The Unseen Alistair Cooke Alistair in America

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1960-1969 by Susan Cooke Kittredge
(Excerpted from Reporting America by Alistair Cooke (Overlook Press, 2008)

The 1960s were the crunch years, I think, for my father. His necessary pieces for the Guardian seemed to me, and I think to him as well, unrelenting. During this especially eventful decade, the daily article often expanded to three or more. His weekly radio broadcast also carried the deadline gavel, but it was the dessert of his professional offering. Though in those days he generally didn't plan what he would talk about until he actually sat down at the typewriter, he relished the freedom and license that the Letter from America provided. Sometimes this was getting away from the politics he had been masticating all week, and sometimes it was the simple pleasure of savoring the more subtle nuances of a particular event or individual.

His pedal was to the metal at this time, his professional life still accelerating, his energy full, and his commitment to both the Guardian and BBC entrenched. It is worth repeating that he was not much of a celebrity during this particular decade in America, since Omnibus was over and Masterpiece Theatre was yet to begin.

During this time he was 100 percent reporter, and there was much to report. Not a great fan of President Kennedy, he was, nevertheless, intrigued by America's fascination with the Camelot White House. Though he questioned on several occasions Kennedy's leadership, he appreciated the sophistication and cultural awakening he, and especially Mrs. Kennedy, brought to Washington.

He took to Lyndon Johnson, however, pretty much immediately. Whether this came, following Kennedy's assassination, from the kind of relief a drowning person feels on being thrown a lifeline or from a genuine appreciation of his apparent county-boy directness, he saw him from the first through rose-colored glasses and remained loyal to him throughout his increasingly troubled presidency.

The social and political unrest of the 1960s was at first somewhat of a nagging irritant to my father. He was initially dismissive of the generation of young people who took to the streets in protest against the establishment's politics or social norms. At best he considered them naïve and disrespectful, and at worst rude and dangerous. He disapproved of the methods, though clearly not the goals, of many of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell in particular. He held decency in high regard and was impatient and dismayed by the hippy movement and what he considered its flagrant disregard for manners and authority.

The trouble was that I was part of the generation he was inclined to dismiss. In 1965 I went away to school in Vermont and was thus distanced from inner city protests, the Civil Rights and growing Anti-war movements that were championed by people my age and just slightly older. Never a political activist, I didn't take a bus to Selma to work in the South or endeavor in any way to cross the line of acceptable discourse. I have wondered why this was, why, given the fact that I attended a very liberal school, I wasn't the adamant activist many of my friends were. Only in retrospect, and somewhat sheepishly, do I see that having my father's view so articulately and constantly expressed influenced my thinking and behavior. I was torn between an impassioned, radical, and, I suspected, just stance and an erudite, reasoned, and persuasive argument that I questioned. In the end it simply was more important to me at that time not to rock the boat at home.

Perhaps as protection against what threatened to divide us, Daddy and I made more of an effort to tread neutral ground together. We began our tradition of regularly sharing jokes and watching late-night thrillers on television. Whenever an event not linked to politics captured the news, we delighted in consuming its every detail. The exploration of space, particularly what was then called the manned space program, enthralled us both. When John Glenn became a friend of my father's through their shared work as editors of The World Book Encyclopedia, he relished sharing the tidbits Glenn had imparted. Daddy was fascinated by science and technology, and both the space program and medicine would prove lifelong interests, providing relief from constant political reporting.

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