The Americans: Letters from America 1969-1979

The Americans: Letters from America 1969-1979

by Alistair Cooke

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The Americans: Letters from America 1969-1979 by Alistair Cooke

“Reading [Cooke] is like spending an evening with him: you may have heard it all before, but never told with such grace and sparkle.” —The New York Times Book Review

As the voice of the BBC’s Letter from America for close to six decades, Alistair Cooke addressed several millions of listeners on five continents. They tuned in every Friday evening or Sunday morning to listen to his erudite and entertaining reports on life in the United States. According to Lord Hill of Luton, chairman of the BBC, Cooke had “a virtuosity approaching genius in talking about America in human terms.”

That virtuosity is displayed to great effect in this essential collection of Cooke’s letters, covering a momentous decade in American history.

Always entertaining, provocative, and enlightening, the master broadcaster reports on an extraordinarily diverse range of topics, from Vietnam, Watergate, and the constitutional definition of free speech to the jogging craze and the pleasures of a family Christmas in Vermont. He eulogizes Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, pays an affectionate and moving tribute to Duke Ellington, and treats readers to a night at the opera with Jimmy Carter.

Alistair Cooke was one of the twentieth century’s most influential reporters and, according to Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James Reston, the “best story-teller in America.” This captivating collection includes some of Cooke’s most memorable insights into American history and culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497682795
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 283
Sales rank: 626,875
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Alistair Cooke, KBE (1908–2004), was a legendary British American journalist, television host, and radio broadcaster. He was born in Lancashire, England, and after graduating from the University of Cambridge, was hired as a journalist for the BBC. He rose to prominence for his London Letter reports, broadcast on NBC Radio in America during the 1930s. Cooke immigrated to the United States in 1937. In 1946, he began a tradition that would last nearly six decades—his Letter from America radio appearances on the BBC. Cooke was also beloved as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre for twenty-one years. He wrote many books, both collections of his Letters from America and other projects. After his death, the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism was established to support students from the United Kingdom seeking to study in the United States, and vice versa.
Alistair Cooke, KBE (1908–2004), was a legendary British American journalist, television host, and radio broadcaster. He was born in Lancashire, England, and after graduating from the University of Cambridge, was hired as a journalist for the BBC. He rose to prominence for his London Letter reports, broadcast on NBC Radio in America during the 1930s. Cooke immigrated to the United States in 1937. In 1946, he began a tradition that would last nearly six decades—his Letter from America radio appearances on the BBC. Cooke was also beloved as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre for twenty-one years. He wrote many books, both collections of his Letters from America and other projects. After his death, the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism was established to support students from the United Kingdom seeking to study in the United States, and vice versa.

Read an Excerpt

The Americans

Letters from America 1969â"1979

By Alistair Cooke


Copyright © 1979 Alistair Cooke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8279-5


Telling One Country About Another

2 March 1969

A year or two ago, I had an invitation to go and talk to the cadets at West Point, which is the Sandhurst or St Cyr of the United States. The letter was signed by a general. It was the first time a general had invited me to anything, though more years ago than I care to say I did get a letter from the President of the United States which began: 'Greetings!' – with a cordial exclamation mark, too.

The general even sent a car to drive me up the Hudson. If I'd been going to talk to the Arts Club, or whatever, of Long Beach, California, I'd have put on a pair of golfing slacks and a blazer. But I was not going to be found guilty, at West Point, of what my headmaster called 'the supreme act of rudeness: casualness' and I decked myself out in a suit and a tie bearing the three cocks (the cock crowed three times) and weeping crowns of Jesus College, Cambridge. This badge offered the only possibility open to me of pulling rank. I also practised saying 'Yes, sir', 'No, sir' and 'Not at all, sir'.

When I got up there, I was the one who was called sir. The commanding general, it happened, was about five years younger than I and on the verge of retirement. He wondered if there was anything he might do to make me comfortable. This alarming deference made me think back to an afternoon, in 1962, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, a super aircraft carrier. I was along with the White House press corps at a demonstration of missile firing being put on for President Kennedy. When it was all over, and the twilight was dropping over the Pacific, I was nearly knocked down by a hefty slap on the back. It came from the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. 'Hi, there!' he said, 'You old bastard.' I had known him twenty years before as a humble lieutenant, and we had had one or two memorable raucous evenings together.

There seem, indeed, to be fewer men around than there used to be to whom I feel I ought to defer. By the same token, there are more and more men, going from grey to white at that, who come to me and seek advice. It is a mixed compliment. I now get calls from incoming foreign correspondents who wonder how to go about acquainting themselves with the Presidency, the Congress, investigating committees and the rest of it. The other day, one of them asked me to tell him the main differences between reporting the America of today and the America of thirty years ago. It is worth a passing thought or two.

