Man of letters: Alistair Cooke's century

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He was the most famous foreign correspondent of his age. And in 1986 he agreed to be interviewed by an ambitious young journalist. On the centenary of his birth, Brian Viner remembers an inspirational meeting – and a remarkable man

Alistair Cooke, perhaps not the finest but surely the most famous of all foreign correspondents, was born 100 years ago tomorrow. His weekly radio broadcast, Letter From America, began on 24 March 1946. The last one was transmitted on 20 February 2004, although 10 more days passed before the old boy would concede that his time was up. On the advice of his doctors, he formally announced his retirement on 2 March 2004, and before the month was out he died, aged 95.

There were 2,869 editions of the BBC's Letter From America, bridging the assassination of John F Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks, the death of Martin Luther King and the beating of Rodney King, the stain on America's psyche left by Watergate and the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress left by Bill Clinton. It all added up to a more politically and socially convulsive 58-year period in American history than practically any other, although if he'd just managed to soldier on to his 100th birthday, Cooke would have seen with his fading eyes the most astounding electoral appointment of even his long life.

It was partly with Barack Obama's election in mind that I recently dug out an interview I conducted with Cooke in 1986, to see whether there was anything he said about the presidency then that has relevance today. As it turned out, there was plenty. He talked about the optimism that surrounded Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976, after eight years of a discredited Republican White House, making me wonder whether, although Obama is more often compared with Kennedy, in terms of his youth, charisma and glamour, and with Franklin D Roosevelt in terms of the desperate problems facing him on his inauguration, it isn't another Democratic president, Carter, from whose example he has most to learn.

"I must say that when he [Carter] came in I thought 'what a marvellous change'," Cooke told me. "Not to have all those guys with trumpets and all the vulgarity of the Nixon court. Here's a man who decides to get out of the car and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife holding his hand, and so on. But you see, he overdid it. He was no good as an actor."

Not so, Alistair Cooke, in the estimation of Charlie Chaplin. In his book Six Men, Cooke wrote about a friendship with the world's most famous film star that was kindled when he was sent by The Observer to interview Chaplin in Hollywood in 1932. Chaplin saw enough in his young interviewer to invite him to collaborate on a script he was working on, and later to offer to turn him into the world's best light comedian. Determined at the time to become a playwright, Cooke turned down the offer.

The notion that Cooke would one day hobnob half-way across the world with moving-picture stars, and would become the most celebrated commentator on American affairs in the English-speaking world, would have seemed preposterous to Samuel and Cissie Cooke, his respectable working-class parents, to whom he was born in Salford on 20 November 1908. Their home was 7 Isaac Street, which as the late Nick Clarke wrote in his magisterial 1999 biography of Cooke, "wasn't at the bottom of the heap, but it was not a place, either, for the nurturing of great ambitions".

Samuel was an iron-foundry worker and Methodist preacher, and Alfred, as Alistair was christened, was their second son. His older brother, Sam, became an apprentice butcher, which was much more in keeping with an Isaac Street upbringing, although in 1917, on account of Cissie's bronchitis, the family moved to Blackpool. It was there, later that year, that the pivotal event of Cooke's early life occurred: American troops arrived en route to the Western Front.

He was agog, fascinated by their accents, their behaviour, and even the colour of their skin, which seemed paler than the British complexion, and which, his father solemnly explained, came from living in the shadow of skyscrapers. Aged nine, Cooke had already formed a firm interest in America from the silent movies he had seen, but he had never heard American voices before. The fascination that was to shape his life began there, watching the "Yanks" on Blackpool beach.

He also received a sound formal education in Blackpool, and in 1927 he left the local grammar school for Jesus College, Cambridge. His staunchly Methodist, working-class background did not hold him back at Cambridge. Indeed, he thrived, editing the undergraduate magazine Granta, founding the Mummers drama group, and getting several short stories published in the Manchester Guardian. He also changed his name by deed poll to Alistair, and resolved – there being more than a little snobbery in him – never again to live in Blackpool or even to admit coming from there. When anyone asked, he said he was from Manchester, which at least had a metropolitan ring to it.

Cambridge broadened his horizons considerably, but they were about to broaden further. One day, he saw a notice announcing something called the Commonwealth Fund, which invited graduates of British and Commonwealth Universities to apply for two years of study in the United States. He duly applied, and got a fellowship, which in September 1932 delivered him to Yale.

This, in a tiny, tangential way, is sort of where I come in. In 1985, shortly before I graduated from the University of St Andrews, I was awarded a Robert T Jones Scholarship to spend a year at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The scholarship had been set up in memory of the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones by friends of his, one of whom was Cooke, who convinced his fellow trustees that the Jones scholars should receive a separate travel stipend: several thousand dollars intended only to fund travel throughout north America. It had been part of the terms of Cooke's Commonwealth Fellowship and what he saw, driving across America in 1933 in the depths of the Depression, had changed his life. He hoped that travel might do something similar for us.

So I owed Cooke a great deal. But I wanted more. My ambition, aged 23, was to become a journalist, and he was one of the great journalists of the century. When I met him at the trust's AGM, I asked whether I could possibly interview him. He was charmingly non-committal, so later I wrote to him, and after three letters, received a reply. He said that if I happened to be in New York later that year, I should give him a call. I duly spent some of my valuable travel money on a flight to New York, and called. Yes, he could give me half an hour on Wednesday afternoon at six. At 6.45 he was being collected by a friend, who was taking him out for dinner.

