The voice of liberal America Profile: Alistair Cooke

Gerald Kaufman celebrates the 90th birthday of this century's supreme observer, whose only mission was to tell it like it was
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The Independent Online
SEVENTEEN prime ministers have headed Britain's government since Alfred A Cooke was born in Manchester in 1908, the son of a Methodist lay preacher. Eleven presidents have occupied the White House since Alistair Cooke took United States citizenship in 1941. From the millions of words that Cooke has had published in print and has spoken over the radio and television airwaves, it is almost impossible to guess which of these 28 politicians he would have voted for.

In his talks - and, oh, how rare it is now for such a boring format as a talk, as distinct from a phone-in or at any rate a discussion, to be broadcast on the restless, would-be trendy BBC - in his classic Letter From America series, and in his countless articles as a correspondent for the Times, the Daily Herald, and above all the long-lost Manchester Guardian, Cooke has told it as he saw it.

Unlike practically every news reporter of the 1990s, whether in print, or on radio or TV (on all of which Cooke has demonstrated the mastery of his craft with the apparent effortlessness that is underlain with the hard graft that was almost invented in Manchester), he has never pushed his opinions down his audience's throat. He was aided in getting down the facts by his personally patented "reliable system of shorthand, a mixture of the relics of Pitman learned at a tender age, a dash of Gregg, a flourish of Speedwriting, and frantic personal abbreviations".

Like all writers of decent prose, Cooke neither sucks up nor talks down to his audience, and as a consequence his audience can be anybody and everybody. "I try to write a form of English which can be, as the Bible says, 'understanded of the people', meaning truck drivers, professors, bishops, nurses, people everywhere." As he celebrates his 90th birthday on Friday, he is the epitome of the detached observer. His service to journalism has not simply been peerless - if occasionally self-consciously literary - prose. It has been to allow his public the opportunity of ingesting the facts and making their own judgement. The only exception was his work as the BBC's film critic in the 1930s, when stating his opinions was the object of the exercise; when he could put down the MGM movie A Yank At Oxford with the lofty dismissal, "made by Metro in England and in awe", and could hail Douglas Fairbanks, about whom he wrote a biography, as "the popular philosopher".

There are not many journalists these days who could write both the biography of a film star and an account of the downfall of a political icon, as Cooke did in 1950 in A Generation On Trial, his account of the trials of Alger Hiss, a senior State Department employee accused of passing secret documents to a Soviet spy. But then Cooke had turned himself into a polymath, seeking to emulate his role model, the American journalist H L Mencken (portrayed by Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, a film about another key court case: the Scopes or "Monkey" trial).

Despite his laurels in later life of Emmy awards for his American TV programmes about the history of the United States, honorary degrees galore, an honorary KBE from Prime Minister Ted Heath, an invitation to deliver an address to a joint session of the US Congress, and last month's vote by Radio 4 listeners of the title of "Best Living Speaker of the English Language", Cooke came up the hard way. Along life's route he collected two wives, each of whom presented him with a child (neatly, a boy from one, a girl from the other).

After education at Blackpool Grammar School, he won a succession of degrees at Cambridge, Yale and Harvard universities. He was London correspondent for NBC, and American correspondent for the Times and Daily Herald, and, most lengthily, first UN and then chief American correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. All of these achievements could be categorised as meritorious, even distinguished. What made Cooke special, not to say unique, was a series of radio programmes that began as a 13-week pilot and developed into a national institution, originated by the BBC and eventually broadcast to more than 50 countries. Letter From America, which developed into the world's longest- running radio programme (and led to an almost unbroken 60-year run for Cooke on the BBC, starting with his film reviews), began in 1946 after he had visited "dark, bleak" post-war Britain. From this beginning there developed a series of idiosyncratic broadcasts, sometimes reflecting an idea that popped into Cooke's head on the morning he had to write his script, sometimes creating an unforgettable word picture, as with his classic idyll of Christmas in Vermont.

With that unique blend of Manchester ("an Irish Lancastrian, really, that's what I am") and Manhattan (his "Nato accent", as someone labelled it) Cooke became England's favourite American and America's favourite Englishman, host of Masterpiece Theatre and creator of prestige US TV documentaries. He was sometimes - perhaps too often - bland, but never blase. For unlike today's shoot-from- the-hip TV presenters, such as Jeremy Paxman, who explode all over the screen but deny any fixed political opinions, Cooke has, in private where he knows it belongs ("missions are for bishops, I am a reporter"), a coherent collection of fixed opinions which he claims are those of "a sort of 18th- century libertarian, or you could say Manchester liberal", but which, in fact, are a good deal more radical than that.

Cooke was respectful to Dwight Eisenhower, fair to Richard Nixon, kind to Ronald Reagan, but his opinions are those of a traditional New Deal Democrat. His idol was Franklin Roosevelt, "the greatest president of my time". He had the perspicacity to recognise the direct line of succession: "I was a big Johnson man, but I tried to hide it in reporting - he was an appalling man in many ways but he was a great President"; and that was taking into account what Cooke called "the Vietnam adventure". Predictably, Cooke had a particular fondness for a Democrat who never won the presidency, the ultra liberal, ultra literate Adlai Stevenson.

Cooke is not, however, an uncomplicated Happy Days Are Here Again New Dealer. The anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s disillusioned him, especially from his grandstand seat at the Alger Hiss auto-da-fe, a case he reported addictedly: "Alfred Wadsworth, editor of the Manchester Guardian, allowed me to sink the frail 10-page bark of an English paper with a daily load of 2,000 words, more or less, to write about something that no other English newspaper was wasting a line on." Cooke came down neither for nor against Hiss as a man, but the title of his book, A Generation On Trial, demonstrated his understanding of, if not empathy with, the countless Alger Hisses, who before the Second World War were ready to accept the Soviet Union at its phoney face value and who regarded the communists as the Nazis' only dedicated adversaries.

Forty years later, the zeitgeist had caught up with Cooke, in a despairing article written for the Financial Times in 1991. From his deluxe Upper East Side eyrie looking down on Central Park, dressed in a smart blue blazer, sitting in a red-leather armchair and with a tumbler of Scotch in his hand, he saw the apparent disintegration of the city he loved: "the visible, seemingly unhealable wounds in American society", with daily life "getting more squalid, expensive and dangerous" and "city crime rates regularly beyond those of all but the worst previous years". He worried about the "steep decline in public manners". Perhaps an old gent has a right to be a bit fuddy-duddy, but Cooke has not despaired of America in the manner of the former conservative cold warriors who, now that the Soviet threat has been removed, see little but vulgarity - if not decadence - in the Great Republic.

On Friday night on Radio 4, Cooke on the occasion of his 90th birthday will broadcast his 2,597th Letter From America. Maybe he will take the opportunity of acclaiming Mayor Giuliani's zero tolerance policy, which has reduced crime in New York.

Whatever his subject, Cooke's talk will be a validation of the increasingly rare journalistic values of which he is one of the greatest surviving exemplars. He will demonstrate the merit of those Reithian values, which in much of the BBC are dribbling disturbingly away. His 13 minutes and 50 seconds of airtime will demonstrate his belief that "even a journalist is a man and presumably conducts his life on certain assumptions of what is just, tolerable, obscene, and so forth" and prove yet again his credo: "All writing is an exercise in drawing up an armistice between a man's private fancies and the real world outside".