Alistair Cooke

died the other day, aged 95 and just weeks after broadcasting his final Letter from America. This page contains well-merited tributes to him and excerpts and transcripts from the longest-running speech radio programme in history.

I remember listening to his distinctive, gravelly voice literally as a child at my father’s knee. I liked his voice. After a while it dawned on me that I liked and was learning from what he was saying too.

From all the vast range of topics he covered, this obituary couldn’t resist the opportunity to cherry-pick.

The lyricism of his broadcasting and the urbanity of his voice did not disguise his fears for America which he saw becoming a more violent society.

A liberal by nature, he reserved particular dislike for what he saw as the shallow flag-waving of the Reagan presidency.

True, he was a liberal. I would guess he voted Democrat for most of the many, many US elections he covered. But he was a liberal of a different era, or more accurately of a more timeless sort. He started writing for the Guardian when it was the Manchester Guardian and started speaking for the BBC when it was what I once meant by the BBC.

His character changed a great deal less than that of the institutions he worked for. Despite that – correction, because of it – he was an acute observer until the very end. Here’s a letter he wrote last Christmas about the urgency of fighting the Iraq war.

Wonder why News Online didn’t pick that one for the obituary?

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10 Responses to Alistair Cooke

  1. carnell says:

    Alistair Cooke would surely have been saddened by what happened to his beloved BBC.
    however he was too much of a gentleman ever to have voiced his sadness.
    No so the Beeb who had to poticise even his obituary.
    A truly great man and an example to all journalists.
    May we not forget what news commentary shoud be about.


  2. Marc says:

    You know why they didn’t use that one, they would have to spin right instead of spinning left. Dizzy yet?


  3. rob says:

    Cooke makes the point of the danger of an unrestrained Saddam attacking Israel.
    A recent newspaper report claimed that the war was carried out more or less at Israel’s request. Deemed a bad thing.
    But the danger that Cooke foresaw was most relevant. If the US had backed off & the French had got sanctions lifted, it is possible to imagine an Israeli nuclear retalliation to an Iraqi chem/bio first strike, resulting in a war involving all of the Muslim world. Oil would then have been only part of the problem.


  4. dave fordwych says:

    Even here they have spun Cooke’s words.

    The first paragraph(describing the content of the letter) would have been more accurate had it read,

    “Alistair Cooke examines why it was necessary to go to war with Saddam Hussein.”


  5. JohninLondon says:

    When Cooke was covering the 1964 election for the dear old Manchester Guardian, he urged a fellow Guardian journalist to give fair reporting of the Goldwater campaign, and not to indulge in knee-jerk anti-Americanisms.

    How times have changed !


  6. Susan says:

    Cooke was American? How else would he have been able to vote in our elections?

    News to me.


  7. Natalie Solent says:

    Susan, he was born British but became an American citizen some time in the 40s.


  8. Susan says:

    Thanks, Natalie. Went back and read the obit and it did indeed mention he was an American citizen.

    That must have killed the BBC to have to acknowledge that this kind, witty and intelligent man preferred the Great Satan to the socialist UK-topia.


  9. Kerry says:

    Most American obits mention Cooke’s many years as host to the TV series ‘Masterpiece Theater’ on PBS. I often wished that most Americans could have heard his weekly radio ruminations as well. As an ex-pat Yank, I never failed to learn something valuable from Cooke.


  10. JohninLondon says:

    Cooke represented the OLD BBC.

    The BBC of better days. The BBC of erudition, and journalistic who aimed for content and balance, not for proseletysing.