To begin with, I could say, and truly, that the job is always the same: to say, or write, what you see and hear and relate it to what you know of the country's traditional behaviour. 'Traditional behaviour' may sound a little clumsy. But I'm trying to avoid the trap of what is called 'national character'. Whenever you are really baffled, it is always safe to put it all down to national character. I have come to think that a strong belief in national character is the first refuge of the anxious. For the moment, we'll let that pass.

A foreign correspondent, then, is both an interpreter and a victim of his subject matter. He must be aware of his own changing view of the country he's assigned to. And the danger here is that of assuming that the longer you stay in a country, the truer will be your perspective. As the Pope said to the earnest visitor who wondered how long he ought to stay in Rome to know it well: 'Two days, very good. Two weeks, better. Two years, not long enough.'

More important still, the reporter must always have in mind the settled view that his readers or listeners hold of the country he's writing about. The home reader, whether a simpleton or an intellectual, a Socialist or a Tory, wants – like a tourist – to find what he's looking for. He doesn't want to be startled out of his preconceptions. It is the correspondent's job to startle preconceptions. And, I must admit, sometimes to say that they're right.

There was, twenty odd years ago, the instructive case of a Hungarian refugee from his Communist country. He had been a Communist himself, till he saw Communism in action. Then he escaped to Britain. He was a journalist, a brilliant intellectual, and a Jew. When, after the Second World War, the British Labour government had to try and establish a policy for Palestine, a British editor decided that this man was the ideal outsider to report on the anarchy and ill-will that had set in between the British and the Jews. The editor gently suggested that it would be a fine thing if he could incidentally expose the 'lies' that the Palestine Jews were spreading abroad. The 'lies' included the notion that Mr Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, in trying to hold on to Palestine, and the support of the Arabs, and the goodwill of the Jews, was attempting an impossibility that was involving him in ruthless treatment of the Jews. The Hungarian was told to spend a few weeks feeling his way into the situation and then to begin filing his series of articles. He stayed a month, five weeks, six weeks, and nothing was heard from him. When the editor cabled, 'What happened? Where is the series?' he cabled back, 'Sorry, no series, all the lies are true.'

Luckily no such bad blood has soured the relations between Britain and the United States in the past thirty years, except during the first three or four years of the 1950s, when the British view of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy blew up the only blizzard of disgusted mail I have ever received. But, more recently, there have been delicate problems involved in reporting a first-rate power that was once a second-rate power to a second-rate power that was once first-rate. For many years after the Second World War, Britons refused to acknowledge their fading influence. And for a blazing month or two the most unpopular American in Britain was Dean Acheson, simply for having expressed his glimpse of the obvious: 'Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.'

When I arrived in Washington in the late Thirties, I was one of only four British correspondents. Today, there must be forty or fifty, if you count reporters on particular assignment, and the enlarged radio and television staffs of the BBC and the British commercial television companies. This trek followed a simple law of politics: the best reporters, like the best chefs, gravitate toward the centres of power. (The Australians today complain, as Americans did fifty years ago, that the foreign press corps in their country is unreasonably small.) When Britain really ruled the waves, in good King George V's glorious reign, London was the capital of foreign correspondence. The Foreign Office briefings were attended by a pack of correspondents from nations big and small. And the Foreign Office, being the repository of all wise and relevant information, felt no call to bandy debating points with the press. The Foreign Office distributed handouts, no questions asked. It did not justify its policies. It announced them. And I remember how American correspondents, newly arrived in London, used to fume in their impotence when they found it was not possible to have a private word with a Cabinet minister. To have invited him to lunch would have thrown him into a coronary.

A young Texan, a journalist, who is now a distinguished American magazine editor, stayed with me in London when I was back there in the early, dark spring of 1938. He was an inquisitive and typically courteous Texan, and one night he had a message from his New York office asking him to look into a rumour, a correct rumour as it turned out, that the Nazis were about to invade Austria. It sounded pretty melodramatic to me, but in those days we were not yet accustomed to the idea that gangsterism was a working technique of international politics. My friend mulled over the cable from New York and his instincts as an Associated Press stringer got the better of him. He asked to use my telephone and he rang up the Foreign Office, an impulse which to me was as bizarre as phoning Buckingham Palace. When the FO answered he asked to talk to Lord Halifax, who had just then become the Foreign Secretary. I was agog with admiration. I was at the time a political innocent, a film critic, but I knew my Hitchcock movies well enough to know that that was exactly how Joel McCrea in a raincoat went about his business.

