Ambassadors come and go, but Alistair Cooke somehow seemed a permanent symbol of the Anglo-American partnership. Hence the genuine shock and dismay that greeted the news that, at the age of 95, the BBC’s man in Manhattan filed his last “Letter From America” Although the BBC hierarchy often had mixed feelings about Cooke’s record-breaking innings–he filed his first “Letter” on a 33 RPM disc in 1946 and went on to write almost 3,000 more in the decades that followed–they were only too aware that any attempt to force him to retire would cause uproar among his faithful listeners. There was as much chance of his being taken off the air as there was of the Queen being dumped from her traditional Christmas-Day address to the nation.
#ad#It was heartening to see the generous tributes paid to Cooke in the British press. Cooke was indeed an institution, and it is hard to think of any other journalist being able to match his combination of authority and folksiness. He knew everyone, had seen everything, had been everywhere, and he managed to convey all this without pomposity or self-aggrandizement. He never forgot that the real subject of his “Letter” was not Alistair Cooke but the country that had become his adopted home.
But his departure marks more than the passing of an era. In the last decade or so his admirers tended to think of him as a raconteur rather than a reporter; the infirmities of age meant he was increasingly confined to drawing on his seemingly inexhaustible fund of reminiscences. Yet in his prime, as both a BBC broadcaster and a correspondent for what was then known as the Manchester Guardian, he was a first-rate journalist who covered politics, sports, the arts, and show-business ephemera with the same precise but unfailingly human eye.
We are going to miss him, not just because we loved the sound of his voice, but because he represents a brand of professionalism that has become a rare commodity among today’s America-watchers. Nick Clarke’s highly readable biography of Cooke notes how, across the decades, Cooke instinctively dug beneath the conventional wisdom. Whether covering the Alger Hiss trials, the civil rights movement, or the anti-Vietnam war marches, he was always wary of the liberal clichés that would have appealed to the Guardian’s readers. He understood that, somewhere deep in the recesses of a story, it was possible to unearth a grain of truth. Cooke aimed to find it, regardless of how many people, liberal or conservative, he upset in the process.
The contrast with most of his successors could not be starker. Finding a balanced, nuanced view of American life in the mainstream British media is a hugely frustrating task. Part of the reason, to be sure, lies in the changing nature of journalism. Overwhelmed by the demands of the 24-hour news machine, reporters simply do not have the leisure to reflect on issues in the way that Cooke might once have done. Horizons are narrowed: America becomes Manhattan and the Beltway, with Hollywood on hand to supply light relief.
But there is an ideological problem too. An institution like the BBC–which tends to set the agenda in this area–is committed to a particular view of the United States. Too many of its journalists want it to be neat and orderly and social-democratic–like the EU with prairies. They never seem to grasp that the U.S. is far more complicated and contradictory than that vision suggests. Under George W. Bush’s presidency, of course the country has seemed even less comprehensible to the media elite. And so reporters go off chasing the wrong stories, from Enron to arsenic in the water, determined to avoid all but the minimal contact with the other America.
Not that the administration does itself any favors in the way it presents its arguments. On issues such as the Kyoto Treaty (which did more damage to George W. Bush’s international image than any other issue, including possibly even Iraq), the White House repeatedly fails to put its message across with any degree of conviction. As far as I could tell, there were sound reasons for rejecting Kyoto. But the British electorate never got to hear them (unless, that is, they happened to tune in to “Letter From America”). If those decisions play badly in the blue states, imagine how much worse they look on the other side of the Atlantic.
Do the media experts in the White House appreciate how serious a problem this has become? Sometimes I wonder if they have fallen for the image of Britain that Alistair Cooke championed in all those lush episodes of Masterpiece Theatre. The country you see there thrives on delicately cut cucumber sandwiches and exalted notions of fair play. Americans really do like to think that the Brits are so much more courteous and civilized than they. Sadly, the reality is that, thanks in part to the tabloid tendencies of the media throughout the past decade or so, political discussion in this country has become increasingly nasty, brutish, and short-tempered. If you don’t believe me, try following an average week’s coverage of Tony Blair, a man who is portrayed as a poodle, a fantasist, and even a psychopath. In other words, he is nowadays treated much like George W. Bush.
–Clive Davis writes for the London Times and is the “Letter From London” columnist of the Washington Times.