Memories of the Great and the Good

“Memories of the Great and the Good” by Alistair Cooke (Arcade Books, 1999)

When I was a teenager in England, I was surprised that my grandmother (who otherwise showed no interest in the U. S. A.) would listen without fail to a radio program called “Letter From America,” delivered weekly by one Alistair Cooke. I discovered later that this program was older than I, having started its run in March 1946. And of course it is still running today – a record even longer than the run of “The Mousetrap” in London or the senatorship of Strom Thurmond. Readers may be more familiar with Cooke as the urbane and avuncular host for PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” or as the introducer of the very successful television program “America,” which spawned a book of the same name. In Memories of the Great and the Good, Cooke has selected from his radio programs, and other written pieces, to present 23 vignettes of famous persons – nearly all citizens of the U.S.

“The great and the good” is a common phrase in the United Kingdom to describe those presumably incorruptible worthy citizens, of impeccable judgment, who are suitable for sharing their wisdom on government-sponsored committees. With his well-known sense of irony, Cooke indicates that not all great men are good, and vice versa. But there are no rogues in this gallery. He starts his selection with the record of a brief encounter with the exasperating and paradoxical Bernard Shaw, who seems like a character from another era, and concludes it with a poignant tribute to Bobby Jones, the golfer, who had the rare quality of “radiating goodness,’ in Cooke’s mind. He offers a charming account of a visit to P. G. Wodehouse on Long Island, where the comic author appears as innocent and beguiling as anyone would expect him to be, and his profile of Ronald Reagan (written in 1967) shows a deeper thinker than the ex-president revealed to the public in his latter years in office. He applauds Eisenhower’s “candor and decency,” while strangely reserving judgment as to whether he was either a great or a good president.

But are all these pieces indeed “memories”? A fond article on Erma Bombeck does not indicate that the author ever met her, instead openly referring to reports by her friends as a substitute. It appears that Cooke knew Barbara McLintock (the third woman to win a Nobel prize for science) only from newspaper reports. The piece on Robert Frost is immensely moving, describing the poet’s attempt to read at JFK’s freezing inauguration, but Cooke does not declare he witnessed it himself. The item on Churchill is really a book review. And these pieces are weaker as they lack the direct engagement and observation visible elsewhere.

The portraits are all imbued with Cooke’s innate good sense and humor, touched with a light erudition that plucks the appropriate metaphor or reference from his memory bank. He even allows himself a Shavian aphorism in the piece on Erma Bombeck: “Wits make fun of other people, humorists make fun of themselves.” Probably as incorrect as many of GBS’s mots, but who can quibble?

Cooke is a national treasure, and long may he continue to interpret the American scene for us. Granny could recognize talent.

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