March 30th, 2004

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On Alistair Cooke

I can't say that the grand old man of British-American broadcast journalism, Alistair Cooke, had a great deal of influence on me. I remember him as the host of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS and knew about his long-running BBC show, "Letter from America," but I didn't actually hear it until moving out to San José and finding KQED.

Even so, his passing leaves me ever-so-slightly maudlin, because it seems to leave the world of journalism ever-so-slightly poorer. I can't think of any other history-minded commentator except perhaps Studs Terkel in the unique position of having witnessed nearly all of the past century. Cooke and Terkel are opposites on most counts -- soft-spoken Brit versus plain-spoken American, dry humor versus cutting wit, gentleman versus populist. But they've both been keen observers on the same broad subject: the United States. Cooke's "Letters" probably painted America for more international audiences (possibly more so outside of Britain, in fact than within it) than any other journalist.

The BBC has an interesting Highlights of 'Letter from America' page up, including both his first letter and what turned out to be his last (observations about the upcoming presidential election). Cook retired just at the start of this month, after missing several shows due to illness -- apparently, he missed only three in 58 years.