfront summer estate. Sipping gin-and-tonics and mingling quietly, the well-heeled men and women, edging toward retirement age, were uniformly fair-haired, deeply tanned, and clad in bright-lime-green-and-pink plaids. Blue-blazered NBC president Bob Wright, who flew in from Nantucket by helicopter and landed on the back lawn, blended right in. The only incongruities in the genteel Wasp setting were a mammoth margarita machine, a live band blaring music from the disco era, and the host himself, the mustachioed Rivera, sporting orange wraparound Ray-Bans and crammed into a pair of conspicuously tight pants.

Rivera and his ebullient, red-headed wife, C.C., (“my Wasp wife,” he calls her), had opened their home to raise funds for a $125 million redevelopment project in nearby New Bedford, a depressed port city with a substantial Portuguese population. Later that evening, as we took in the party from the roof of his well-appointed house, Geraldo surveyed the choppy bay to the east and, to the west, a lush, exclusive golf course just across the gravel road. “I’d play,” he complained sadly, “if only they’d let me into the club.”

It was a typical performance: melodramatic, laced with indignation, a bit comic, and almost poignant, until it became clear that Geraldo had never really considered joining the club at all. Although he has a golf tournament named after him in New Jersey – where he lives in affluent Rumson with C.C. and their two young daughters – hitting little white balls bores him stiff. When the pumped-up 55-year-old is not sailing, boxing, or lifting weights, he plays tennis at another club in town. Which raises the question that could just as well apply to his much-speculated-upon career ambitions at NBC News: Does Geraldo Rivera, described by Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg as “one of the very best talk-show impresarios on the planet,” really want in? Or does he prize his outsider status as image-defining shtick? Not even Geraldo seems to know for sure.

On one level, the man who virtually invented tabloid television a decade ago with his trashy syndicated Geraldo show seems to be waging a calculated campaign to shed his reputation as “the Rodney Dangerfield of broadcast journalism,” in the words of his senior producer, Steve North, and win the acceptance of his pious peers and sneering critics. Donning horn-rimmed glasses and scrutinizing court documents with his “depo-cam” as the host of CNBC’s Rivera Live during the O. J. Simpson trial, Rivera showed viewers that he is both a sharp lawyer and a first-rate journalist, scoring exclusives with the Brown and Goldman families and breaking the contents of O.J.’s civil deposition. With its combination of sex, violence, race, and thorny legal issues, the story seemed tailor-made for Rivera. Rivera Live soon became CNBC’s top-rated prime-time show, and as the anchor of its prime-time lineup, the show helped bring the once-troubled cable network to wide distribution and huge profits (Rivera Live alone brings in about $10 million a year).

A year later, during the all-Monica-all-the-time cable-ratings wars, Rivera Live has outpaced any offering on CNBC or its sister cable network, MSNBC, including the evening newscast with Brian Williams, the presumptive heir to Tom Brokaw’s anchor seat. For well over a million viewers addicted to the finer legal and political points of the Lewinsky scandal, Rivera’s nightly dissection of Ken Starr’s sex-and-lies inquiry has been appointment television – the best-produced, newsiest, and most probing talk show on the air. His niche as President Clinton’s sole stalwart defender in prime time has distinguished him from the pack. Time and again, Rivera’s journalistic instincts – from seriously pursuing the “right-wing conspiracy” to pointing out the political implications of the racial divide on the scandal – have proved prescient. In a media sea of scolds and hysterics, Geraldo Rivera has emerged as the voice of reason.

Rivera’s show has been attracting twice as many viewers in recent weeks as it did at this time last year – fueling CNBC’s challenge to CNN, still the leading cable news network by far. In the first three quarters of 1998, CNBC’s household viewership was up 43 percent over the same period last year, while CNN’s rose by only 11 percent. “As long as the market and the president’s libido is up, so is CNBC,” jokes Bob Reichblum, the CNBC exec in charge of prime-time programming.

