At last we can find out what Alistair Cook has been saying about us behind our backs for the past 10 years. Actually, he's been talking about Americans over the BBC to the British and others of the English-speaking world since 1946, and two collections of his weekly radio talks have already been published, covering the period up to 1969. But unless you eavesdropped over the short-wave, this is your first chance to hear how he was describing us when we were in extremis--during Vietnam and Watergate and other dramas since 1969.
As it turns out, you couldn't ask for a more civilized, fair-minded fellow to explain us to the outside world--and maybe to ourselves. Cooke is like an old family friend (he's lived here for 47 years and is a naturalized citizen) who knows about the skeletons and has witnessed some of our most awful scenes, but still manages a tolerant affection for our quirks and unfailing reasonableness about our flaws.
Take his piece on the massacre at Songmy in 1969 in which he compares our military policy of "search and destroy" in Vietnam with "strategic bombing" (of Dresden and other targets) in World War II and winds up asking: "Is it valiant to bomb a hundred women and children from the air, and despicable to shoot them on the ground? I leave it to you. Like Pontius Pilate, I don't care to stay for an answer."
Alistair Cooke has probably forgotten more about our recent history than most Americans remember. He was on hand for our Depression, breadlines, the Cold War and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. One of his special frustrations is trying to get across to the young -- American young as well as British -- what it was really like in what he calls "the dead zone," the years between what they read in history books and what they've lived through. For example, "the threadbare years" after World War II when Western Europe was "an invalid greatly alarmed by . . . Russian pressure." His reminisence of the Marshall Plan and its chief architect, Dean Acheson, is an attempt to explain those years and one of the most compelling pieces in this collection.
Cooke is at his best in profiles of individual Americans who have caught his fancy. He took a surprising shine to Westbrook Pegler -- perhaps because they were so unalike, (the path to Pegler's prose, he says "led through the bile duct."); he remembers Groucho Marx for his "finicky, and funny, respect for the English language," and Bing Crosby, a golfing buddy as "shambling and low key ... relaxed to the point of boredom."
Cooke examines some of our national peculiarities -- like the Marine Corps, the grand jury system and professional football (which he calls "open-air chess ... disguised as warfare") in ways that make them understandable, if not to the Brits, at least to me.
With a reporter's instinct for detail, he notes that Calvin Coolidge "on principle slept between eleven and fifteen hours a day"; Richard Nixon, in the heat of Washington summers turned up the White House air-conditioning so he could have a fire; Huey Long once outlined his plans for Louisiana to Cooke, while stretched out on a bed barefoot, picking his toes.
Although Cooke disdains belief in national character as "the first refuge of the anxious," he makes a few pronouncements about ours: Americans, he says "love drama, especially in its undiluted form of melodrama . . . . The wonder is that . . . they have never succumbed to the thrill of a dicatorship."
Naturally, Cooke does not admire all he sees around him here. He takes a dim view of what he calls "the obscenity business . . . the clutter of filth that floats along with the First Amendment and is marketed for lucre in the name of liberty." Nor is he pleased by "the money jungle of professional sports," particularly of tennis where, he says, "much of the genteel air of the sport in the old days has been drowned out by the roar of the cash register."
But when Cooke finds fault, he does so, as a well-mannered guest, only in an inoffensive way. "It doesn't seem to me a good thing," he will say. Or, "It is a small and understandable but ugly symptom." "Tasteless," shabby," "not ... admirable," are about as mean as his critical adjectives get.
These talks, each exactly 13-1/2 minutes long, were never prepared in advance. Cooke says he sat down once a week, a couple of hours before taping them and wrote "what came to mind about the American scene." What came to mind, most weeks, was a torrent of precise information which he laid out in an easy, offhand way, ideas unfolding one after the other as they occurred to him. Cooke's approach to a subject is oblique and leisurely. At times, he ambles up to it so unhurriedly that he may be halfway through his 13-1/2 minutes before you know what direction he means to take. No matter, along the way he's explored a couple of interesting sidelines and dropped a scattering of factual nuggets.
He warns us at the outset that these "talks" were written to be spoken, not read -- a caveat that becomes important the more of them one reads. By the end, you miss hearing his familiar, soothing voice in nearly every sentence.
Alistair Cooke's talks about Americans are like the best of after-dinner conversation -- agreeable, rambling, informative and evanescent. And -- let's face it -- better said than read. CAPTION: Picture, Alistair Cooke; Copyright (c) By Irving Penn