I presented myself, early one spring evening in 1986, at his grand, conveniently rent-controlled Fifth Avenue apartment, overlooking Central Park. Cooke was then 77, but enviably spry. We sat in his study, where he poured me the biggest whisky I had ever seen. Half an hour wouldn't have been remotely enough time for me to drink it all, but as we sat down, the phone rang. It was his dinner date, cancelling. "That's OK," said Cooke, "I've got a friend with me." I glowed with a mixture of whisky and pride.

I stayed there for nearly three hours, in which time I asked eight questions, from about 20 I had carefully written down, and from which, here are a fraction of his answers. Cooke liked to talk.



In all your years, you've seen many presidents come and go. Which of them, do you think, was best-equipped to deal with the problems of his day?



Roosevelt, without any comparison.



But were his achievements not partly cosmetic? They say, for instance, that he had this astonishing mastery over the media?



That was incidental. I do think that that is a great deal of Reagan. If people are prosperous and along comes a guy who is what my wife calls a good Joe... I don't know a president who could have made so many mistakes, or get his facts wrong and fumble around, and yet not really suffer. He never suffers.

No, Roosevelt was quite different. Mind you, all the political experts were horrified to hear that he was running for president. Walter Lippmann, who was the great guru of political commentators – I can't think of another political pundit in this country or in Britain who had such status – said in 1932: "Mr Roosevelt is a youngish man, very well-bred, terribly well-meaning, with absolutely no qualifications for the post."

Years later, he was very pleased to eat his words. Roosevelt had a profound sense, not of optimism, but of well-being. He knew what the problems were. The big surprise was that he had such strength, and that he was able to get from Congress a sort of carte blanche which went even beyond the Constitution, so that when he started the New Deal and the National Recovery Administration he could suspend things like rights of bargaining. In a way, what America really did during the New Deal was have a flirtation with National Socialism. It happened to be a benevolent Roosevelt, not a malevolent Hitler, but that's what it was.

He was so benevolent, and he had that immense father-figure image. Incidentally, a curious thing, and a convention which has vanished, was that no photographer ever revealed, and no reporter ever wrote about, his paralysis. I would guess that more than half the country didn't know that he was paralysed from the waist down. Only when he went campaigning could people see him being lifted out of a car, and of course that compounded his courage.

He was such a pragmatic man. He knew just how far he could go, but of course he tried to go further. He tried to pack the Supreme Court with his people, and he got struck down, but he didn't brood about it. He'd go off on another tack. "All right, we'll take 15 million boys off the streets and they'll start planting trees" – the Civilian Conservation Corps. His motto was "spend and spend, tax and tax". Soak the rich. The Reagan thesis is that that's where the deficit started.



What can Britain learn from America?



I honestly don't think very much. I would never have said that 20 years ago. Mainly because of the shift of power. Britain – she knows it, and deeply resents it, though she's got used to it – is no longer a first-class power. At the time I started in journalism, I was reporting a second-class power to the guys who owned a quarter of the world. Now there are only two superpowers.

The other thing, apart from the shift of power, which makes it very difficult for Britain to imitate America in any way, in any good way, is the difference between a parliamentary and a federal system. You cannot clarify this too often to the British because they read the headlines: "Reagan is going to have a new navy, Reagan will do this or that'. But he proposes to do this or that. It always comes down to Congress. Reagan knew this from being eight years in California; he'd had a very good training for a chief executive.

Kennedy once said to me – he'd been a congressman and a senator – "You know, when you're in the Senate you think you'll run for president and if you make it you've got allies. But when you get to the White House you look at Congress and you see the enemy." Kennedy, I think, would have been a very bad failure in the following years. He could not woo and win political opponents. He got mad. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House for one day and within hours he had called not only the majority leader of his own party but the minority leader also. He was able to take all the rock-ribbed Southerners who'd lived their lives by segregation and get them in a room and beat their brains out. He told them, "I was brought up the way you were. We talked about niggers and so on. It's going to change!" And Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Bill, and began the whole bloody revolution. But Kennedy was no good at wooing and winning. You'll do it my way or else.



Earlier, I asked you which was the best-equipped president to deal with the problems of his day. Who do you think was most poorly equipped?



That's a good question [long pause]. I think Carter. And that is not in any way to deride his gifts. He was, without question, one of the most intelligent men to have ever been in the White House, and I would think, probably the best informed. But one of his great problems was that he couldn't delegate. He saw six sides to every question, but then he was unable to move. I once said that he was like a centipede, with all the legs in motion, but the body's not moving.

He was not equipped for leadership, and this is a question of temperament, not intelligence. He would have been a marvellous aide to the president. But it was to me entirely understandable that he lost against Reagan. Because Reagan has this incredible affability. He identifies with all the good B-movies and we would all love life to be like a B-movie because the values are simple – good guys and bad guys. Also, he's decisive. He may make appalling decisions, but he is decisive. Not 10 minutes goes by without him having to make a decision, or at least getting a precis of something. Roosevelt loved every minute of it. So did Harry Truman. He was the second-best president I ever saw, because he was so decisive. He was a good listener, I heard that from [Dean] Acheson. He would digest everything and very simply and directly say, "we're going to do that. Goodbye." Then he would go to bed and sleep.

That was one of Churchill's great gifts. He would go to sleep at 11, wake up at 3am and call the Navy. I knew some guys in their thirties who couldn't bear it. They needed sleep. And Churchill would say "pray, make me out a map of the soundings of the bay of Rio de Janeiro" and they'd spend four hours on it because he thought the Bismarck might be going there, or whatever. Then he'd go to sleep again, and wake up, and as [Sir John] Colville said, he'd zip up his siren suit and say, "now, where are the Nazis?" Yet he had a thousand problems on his mind.

That is a terrific ability and I would say that Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman had it better than anybody.

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