But now that the Clinton story is just about played out, Rivera, who has bolstered his role at CNBC with a visible new post at NBC News, personifies the challenge of every talking head on the air: How will he keep his audience and profile in a post-Monica media world and return to regular news? Will a man who thrives on adrenaline-laced over-the-top megastories still deliver for NBC covering more standard fare? Or will he be a $36 million P. T. Barnum without much of a show?

The prospect doesn’t seem to trouble network news chiefs, who were recently embroiled in a full-scale bidding war to bring the outcast newsman back into the network fold. Last December, after a secret meeting with ABC president David Westin about the possibility of his taking over Good Morning America (Rivera turned down the offer) and then a very public flirtation with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, Rivera signed a five-year, $36 million contract with NBC. The deal guaranteed him a news-anchor slot at CNBC and, for the first time since he was pushed out of ABC’s 20/20 in 1985, brought him under the much-coveted umbrella of a network news division.

The Rivera juggernaut took off in July, when NBC’s Today show gave him a plum assignment covering Clinton’s historic trip to China, enraging foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who was bumped from the trip. Rivera’s high-stakes comeback effort accelerated in late August with the debut of Upfront Tonight, a half-hour newscast airing on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. that he co-hosts with former Hard Copy reporter Diane Dimond. The broadcast, which has exceeded initial ratings projections and drawn fair reviews, relies heavily on NBC news packages and its Washington correspondents.

Rivera’s rehabilitation culminated last month with the debut of The Geraldo Rivera Specials, a series of prime-time documentaries produced by NBC News in which Rivera reprises his seventies WABC Eyewitness News persona as a crusading street reporter. The first special, Blacks and Blue, examined tensions between the police and the black community in Pittsburgh and topped its time slot in the ratings. Rivera confirms that while NBC News president Andy Lack and Don Ohlmeyer, the head of NBC’s entertainment division in Los Angeles, shot down the idea of his hosting a weekly Sunday-night in-studio talk show to go up against 60 Minutes, he’s still gunning for the slot: He views the documentaries as a first step in ultimately persuading the network to let him take on the venerable, high-rated CBS news magazine.

Still, Rivera has a long row to hoe before he can shed his negative journalistic rap, even within his own network. A Rivera ally close to the negotiations with NBC says the deal was essentially forced on Lack, who “hates Geraldo’s guts,” by corporate bigwigs who were willing to make what some saw as a Faustian bargain to keep their money-making star happy. Rivera will say only that “Andy came up with the money and fought a lot of intramural battles. He should be credited. It’s not easy being in my corner.” (Through a spokesman, Lack says he supported bringing Rivera to the network.) Rivera then ran afoul of Tom Brokaw by seeming to suggest in a TV Guide interview that he wanted Brokaw’s job. Rivera insists he meant to say only that unlike Brokaw, he was part of a new breed of anchor who does more than “read a script.” (Brokaw, who has suggested that Rivera would never be welcome on the evening news, now declines to comment on Rivera.) NBC White House correspondent David Bloom won’t appear live on any Rivera broadcast because he doesn’t want to “get beat up by Geraldo,” according to one NBC exec. The feeling is mutual. One evening off-air, Rivera referred to NBC reporter David Gregory as a “slightly less-well-informed guest.”

Then there was the flap in August when Rivera broke the story that an FBI laboratory had found “human genetic material” on the dress that Monica Lewinsky had turned over to Starr. After the show that night, which beat out CNN’s Larry King in the ratings, an increasingly common occurrence, a celebratory Rivera, flanked by a retinue of friends and his publicist, stopped by Elaine’s for a drink and a few forkfuls of fried calamari. “This could really be it, a major step for me,” he told me. Drawing on his sense of what Hollywood calls “the three-second I.D.,” he volunteered: “Instead of your story being ‘Outlaw Comes to the Network,’ it could be ‘Geraldo Rivera, Journalist!’ ” Then he dramatically excused himself to answer queries from the wires, Nightline, and the New York Post.

