March 2009

Arts & Letters

Last man standing

By Alan Saunders

Alistair Cooke’s ‘Reporting America’

This book arrived on my desk during the week of the American presidential election, and it was still there a couple of days later when I returned to the office (from a studio, appropriately enough, after going to air live) to find that Obama had won and that I’d missed his victory address. I spent the next couple of hours at the computer, looking for a full version of the speech: nothing but excerpts on CNN and The Times, nothing too recent on YouTube. I got there in the end, though – and very good it was too, as you probably knew before I did – but this very early-twenty-first-century experience prompts an obvious question: What room is there for the likes of Alistair Cooke in a world where you can go online in Sydney and feel frustrated because you can’t hear a speech delivered in Chicago only an hour before?

To most interested parties, the presidential campaign was presented as a whirlpool of contending voices. Some were Australian, mostly in declamatory mode: from tirelessly plodding commentators to puzzled, user-friendly front-people on commercial channels, never failing to express ritual surprise that the US, like most democratic states, does not have compulsory voting. To cable viewers, most of the voices were American. There was CNN, always cautiously correcting its biases; Fox News, giving full vent to its increasing exasperation; and even, over on the Comedy Channel, Jon Stewart, whose chat show plays it for laughs but is actually packed with information and insight. And the point about these voices is that they were just there. It wasn’t their job to explain anything to you.

These are the eddies that, without map or compass, you have to negotiate if you want to understand American politics today. It has come so naturally to most of us that we don’t even notice that we are doing something new. What we might notice, if we bothered to give it thought, is that we absolutely do not need a man in a studio in Manhattan, speaking softly to us in a mid-Atlantic burr, drawing us in and telling us a tale.

It wasn’t any fault of Alistair Cooke’s that most of his audience outgrew his product, while those who didn’t outgrow it simply grew old. He was around for so long that his work sounded less like something with a history and more like history itself. This is what happens to the last man standing. On American National Public Radio, Garrison Keillor is still doing his cosy little fireside chats, but he is being ironic. Cooke was for real.

The style dates back, I suspect, to a time when radio was new and Cooke was an adolescent, listening, perhaps, to AJ Alan, the BBC’s first wireless star. Alan’s voice was middle-class (upper-middle middle, I’d say, nothing too grand) and his approach impeccable: he always wore a dinner jacket, pasted his script onto cardboard so that it wouldn’t rustle when he turned the pages, and never failed to bring his broadcasts in exactly to time. He told stories, each in the form of an anecdote, its style comfortable and conversational.

And this – though presumably without the dinner jacket or the cardboard – is what Alistair Cooke did in nearly 60 years of Letter from America. The form was in place more or less from the beginning. In 1946, letter number 30, the second in Reporting America: The Life of the Nation, 1946-2004 (Allen Lane, 400pp; $59.95), begins with the two-hundredth anniversary of Princeton University. Ah, so we’re talking about Princeton, are we? Well, no, because he next goes on to talk about the country around it and the American architectural style known as Greek Revival. So it’s to be colonial architecture, then? Not that either, because we then home in on the house on campus where Albert Einstein wrote his famous letter warning Franklin Roosevelt that Germany had already started work on a nuclear weapon and urging the president to do something about it. But, no, we’re not talking about Einstein’s part in recent history, either. We’re talking about what’s happening to the men, many of them now at Princeton, to whom we owe a debt just as we owe one to Einstein: the returned servicemen, whose plight represents “the most miserable, and possibly the most ominous” of the failures of postwar resettlement.

This is the pattern that was to serve Cooke well into great old age. Sometimes the biggest game of the day is so big that he has to cut to the chase, as he does when President Kennedy is assassinated, but even his September 11 letter begins by looking elsewhere, as so many Americans were doing before the planes hit. He has been watching a weather channel, wondering if the weather will allow a trip to the family bolthole on Long Island, when he turns to a 24-hour news channel and sees “a kind of movie I detest, of the towering inferno type: a roaring image, of a monolith collapsing like a concertina in a vast plume of smoke”. Weather channels, 24-hour news channels, disaster movies: clearly, the modern world has impinged on Cooke’s life. He talks about the Y2K virus too, and about OJ Simpson, though his parenthetical reference to him as “one of the most admired blacks” is a reminder of just how old is the voice we’re listening to.