It was soon obvious that my friend was having a rough time with the other end of the wire. 'Yes, sir,' he kept saying in courteous variations, 'I know it's very late in the evening, but this is not the sort of rumour the Associated Press can just forget.' Somehow, he managed to get Lord Halifax's home number, a remarkable feat in itself. He re-dialled and there was a crackle and a pause and a respectful fluting sound from the other end. It was the butler, who had a strangulated moment or two while, I imagine, he was being revived by the rest of the household staff. At last, he pronounced the definitive sentence: 'I'm sorry, sir, his Lordship is in his bath.'

This is still not an approach I'd be inclined to take, though in failing to be so brash I no longer feel merely courteous: I feel I'm neglecting my duty. Because I now take for granted the ease of access to people in government in America. Americans had, and have, a quite different feeling about the press. In many countries, and Britain used to be one of them, a reporter is a potential enemy. The Americans, however, feel it is better to have a friend in print than an enemy. And this, too, is a great danger, for nothing castrates a reporter so easily as flattery. But the main thing is, the politicians tend to look on you as a camp follower through the maze of politics, and if they can help you find your way out, without trading the Pentagon secret file, they will do it. Nowadays, of course, even dictators have to pretend to welcome cosy conversations with television interviewers.

America, from the beginning of my time, was an open book to a reporter. The people were there to mix with, and the landscape and its troubles and pleasures, and a reporter with the most modest credentials could get to talk to everybody from the Governor, the local Congressman, the Chamber of Commerce, the saloon keepers, the local madams. Huey Long stretched out on a bed barefoot in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans and picked his toes while he enlarged on the glorious future he had in mind for Everyman and Everywoman in Louisiana. I once asked the late Governor Talmadge of Georgia how the (since abolished) 'county unit' system worked in his state. He sucked his teeth and ordered up a car, oddly – it seemed to me then – a humble jalopy. We jumped in and he drove me into the corners of three counties that fringed Atlanta. In each of them he dropped in on a couple of farmers on the pretence of needing to relieve himself. When we were back in the city, he said, 'I got myself six unit votes right there, and them students and doctors and Commies in Atlanta can shout themselves hoarse – it's more votes than they have.' Once, I was driving across Nevada and noticed from the map that I was close by Hawthorne, and that it was the site of the US Naval Ammunition Depot. I asked to look in on it, and I did. I am a little awestruck now to reflect that a Japanese reporter could probably have done the same right up to the eve of Pearl Harbour.

In the Thirties you required no confidential sources to straighten you out on the condition of the country. The country was racked by depression. On several trips around the United States, in the South more than anywhere, I was physically nauseated by the people I saw in the country towns and in the workless cities: the absolutely drained look of mothers nourishing babies at shrunken breasts, the general coma of the rural poor, with the telltale rash of scurvy or pellagra on the back of their necks. Today there is very little, if any, scurvy or pellagra in the South, because they varied the crops and learned about green vegetables, and the cities turned to textiles. They were no longer doomed to plates of rice and corn and potatoes and hominy grits – a feast, whenever it was a feast, of nothing but starch.

The first year I drove around the whole country, about one family in four was on the breadline or just above it. Yet, while we totted up the grim statistics, we wrote little about these things for foreign consumption. The foreign consumers too had their silent factories and marching miners, and they had bemused and stumbling leaders. The great news from America was that the country was galvanized by the new President into a prospect of greener pastures. The story was the exhilaration of the Roosevelt era: the public works, the dams and new housing, the first national network of concrete highways, the poor boys planting millions of trees. These things excited us more than the conditions they were meant to cure depressed us. If thirty or forty per cent of the population was then at some stage of need, today only eleven per cent falls below the government's rather generous definition of a subsistence income of $2,200 a year. And though that may sound like small pickings, there has never been a time in this country's history, or perhaps in human history, when more people in one nation were better off, never a smaller percentage of two hundred millions who could be called poor. Yet there is less complacency, I believe, than there ever was. As I talk, the cities tremble and the countryside groans over the shame of it.

In case my drift is being misunderstood, let me say that this trembling and groaning is a good thing too. If God observes the fall of one sparrow, it is right in a prosperous time that we should feel not only that we are our brother's keeper but that our brother is the whole of society. I think it must be the first time in history that the so-called civilized nations have felt this way. Why? Are we more humane, more sensitive than we used to be? I think not. The world's population of the starving and near-starving at the height of the Victorian age must have been beyond our imagining. But the point is, the Victorians had to imagine it, or read the fine print, or take the progressive magazines or dig out – from some encyclopedia – the infant mortality rates. Statistics make few people bleed or weep. Today all of us, in a castle or a cottage, can see every night the warped skeletons of the children of Biafra. Thirty students up at Columbia University paralysed for a time the education of several thousand, and it looked and sounded, on the evening news, like the siege of Mafeking. A hundred cops go berserk on an August night in Chicago, and next day it's the scandal of the world. Television, whatever its faults and banalities, is the new conscience – or nagger – of mankind. I am frankly relieved to reflect that in the early Hitler days we had no television. The news dispatches of brave men had to be read by choice. The television scene of Nazism, as filmed by the devilishly skilled Leni Riefenstahl, could have recruited millions of disciples. It might, of course, have made people stop and listen to Winston Churchill, who went on and on, a croaking old orator, about the threat of a frightful régime he had evidently pictured in his mind.