Little did he know that as he was mouthing the word journalist, NBC News was busy disavowing Rivera’s “scoop” in an in-house bulletin to all bureaus that soon leaked out and got plenty of ink. Howard Kurtz, the respected Washington Post media critic, accused the network of maintaining a double standard for Rivera, allowing him to go with a story that no NBC correspondent could get on the air without further corroboration. “He’s our loose cannon,” one NBC executive told me in the heat of the controversy. Two weeks later, of course, Rivera, who says he did check out the story “to the extent possible” with the FBI, was fully vindicated. His critics didn’t notice. Three months later, the incident still rankles Rivera. As he combs out his mustache in the makeup room one evening, he complains cockily, “That story was widely disbelieved, widely. I’ll never be honored in my time.”

But the story of Rivera’s bid “to climb the food chain of media respectability,” as talk-radio host Don Imus gibes, isn’t so simple. One contradiction in Rivera’s career is that the unorthodox style he would have to shed to join the press club – his passionate advocacy, his showbizzy sense of how to grab the viewer, his ability to insert himself into the drama, and his tweaking of network suits – is exactly what has made him a hot media commodity for three decades. Rivera knows that if NBC suddenly “honored” him, Geraldo wouldn’t be Geraldo anymore.

The other contradiction is that the very media culture that still wants to shun Rivera has, to a remarkable extent, been defined by him. From the spread of hybrid news magazines (of which he created one of the first, ABC’s Good Night America, in 1973) to the profusion of legal talking-head shows to the increasing tabloid bent in news to the blurring distinction between reporter and commentator, Rivera was there before the industry was.

If Rivera ever achieves his lofty goal of being seen as “one of the Wise Men of my generation,” it will be on no one’s terms but his own. When asked what he most admires about Geraldo, his brother, Craig Rivera, a correspondent for Inside Edition, responds, “His balls, quite frankly.” Indeed, at the very moment that he is poised to win readmission to the network fraternity, Rivera’s pro-Clinton position in the Lewinsky scandal is destined to seal his renegade status in the news business, which prides itself on neutrality and regards the words Clinton apologist as a deadly epithet.

“When I did O.J., I was able to bite my tongue until the verdict came in,” Geraldo says. “But on this one, I couldn’t.” That, of course, is an understatement. “He doesn’t want to be ‘accepted’ in that way,” insists Craig Rivera. “He just wants to please his audience. And if what he does gets him accepted, fine.” Ultimately, Rivera wants it both ways. He wants respect as a journalist and the freedom to operate outside the confines of “respectable” journalism.

Rivera’s defense of Clinton has been anything but anchorly. In Rivera’s lexicon, Clinton is “a horny middle-aged guy condemned for ten blow jobs,” Starr is a “sex-obsessed prosecutor” peddling “hearsay crap,” House GOP leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay are “haters,” and Congressman Dan Burton is “Dan ‘Scumbag’ Burton, father of an illegitimate child.”

Rivera insists that his colleagues are “just as biased as I am” but won’t admit it. During his high-profile trip to China, Rivera skewered the Washington Post and Newsweek as “sex-obsessed sister publications” that have been “suckling leaks from the breast of … Ken Starr.” On a recent Rivera Live, Rivera became so impassioned in demanding that the New York Times apologize to Clinton for its incessant coverage of the Whitewater scandal that he threw his note cards at the camera and went to an early break. “My wife yelled at me for losing it,” he says. Another time, he railed against the “pretense and hypocrisy” of those who set themselves up as moral arbiters, referring to “a network anchor and his White House reporter” who have been “married eight times between them.” (Off-air, he says he was talking about ABC’s Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson.) On the Today show, where he appears as an NBC “legal analyst,” his friend Katie Couric upbraided Rivera for his lack of balance.