In fact, you’d be hard put to find specific points on which Cooke was left behind by history. It’s just that his work carries the air of another America, where politicians are called upon to address “the Negro question”, where movie stars are products of the studio system and the new trend in music is a thing called swing. If he developed a taste for rap in his later years, or the movies of Quentin Tarantino, it is not recorded here. The antique effect is intensified by Cooke’s admirably acute sense of history: Clinton’s departure in 2001 reminds him of Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, the fall of the Berlin Wall makes him think of the founders of the American Republic and, inevitably, the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 recalls the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

When Americans say they like London, they’re more likely to be referring to Harrods than to the Finsbury Park mosque. Similarly, Brits who say they like the States probably mean Manhattan rather than Buffalo and Bloomingdale’s rather than the Bronx. It was this agreeably cosy mid-Atlantic perspective that Cooke’s Letter from America afforded. The trade ran both ways. To a generation of middle-class Americans, Alistair Cooke was the presenter of Masterpiece Theater on public television, introducing his adopted country to the sort of smooth and polished faux antiques in which British channels used to excel and that passed so well for high culture: I, ClaudiusThe Six Wives of Henry VIIIUpstairs, Downstairs.

But not everything in this collection is trying to charm us. For a quarter of a century Cooke was a senior correspondent for the Guardian, and the book reproduces many of his daily dispatches.

Journalism between hard covers, especially when it’s reportage rather than reviewing or profiling, might be the first draft of history, but usually the history that it’s the first draft of is nothing more than the history of journalism. There is a certain interest in reading what Cooke had to say about Kennedy before the Cuban missile crisis, but it’s difficult sometimes not to feel that the Guardian pieces would be more interesting as facsimiles of the yellowing printed pages, surrounded by the ads of the period and articles about long-forgotten issues that seemed important at the time.

But this was what Cooke thought of as the heart of his work. “On government and politics I am and continue to be a reporter,” he said in 2003, “collecting facts, however awkward or contradictory, and leaving you to arrange them into an opinion.” Oddly, it seems not to have occurred to him that a reporter whose job it is to file one story a day on a subject of his own choosing is, even less than most reporters, nothing like a mere recording angel. He selects, he shapes and, in Cooke’s case, he makes it very clear that there is nothing impartial in his point of view: one of the earliest pieces here is devoted to telling his readers just what a failure Truman’s presidency has been – an opinion which, it soon emerged, the majority of the electorate did not share.

The prose is functional, getting down to the job much faster than the broadcast work, and Cooke, whether in print or on the radio, is quite without that aversion to the first-person singular which, I find, still afflicts many Australian journalists. He can be evocative, even a touch ornate, as when, describing Gary Cooper in High Noon, he writes of “that precise mince of the cowboy’s tread and that rancher’s squint that sniffs mischief in a creosote bush, sees through suns, and is never fooled”. This is good – though we might wonder how a squint can sniff – and it gets better when Cooke moves on to a cool and intelligent analysis of the younger Cooper’s bland appeal to middle-class women.

Letter from America continues to be the embodiment of Alistair Cooke’s own bland appeal. It is part of broadcasting history – and, for many of us, part of our personal history – but it points nowhere. These days, it seems generally agreed that the way to get spontaneous talk on radio is to have someone talking spontaneously. Middle-aged men reading aloud in studios are no longer what’s wanted, even if they’re not wearing dinner jackets. We don’t what artificiality – which means, of course, that we want a different sort of artifice.

Meanwhile, the sort of thing that Cooke filed for the Guardian is everywhere. It’s TV and the web that break stories, while newspapers supply the colour and background, just as Cooke used to. And don’t you wish you could hear what he would have to say about Obama? He would have noticed that the campaign, vicious though it was, had nothing on the one between Jefferson and Adams; he would have relished a black man taking the capital of the old Confederacy; and perhaps he would have remembered his Guardian dispatch of 13 March 1959, in which he writes of Hawaii’s wait to become the fiftieth state and how the admission to the Union of Alaska (not yet ornamented by Sarah Palin) had resulted in the design problem of a national flag with seven stars times seven.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

'Reporting America', Alistair Cooke, Allen Lane; $37.95.
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