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Understanding America with Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke speaks at taping of his 2000th program 'Letter From America' at the British Broadcasting Company's Manhattan studioI’ve been enjoying a couple of days’ leave. Apart from the unspeakable pleasure of taking my son to school and picking him up every day, it’s involved good coffee, reading, a daily session of French horn playing.

But above all it’s given me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with an old friend. He’s an unusual friend, being a US-based journalist. As you’d expect I know a fair few journalists, and I have a lovely circle of friends in the US. But he’s one friend I’ve never met.

At a time of year when we our own memories of childhood resurface as we create new ones for our own son, I’ve reflected that Alistair Cooke’s voice is as much a feature of my own boyhood as putting up a Christmas tree or writing to Santa for the first time. We listened to him on Radio Four every Sunday morning, for my parents were huge fans.

He wrote every week from the United States, recording 10-15 minutes of elegant, urbane, direct prose delivered in a unique accent. His dispatches covered the decades, from the heady optimism of VE Day and the creation of modern fifties America to the coming of age in the 1960s and the trauma of assassinations. He put into words America’s grief after first Jack, then Robert Kennedy’s lives were snuffed out. You’d expect me to concentrate on his coverage of politics, but it’s not his powerful assessment of the national mood in 1963 and 1968 that is his tour de force for me.

My particular favourite is his coverage of Lyndon Johnson’s motel crisis, when the nationwide press scandal followed the Presidential party’s unintentional cancellation of the reservation of a honeymoon couple whose newlywed husband just happened to be “a two time Democratic Committeeman” with a taste for strong views and blunt telegrams. It’s vintage Cooke. The acidic glory of “every citizen believes he is at least as good as the man in the White House, and in many cases a good deal better” is a lovely encapsulation of democracy’s slightly anti-intellectual pride. His letter is a whirlwind tour of sharp quotes, building to the understatedly logical conclusion that democracy has joined the founding values of the US in redefining a relationship between the governors and the governed.

And as he concluded, “The heart bleeds for Lyndon Johnson.”

Listen to it

1 reply »

  1. Tom. I always enjoy your ‘off the record’ pieces and this evening, seeking a temporary diversion from online marking, I browsed through a few older posts. Coming across this one on Alistair Cooke was a particular delight. My Mum is / was a fan and we too listened every Sunday. I grew up marvelling at his use of language and I still dip occasionally into his ‘back catalogue’. Once I finish this comment I’ll be looking for Lyndon Johnson and the motel. Thanks for all the pleasure and memories you dispense with words of wisdom. X

Personal views of a wordsmithing, sartorialist, horn-playing, state school Oxonian dad, rugby ref, recovering politico, and fan of vintage tailoring, Ralph Lauren style, and sharp writing.

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