Certainly, eyebrows would be raised at NBC if his bosses knew, as Rivera confesses, that he also offers political advice to the Clinton team privately while reporting the story. “They try out ideas on me and see what my reaction to it is,” he says. “There was a time when I thought they had lost their courage, they were droopy and scared. I stiffened them up.” Far from being repentant about his bias, Rivera charges that his view of the scandal as a sexual witch hunt is impeding his career at NBC News. NBC executives, he says, have “shot down” his proposal to do a Clinton-scandal special on the network. “My colleagues look askance because I’m out of the mainstream,” he bristles. “I’ll never be on Dateline. I’m a voice in the wilderness. But twenty years from now, I’ll be seen as one of the few who were right.” In the midst of his tirade, Rivera makes a point to note, “I don’t even have an NBC I.D. The guards let me in the building because they all speak Spanish.”

Marty Berman, Rivera’s longtime producer on the daytime show, says he has tried to persuade Rivera to hold his tongue with the press, but “he’s a girl who can’t say no.” “Geraldo’s honest, and sometimes it gets him in trouble,” adds his former 20/20 colleague Barbara Walters, recently described by Rivera in Playboy as having “nice tits.” “After the Playboy interview, I called him and said you’ve given me a whole new image. We used to kid a lot back then, and I used to tell him if he was ever ready for older women to give me a call.”

The Playboy interview points up another undeniable aspect of Rivera’s persona that makes him an unlikely network standard bearer: He’s cheesy. While fans see it as part of his charm, one frequent guest on Rivera Live confesses to wincing occasionally: “He’s got this Long Island, pinkie-ring, Al D’Amato thing going that can be pretty awful.” Greeting former Newt Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley on Rivera Live after the November election, Geraldo smirked, “Tony, I love ya, but you got your butt kicked the other night, man.” He signs off every night by kissing two fingers and making a peace sign. His not-ready-for-prime-time Perry Ellis wardrobe of big-shouldered, double-breasted suit coats is widely derided by his NBC colleagues.

Not surprisingly, Rivera’s close friends all seem to come not from the ranks of the media elite to which he has ascended but from earlier parts of his life, a motley, protective posse that includes Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong; Brooklyn Law School chum Jerry Shargel, now John Gotti’s lawyer; and a few yes-man producers who’ve been with him since the tabloid days. Most nights after the show, they head to Elaine’s or Miss Elle’s, an Upper West Side dive Rivera proudly informs me is “owned by three dykes” (a statement that later mystifies the bar’s sole, heterosexual owner). He then drives back to Rumson in a black Bentley, fit for, well, John Gotti.

Although Rivera has seemed to re-invent himself almost as often as Madonna, he really hasn’t changed a whit. Born Gerald Rivera to a Jewish mother and a Puerto Rican father, he grew up the oldest of four siblings in West Babylon, Long Island. According to Los Angeles lawyer Victor Furio, who met Rivera when they worked together one summer on a city maintenance crew, Rivera’s father, Allen, who had emigrated from Puerto Rico as a young man and worked in the cafeteria of a local defense contractor, instilled in Geraldo his brimming self-confidence. “His dad didn’t have a very sophisticated job, but he was a proud guy who had been class valedictorian back in Puerto Rico,” Furio says. “Geraldo was the Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot and Don Juan of his day. He had aspirations to be a superhero.” At the same time, says longtime friend Marty Berman, “With his mixed heritage, he had a sense of never fitting in in either place.”

Rivera attended the New York Maritime Academy – to this day, he often commutes the 25 miles to work in Fort Lee, New Jersey, from Rumson on his speedboat – and then went on to the University of Arizona and Brooklyn Law School, where for three years he sat next to Jerry Shargel. “I told my fiancée in 1966 that this is the smartest guy I ever met,” says Shargel. After a summer in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, Rivera embarked on a career as a long-haired, left-leaning legal-aid lawyer, working with a Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords, whom he often represented in television interviews. Even then he demonstrated the strange mix of intellectual ability and louche theatrics that has dominated his career. “He wanted to have an impact,” says Craig Rivera, describing his brother’s “romanticized notion” of himself. “He wanted to be a great man.” Rivera admits that his heroes tend to be “overdrawn and overly romantic. I think of the great historical swashbucklers, the Lawrence of Arabia types.”

