Alistair Cooke (1908 – 2004) was a radio and television journalist who, although born in England worked for most of his career in the United States. In the 1950s he hosted Omnibus, a imaginative television program on the arts. He followed that up with his role as host of public television's Masterpiece Theatre, where he wowed fans of these mostly British dramas with his sophisticated and urbane banter.
But Cooke's longest project and his best work was done with Letter from America, which he described in a memo to the BBC: "It will be a weekly personal letter to Britain by a fireside. I shall try to give a running commentary on topical aspects of American life, some of the intimate background to Washington policy, some profiles of important Americans. The stress will always be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than on the headlines themselves."
The BBC bought into Cooke's idea, the first Letter from America program went out on radio on March 24, 1946; it was broadcast to more than 50 countries. He excelled describing the espionage investigation of Alger Hiss, a member of the State Department; he covered the public lives of six presidents; the Marshall Plan, and much more.
Over a long and distinguished career, Cooke proved himself to be an brilliant social historian. His abundant accolades and honors signify his special skills in helping Americans come to see themselves afresh in the arts, politics, sports, and cultural clashes.
Cooke's perseverance also deserves mention. During 58 years of weekly broadcasts of Letter From America, he missed only three shows, completing a total of 2,869 broadcasts.
To Name This Day:
Alistair Cooke strikes us as a master of the spiritual practices of openness and hospitality; his programs provide us with many examples. His career reminds us of the advice in one of our favorite quotes from St. John Chrysostom: "Be sober and clear-eyed with a thousand eyes in very direction." Cooke kept his eyes focused on the past, the future, and all moments in between.
This gifted Englishman became an American citizen in 1941. His attitude toward his new homeland is in sync with two other observations. Essayist Henry Grunwald said: "One ultimately loves America not for what it is, or what it does, but for what is promises." And the poet Archibald MacLeish agreed: "America was always promises. From the first voyage and the first ships, there were promises."
You will find many testimonies to America's promises in Alistair Cooke's broadcasts. And lucky for us all, 1,472 of them are now available for your free listening on the BBC website. Browse through them by date or theme, and find one to listen to today as you reflect upon what America means to you.