This, I am sure, is the single greatest change that has come over our society's awareness of what is going on everywhere. The sight of violence has quite likely upset our sense of proportion just as badly as the assumption of general calm upset it by default. If so, we are upset in the right way.

The effect on the foreign correspondent has been revolutionary. All newspaper reporters, whether they know it or not, are competing with the television news, which has a daily audience bigger than the most famous newspaper correspondent ever dreamed of. The sheer pungency of television, of the thing seen, invokes not meditation but partisanship: that is to say, instant ideology. The newspapers, to stay solvent, try to match this emotional appeal. The result is that – in Britain, for example – the best papers are more and more turning into daily magazines of opinion, and the worst make the crudest, the most blatant, appeal to the seven deadly sins.

Consequently, while the scope of a foreign correspondent has not been narrowed (he's still expected to take all knowledge for his province) the reader's expectations of him are narrower, more ideological. When I began, it was possible to present the awkward complexity of a political story without any side being taken. And then to move on to any number of what were called 'colour' pieces: on the landscape, the livelihood of a region, sport, odd characters, the history of this custom and that place. Today, you write about these things and the partisan oldsters say you are fiddling while Washington or Chicago burns. The young say you've got a hang-up on whimsy.

A year ago, I was talking to a forum of Californians about the rape of their beautiful landscape by the developers. The tidal wave of new arrivals. The mania for city ways. The universal obsession with industry as the only true form of progress. When it was over, a handsome nineteen-, twenty-, year-old girl came up to me and said, 'I understood most of it except for one thing.' What's that, I said: She said, 'You have a thing about trees, don't you?' That's right, I said.


Excerpted from The Americans by Alistair Cooke. Copyright © 1979 Alistair Cooke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


A Note to the Reader,
Telling One Country About Another (2 March 1969),
Making a Home of a House (26 January 1969),
Pegler (29 June 1969),
Liable to Get Your Head Broke (7 September 1969),
'Eternal Vigilance' – By Whom? (19 October 1969),
Massacre: An Act of War (30 November 1969),
La Fayette Si, Pompidou No! (1 March 1970),
Now Here is the Nightly News (7 June 1970),
Final Health Warning (9 January 1971),
Judgement Day's A-Comin' (13 February 1971),
The Last of the Romanoffs (11 September 1971),
The Acheson Plan (16 October 1971),
A 'Frontal Attack' on Cancer (10 February 1972),
The Charm of China (26 February 1972),
Angela Davis v. the Establishment (1 April 1972),
Watergate: Act One (16 September 1972),
Justice Holmes and the Doffed Bikini (7 October 1972),
Give Thanks, For What? (25 November 1972),
A Reactionary at Six P.M. (10 February 1973),
Watergate: Act Two (12 May 1973),
Intermission: The Agnew Wake (19 October 1973),
Watergate: Act Three (9 November 1973),
The Duke (31 May 1974),
Earl Warren (12 July 1974),
Watergate: Act Four and Epilogue (7 August 1974 and 6 May 1977),
Workers, Arise! Shout 'Fore!' (27 December 1974),
The Benefits of Clergy (4 April 1975),
The End of the Affair (11 April 1975),
The President Goes Up to the Mountain (13 August 1975),
Pacific Overtures (16 January 1976),
Haight-Ashbury Drying Out (16 April 1976),
I'm All Right, Jack (21 May 1976),
No Cabinet Officers Need Apply (24 December 1976),
Christmas in Vermont (31 December 1976),
The Obscenity Business (18 February 1977),
The No–Food Plan for Longevity (20 May 1977),
The Money Game (1 July 1977),
Mr Olmsted's Park (8 July 1977),
The Retiring Kind (9 September 1977),
Two for the Road (23 December 1977),
A Picture on the Wall (13 January 1978),
The Spy that Came Down in the Cold (10 February 1978),
A 'Proper' Wedding (5 May 1978),
Please Die Before Noon (19 May 1978),
The Hawk and the Gorilla (2 June 1978),
A Letter from Long Island (18 August 1978),
The Letter from Long Island (4 August 1970),
The Presidential Ear (8 December 1978),
A Piece of Paper (20 April 1979),
In the Meantime (6 May 1979),
About the Author,

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