In 1970, the telegenic attorney was spotted by the news director of WABC, who offered him a job as a reporter, but not before suggesting that Gerald change his name to Geraldo to exploit his Hispanic roots. From the start, he had difficulty balancing journalistic notions of objectivity with his personal passion. In 1972, he was suspended from the station for his vocal support of George McGovern’s presidential candidacy. In a subsequent effort to embarrass Rivera, a conservative radio-show host put out the false story that Rivera’s surname was actually Rivers, painting him as an ethnic opportunist.

Ironically, Rivera says he met with real discrimination at WABC, an experience that still colors his perception of how the mostly white, square-jawed media Establishment views him. “Nobody wanted to work with this Puerto Rican kid who they had sent to journalism school,” says Berman, then a film editor at the station. Yet Rivera’s identity, says Danny Schecter, who worked with him as a producer at 20/20, “also put him in the role of ethnic hero, which he couldn’t comfortably fill, either, because he wasn’t really from the barrio.”

Rivera made his reputation in 1972 with a blockbuster report on the appalling conditions inside the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, then the nation’s largest facility for the mentally retarded, which was eventually closed by the state of New York as a result of his report. “Willowbrook is one of the things, along with some others he’s not so proud of, that will be on his tombstone,” says Berman.

The Willowbrook publicity made Rivera an instant celebrity in New York, and the charismatic cub reporter briefly flirted with the notion of running for Congress from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, district where he was born. “There were serious meetings with politicos,” says Berman. “He thought he would carry the Jewish vote and the Puerto Rican vote, which is a majority in New York City.” But Jerry Shargel says “the glamour and money” of a television career proved a stronger pull. By day, Rivera was reporting on migrant workers in New Jersey, child heroin addicts in East Harlem, and the Yom Kippur war. By night, he was partying at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol, Rudolph Nureyev, and Mick Jagger. The Avenue C townhouse that he shared with the second of his four wives, Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter Edie, became “the site of unsurpassed parties,” as Shargel delicately puts it.

After stints as a correspondent for Good Morning America and the ABC Evening News, Rivera worked for eight years at 20/20, where he exposed the harms of Agent Orange and domestic dioxin, traveled behind the lines in Laos with anti-Vietnamese rebels, traced the trafficking of heroin from the Afghan border to the streets of New York, and, in 1983, did the first network treatment of the aids crisis.

Then, in 1985, Rivera publicly slammed the decision of ABC News president Roone Arledge – his longtime friend and mentor – to kill another reporter’s story linking JFK to Marilyn Monroe. Amid the turmoil, Rivera’s associate producer and then girlfriend, C. C. Dyer, was caught using an ABC messenger to score marijuana for a friend. Both Geraldo and C.C. wound up leaving the network. Eighteen months later, Geraldo married C.C., who now works as a publisher of The Two River Times, a Rivera-owned weekly crusading newspaper in Redbank, New Jersey. “It’s still an open wound,” Rivera says of that period. “Roone and I saw each other at Fred Friendly’s funeral recently. It scars both our professional records. For him, it was a unique misstep in an otherwise flawless career. For me it was suicidal, self-destructive.” But as Barbara Walters points out, the setback didn’t deter Rivera. “We all thought it was very unfortunate when he left. He was exiled and unhappy, but he made a lot of money,” she says. “And he ended up with a career that is much larger than if he had stayed as a 20/20 correspondent.”

