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March 30, 2004
"Could we have the theme from "Masterpiece Theatre?" about fifty brides have asked over the years. "Yeah, I love that," the groom would say, and I would tell them to ask the organist. To Americans, the music says "England," although it's actually French -- Jean Joseph Mouret, 18th century.

Alistair Cooke said "England" to most Americans -- which is interesting, since to most Britons he said "America." His "Letter From America" was the longest-running radio commentary in the history of broadcasting: nearly sixty years. We saw him sitting in his book-lined study and readied ourselves for an hour's delighted exposure to how good television could be. They heard his opening sentence and sat back to listen to a thoughtful essay on the ways of their bumptious younger cousin across the sea.

Cooke soothed my insomnia. The BBC has sat up with me for years in the wee hours when sleep will not come. His voice, in particular, sounded like the voice of my father: the same level cadence, the same calmness, the same gift for saying a lot while speaking little. Not a word wasted.

My father left the north of England as a teenager. He never lived there again, and visited again only once, as an old man. He became a citizen of this country and served in two wars in this country's army. He loved American politics and felt strongly about them. Toward the end of his life, it was usually better if he and I discussed other things.

Alistair Cooke sounded like him, and I didn't mind discussing politics with Alisair Cooke: he and I couldn't hurt each other. And so I would lie in the dark and listen to this transplanted Englishman, who loved his adopted country and sought to explain it to the people at home. His love for it was like mine: equal parts admiration and frustration, his impatience with blind patriotism coupled with an insistence on honoring what was honorable among us. He completed something in me during those long hours. Joined two parts of me together.

His last broadcast was only a few weeks ago. It was lovely. Alistair Cooke was 95.


Listen to some of the Letters From America.
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