The Unseen Alistair Cooke Alistair in America

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1970-1979 by Susan Cooke Kittredge
(Excerpted from Reporting America by Alistair Cooke (Overlook Press, 2008)

In the early 1970s my father came to a crossroads. His professional success had opened new opportunities while at the same time rendering his daily and weekly routine somewhat burdensome. As he contemplated the making of the America series, the idea of stopping the daily piece for the Guardian lifted his spirits. Simply to be relieved of the constant pressure gave him new life, and he looked forward to a bit more freedom. Both America and Masterpiece Theatre afforded an outlet for his love of the arts. His old fascination with photography and the landscape of the United States found full expression as he traveled across the country during the filming of the America series. For the twenty-two years he would host Masterpiece Theatre, the necessary exposure to literature and drama provided a welcome balance to his continuing political reporting. It is worth mentioning that although ending the Guardian routine was a relief, the idea of quitting the Letter never crossed his mind.

Though he traveled a great deal during the filming of America, when he was at home the routine in the apartment settled into a pattern that would be broken only days before he died. As my mother spent her days painting in her studio, he worked at home. But no matter what was going on in the world or the family, come 6:15, work stopped, the ice bucket was filled, and they came together for the nightly news and a drink. Sitting down with pad and pen, he studiously took notes during the broadcast, collecting fodder for the Letter and any article or speech for which he might be preparing.

As the protests against the war in Vietnam escalated, my father found himself in a difficult situation. Ever inclined to defer to authority, especially in times of war, his patience with the protesters' impatience grew thin. Ironically, even though he had been one of the first television personalities, he tended to blame the protesters' righteous outrage in part on the media, on the simple fact that the people at home saw the war every night on television. He was ever intrigued by the power of television to affect public opinion and policy.

Never was this more evident than during the Watergate hearings; in a nation glued to the television, my father was as stuck as everyone else. He relished the proceedings and, keenly observant of the slightest alterations in body language, delighted in being able to see the key people on the screen.

Included in this section is a report on Patty's Hearst's kidnapping. In this piece he uncharacteristically and indirectly refers to an especially difficult time for our family, when both my sister and I fell prey to a predatory religious cult. It was never his inclination to air personal dirty laundry in public, but the rush to judgment against Ms Hearst and what he perceived to be a general misunderstanding of the term "brainwashing" left him no option. Though the event to which he referred happened nearly a decade earlier, it was still fresh in his mind. Perhaps he also felt safe in talking about it because by then I was married and the mother of two little boys and thus, he felt quite rightly, I was settled and secure.

The 1970s were a time of great accomplishment and satisfaction for my father. His professional life was well rounded, his health good, and his addiction to golf in full swing. In this stretch of fair weather the sun shone especially bright one day in September of 1974. His address to a joint session of Congress in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first Continental Congress, in Philadelphia, was certainly one of the great moments of his life. Winston Churchill and Lafayette were the only other people not born in America who were so honored.

In looking back on it, I try to pinpoint why it was so noteworthy and moving. It was noteworthy because he was clearly nervous; rarely did he seem especially agitated before speaking engagements. In this instance, however, we just tried to stay out of his way. It was not noteworthy because he did an excellent job; most of the time he did. For all who attended, the air was charged, the moment extraordinary, the well of the chamber commanding.

The reason it was so moving for me was that looking down on him from our seats in the balcony, I saw not the distinguished, articulate, and respected man he was, but a young man in love whose best girl has just said, "Yes." He had been in love with America since he was a small boy; he had made a living and a life getting to know her whims and fancies, her history and hopes. He both admired and forgave her. In his being invited to speak before the most prestigious body in America, I felt him kick his heels in delight, shiver in anxiety, and shed a tear in deep-felt thanks and humility.

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