Financially strapped after being fired from 20/20 (“He went broke after each of his three divorces,” says one friend), Rivera grabbed the first lucrative offer that came his way: hosting the live excavation of the private vault of Depression-era mobster Al Capone. The vault was empty, leaving Rivera humiliated, but the show won the highest ratings ever for a syndicated special. Soon, he was hosting two shows of his own, the daytime Geraldo show and the syndicated news program Now It Can Be Told. Both were ratings magnets roundly trashed by critics.

Rivera is the first to admit that as tabloid television went down-market, he descended further, hosting a show from a nudist colony, mud-wrestling a woman, having fat from his ass implanted into his forehead. But even then he continued to do some excellent journalism – such as airing the first report on the dangers of silicone breast implants. Even the notorious Geraldo episode in which skinheads smashed a chair into Rivera’s face and broke his nose was actually intended as a serious look at hate groups in America.

Nothing did more to mar Rivera’s reputation than the 1991 publication of his breathless, aptly named autobiography, Exposing Myself. Fearful that a writer for Reader’s Digest was working on an unauthorized book about him, Rivera typically decided to strike first. “His agent, his wife, and I all told him not to do it,” says Marty Berman. “What he did to himself was worse than what anyone would have done. If a movie star wrote it, that would be one thing. But for a newsman, it wasn’t gallant. It was macho-asshole.” Rivera provided intimate details of his extramarital affairs with Marian Javits, wife of former New York senator Jacob Javits; Margaret Trudeau; and Bette Midler, among others.

Needless to say, the memoir provided fodder for the tabloids and late-night comedians. Though Rivera now says he regrets writing the book, there is a sense in which he was liberated by it. Dismissing his peers as a “spiteful bunch,” he says, “They can’t say anything about me that I haven’t already said myself.”

By his own account, Rivera has enjoyed his sexual freedom, and his critics eagerly point out that his personal experiences have undoubtedly framed his benign view of Clinton’s sexcapades. But Rivera’s identification with Clinton goes deeper. One evening after the show, he took his guests, including former governor Mario Cuomo and Jerry Shargel, for drinks at Miss Elle’s. The formal Cuomo seemed ill at ease as Geraldo played master of ceremonies. The situation wasn’t helped when a patron came up and delighted Rivera with the suggestion of a Rivera-Cuomo ticket in 2000 – in that order. Holding forth on Clinton, he suddenly turned to Shargel and said: “He’s one of us, man! He’s our generation.” As a lawyer, Rivera is as anti-crime as they come – witness his stance on the O.J. case. But he believes the creation by Starr of a victimless crime was a dangerous abuse of power. “He always comes out on the side of the underdog,” says Craig Rivera, summing up his brother’s philosophy.

Ironically, Rivera’s unbridled indignation may be just what’s missing from his new show, Upfront Tonight. The audience-grabbing tacky splendor is gone, too: He’s swapped his jeans for suit pants and hosts a succession of nearly dead white men as his headline guests – Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, Marlin Fitzwater, and Al Haig, who addressed Rivera on air as “Reynaldo.” So far, the show is a disappointment. Rivera concedes it has not found its “raison d’être.”

For Rivera, it’s the age-old insider-outsider conundrum. One CNBC source says the problem is that “Geraldo isn’t himself” on Upfront Tonight. But inside NBC, the worry is that Rivera is too much himself and may never be accepted by a wider news audience as a straight anchor. The first network news special landed with a dull thud as well. For the first time ever, people are saying that Rivera is – of all things – boring, which also raises a question for Rivera Live, at least until another O.J. or Monica comes along. Of course, the moment he’s not boring, the journalistic cognoscenti will be ready to run him out of town again.

Perhaps Rivera can’t have it both ways after all, but he says he’s not worried. “After Willowbrook, everyone said, ‘You’ll never get another story like that.’ But I’m not just good on the air. I’m a good producer. It’s a learned response. Lightning will strike again,” he says, sighing deeply. “My only solace is that I’m on my sixth generation of critics, and I’ve outlived them all.”

Geraldo’s Last Laugh