Few television broadcasters have been as engaging, astute, or enduringly popular as Alistair Cooke, presenter of Masterpiece Theatre for 22 years. On radio, the longevity of his career was even more impressive. Beginning just after the Second World War and continuing until early 2004, Cooke’s wry and humane Letter from America was the longest-running radio series ever to be presented by one person, and a weekly treat for millions. Despite taking American citizenship in 1941, Cooke never lost his sense of himself as British, and his comments form a revealing picture of the relationship between two nations.
This new selection of his legendary broadcasts provides a remarkable portrait of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Although he was as well acquainted with the corridors of power as any journalist, Cooke eschewed the usual haunts of Washington DC and based himself in New York. He travelled regularly throughout America, reporting on what he saw, whether the beauty of Vermont, the devastation of riot-torn Los Angeles or the glamour of Hollywood. It gave him a unique breadth of perspective, from insightful observations of American life (a delight in new technology, weariness of war in Vietnam or a national holiday for Martin Luther King) to world-changing events (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights protests, the Watergate scandal, 9/11). Along the way Cooke celebrates the distinctive qualities of America, from its extraordinary landscape to the character of its people.
As broadcaster James Naughtie writes in a specially commissioned introduction to this edition, ‘His brilliance lay somewhere in the gleam of his roving eye, which was attracted to the great characters and the big events, but also picked up the hypnotic rhythms of the day-to-day. As a result, Cooke was both an enthusiastic witness to history and a poet of the ordinary.’ Striking documentary photographs from the last half-century are set side by side with the text, to present an absorbing, and often moving, record of postwar America.
Justin Webb, BBC North America Editor and author of Have a Nice Day: a Journey Through Obama’s America (published by Short Books), examines how one man’s view of America changed the way we think.
My eighty-one-year-old uncle put his finger on it. We were discussing the Obama administration’s lack of interest in Britain and the British, pace the special relationship, when Uncle Oliver pointed out an inconvenient truth: ‘Remember we didn’t give a bugger about them until Alistair Cooke!’
He is right of course. Before Churchill no serving British prime minister had set foot in the former colony. As the journalist Alexander Chancellor put it, ‘It is difficult to overestimate the ignorance of American history and culture that existed among most educated British people when Alistair Cooke started broadcasting …’
Cooke introduced the British to their forgotten cousins in the manner of a gentle host at a rather restrained party. He did not assail his listeners with facts and figures – the nuts and bolts of America’s rise to post-war pre-eminence, and Britain’s mirror image decline – but instead concentrated on what he called ‘the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines.’ Those were the words he used in his letter to the BBC suggesting Letter from America and once the series was commissioned that was exactly the approach he adopted. This was not idle chat – far from it – but nor was it breathless reportage or relentless polemic. Alistair Cooke told stories. He created images. He let the listeners do the rest.
And as they listened, so they learned and wondered and thought about America, not as simply a bigger, duller, coarser version of Britain, but as a land of staggering variety and cultural significance: a land worthy of exploration. And as America changed during the 2,869 editions of the programme (it became the longest running commentary programme the world has ever known), so Alistair himself changed: a fact that made the entire enterprise all the more rewarding. He begins as a relative newcomer, but as time goes on and the layers of experience and knowledge begin to accumulate the result becomes richer and denser. He wrote a wonderful Letter in 1966 about a man called Meyer Sugarman, who had written to the White House to complain because the president’s party had commandeered the motel where he was intending to spend his honeymoon. The complaint secured an apology and a restoration of Mr and Mrs Sugarman’s honeymoon plans. Alistair did not approve. He didn’t say so of course, not in so many words, but what he did say about rights and responsibilities and the stressing of the former over the latter summed up elegantly and adroitly the unspoken fears of a whole generation of Americans who viewed the 1960s with alarm. By then the writer of Letter from America was, in a sense, part of that generation, able to express its forebodings with genuine feeling.
Later in his career he was completely open about ‘where he was coming from’ as it were; he never pretended to be modern and hip and entirely comfortable with all of Americas many changes of mood and tempo and direction: ‘I and my generation’, he wrote late in life, ‘are probably more at home with WASPs [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] (and a Catholic friend or two) than with the polyglot, white – black – Latino – brown – Asian, multicultural society that America has increasingly become.’ Commenting on the sartorial values of the newly elected Bill Clinton after the defeat of Bush senior in 1992 Alistair wrote, with gorgeous mock-solemnity: ‘Along with the passing of George Bush we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.’
Goodness, he was right! The blue blazer is still around – John McCain fought for it valiantly in 2008 – but it is out of power in a big way, and perhaps forever. Obama’s America is consummately unstuffy and un-steeped in the traditions and practices of the past. What would Alistair Cooke have made of it? Well, he would have loved these American times because he loved events and stories and new ways to illustrate the wonders of the New World. He would have had great sympathy for McCain, a man of his generation and his outlook, but he would have respected and celebrated the genius of the Obama campaign and the universally acknowledged accomplishment (for America as well as for Obama as an individual) of a black man achieving the highest office, when only a few decades earlier such a prospect looked so manifestly unrealistic. If he were writing today I suspect the Cooke gaze would be focused on the White House itself, or more precisely on the effect on the nation of having a black family reside there.
He loved the White House. It had, he said, ‘elegance and stylish comfort’ which he compared with the luxurious exile of some elderly former monarch. But he liked its American homeliness as well and did not approve of efforts to turn it into a real royal palace. He wrote hilariously about Richard Nixon’s intoxication with the place: ‘Mr Nixon actually created a sort of palace guard. He had for ceremonial occasions a row of trumpeters in uniform’. Absurd is the Cooke view. Still he likes us to be impressed with the place. At a dinner there with the son of a British prime minister (he was writing long after the event and we are not told who this was) he reveals that the son ruefully exclaimed, after passing through rooms aglaze with glitter and glass, ‘Home was never like this!’
That is not to say that Alistair Cooke wrote primarily about himself and his own impressions of the journeys he took and the dinners he ate. He was always fascinated – in a proper journalistic fashion – by other people’s stories and lives. He let them live and breathe, these actors in the American saga, and the result is that this book simply bursts with what journalists lazily call ‘colour’, but which is actually merely real life. What this enabled him to do was avoid the classic error of reporting on America as a single entity without giving due weight to its multifaceted nature, an error that leads to the conclusion that this is a nation of gun-lovers, or consumerists, or even fat people! In my book I strove to make this point by asking whether America really exists. Of course it does, but the founding fathers referred to it as ‘these United States’ in the plural, and now that three hundred million people live there the explosion of American stories and experiences is even more colossal than it was in Cooke’s day.
And even in his day it was quite a business, gathering intelligence on this vast nation. As a newspaperman for some of the time he wrote his Letters (he was the chief correspondent of the Manchester Guardian) Cooke was no slouch when it came to bringing in the news. He was a pioneer of the now commonplace idea that reporting America from Washington, or primarily from Washington, was a dreadful mistake. I am not entirely sure that his chosen home – Manhattan – is any more l’Amerique profonde than was DC, but he claimed it was easier to travel from there and certainly being away from the federal capital, with its obsession with political minutiae, was a wonderfully liberating factor in his writing.
As was the richness of his own interests and talents: Alistair Cooke had been thought by some of his Cambridge contemporaries to be a new Noël Coward in the making. When he was sent by a newspaper to interview Charlie Chaplin the two got on so well that Chaplin tried to persuade Cooke to give up journalism and collaborate with him in Hollywood. But the young reporter said no, and not because journalism was his chosen career, but because he fancied himself as a serious playwright. Alistair Cooke fizzed with ambition and drive and his interests were cultural as well as political: no wonder he devoted his life to America’s big stage. He suited America as much as it turned out to suit him.
This book is a celebration of America and a celebration of the art of broadcasting. If you remember him you will hear his voice – the mid-Atlantic twang developing as the years rolled by – and if you didn’t listen you are in for a treat. You missed one of the greatest lengthy performances in broadcasting history, a feast of fine writing and evocative delivery, but you have a chance, as it were, to hear it after all. Like the whisky he drank with such pleasure his whole life long, the appeal of his collected writings actually improves with time. America is one of the world’s most fascinating nations, and Alistair Cooke tells its story with grace and zest. He is not always right, not always on the money, but more often than not he touches a profound truth and always, always he writes with style. America is much more accessible to us now than it was when Letter from America began: partly as a result of mass transit and mass communications, but to a huge extent because of Alistair Cooke.