In the UK we don’t often get the chance to hear quality broadcasting from many years ago, but on 1st August the BBC will be broadcasting a programme about the US election which brought Jimmy Carter to the presidency. This may be interesting to those of us who enjoy observing and reading about such things, but the most useful part of the exercise will surely be listening to that master broadcaster Alistair Cooke showing the current crop of BBC journalists how things should be done. It is through his contemporaneous reports that the story will be told.
For 58 years, his weekly ‘Letter from America‘ graced the airwaves with elegant prose, gentle humour, personal observation and well-informed commentary. He knew people, travelled to places we would never go, and referenced both history and current controversies. You never knew what he might write about this week. It could be a trip to the Catskills, Watergate, Baseball, PG Wodehouse’s career as a Broadway lyricist… It didn’t matter; it would always be interesting, often sardonic but one never needed to ask if he was trying to manipulate opinion. He simply loved his adopted country and wanted his old friends back home to know it better, appreciating its merits, faults, strengths and fragilities.
He also presented a brilliant award-winning 13-part television series which captivated his audience with its images and insights of our great friend and ally. He had personal friends on both sides of the political aisle, and we were all better informed as a result. In those days we had few choices of radio station or public media, so these programmes reached millions in the UK and educated us in a way that simply doesn’t happen anymore. When he retired he was accorded the honour of addressing a joint meeting of both Houses of the US Congress during the US bicentennial celebrations.
If you have never heard this titan of broadcasting you should not miss it, then weep for how far from his standards BBC broadcasting has fallen. As I begin to write, I have just listened to a party political broadcast for the Democrat party embedded into Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme. I do not often listen to it, and this reminded me why. The entire piece was predicated upon the view that the Republican Party was simply awful, and why can’t the Democrats just win and make America more like us (at the BBC)?
It was a similar story with the last edition of the BBC ‘Sunday’ programme, which brought us an interview with the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, the Rt Rev’d Michael Curry, an engaging affable man best known for over-running his sermon time at the Windsor wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
His many merits notwithstanding, conciliation may not be his strongest suit. He has certainly been robust in pressing a liberal agenda within the Anglican communion. Whether he is right or wrong about that is not, however, the issue that concerns me here. Robust opinion is sometimes very necessary, and not every compromise helps to resolve conflict. While promoting the view that ‘the soul of America’ is at stake in the coming US election, a view with which Cooke might have agreed, he called in aid the motto from the great seal of America ‘E Pluribus Unum‘, but then began critiquing the Founding Fathers for not being men fully ahead of their time. Doubtless we shall all fail Bishop Michael’s test on that one, in due course.
Alistair Cooke often explained US history to us over many years, not shying away from inconsistency, but neither did he fall into anachronism. He understood that the devisers of the US Constitution were the English and Scottish gentlemen radicals of their time, midwifing a new vision of democratic accountability into the world. Just as early medical pioneers made mistakes, so did they, but Cooke understood, as Bishop Curry may not, that without their pursuit of succinct expression of world-changing ideas, there would have been no ‘cheque to the future’ for Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King to present to America for encashment.
Christians are called to be salt, and there is righteous anger that can and should be directed on behalf of some whose forebears suffered slavery and segregation. Many have not prospered as well as other subsequent minorities of all colours who have successfully embraced the American Dream. Why that might be might needs consideration in a fully rounded way. Not all anger is well directed, however, and it rarely helps to open old wounds and rub salt in them, which was what some activists began with the taking down of historic statues in Southern towns and cities.
If you go to Belfast, you will find murals and painted kerbstones denoting local loyalties. They function as historic memorials, but also as provocation. Imagine driving past Provo or UVF street art if your mother and baby brother had been blown to pieces by a car bomb. Yet implicitly we have accepted that the price of peace today is leaving such memorabilia in place. Of course, unlike with US slavery, many of the victims on both sides of ‘The Troubles‘ are still alive, but we ask that they put up with historic sectarian memorials for the greater good.
So it was with the defeated South. Nobody alive today knew or has direct responsibility for those times. The monuments were erected when national reconciliation was needed, especially to prevent similar conflict recurring during and after the reconstruction period. Much of the South had been destroyed and lost, personally, socially, politically and economically, but President Lincoln and his commander Ulysses S Grant understood that it is often wise to give a gesture to the defeated, permitting them dignity, to seal the peace, so the South was allowed the consolation of remembrance for the gallantry of its military. Unit memorials were raised to both sides on the ‘hallowed ground’ of battlefields. These were a small gestures of reconciliation, but it worked. There are touching photos of old veterans remembering together on battlefields where they once contended for their respective States and ideals. By such small concessions, the American States were incrementally reunited.
In his BBC interview, Bishop Michael chose to be divisive. He chose to present President Trump as offering a ‘dog whistle’ to racists when he spoke of “good people on both sides”, referring to when there were counter protests against statues’ removal. The Bishop could have been more generous. Surely the President was following the conciliatory path of both Lincoln and Churchill, who, shortly after World War II, counselled France to take Germany by the hand and lead it back to the comity of nations. There are many other examples. Grace towards the vanquished is not to be despised.
Bishop Michael is on no better ground regarding ongoing conflicts over the casus belli of that conflict. The Republican North said it was about slavery, the Democrat South said it was about States’ rights, and it would have been interesting to have pressed Bishop Michael on his attitude towards the latter.
When it comes to a raft of issues dear to his heart, I strongly suspect he is a Lincoln Federalist. The death penalty, abortion, gay marriage and drugs policy could all have been devolved to the States to decide. States’ rights could be resurrected as an issue, but it has suited the current liberal agenda to hold to the Republican doctrine. These big social issues have been decided on a national level. States don’t get to make these decisions locally. Interestingly, the Democrats have advanced those issues not through the legislature but through the Supreme Court. A key reason they need to win the Presidency is to reappoint liberal Supreme Court Judges, the better to bypass the electorate on issues such as so called ‘sanctuary cities’ or voting by non-citizens (usually presumed for Democrats).
As we heard Bishop Michael complaining of federal agents confronting rioters in Portland, Oregon, he remained unchallenged as he likened this to fascism. He plainly does not know his European history. Fascism began with armed militias beating opponents in the streets, attacking the businesses of those they disliked, and burning federal buildings. The Court House in Portland has been under sustained attack by well-organised and provisioned paramilitaries. Over 29 people have died in riots across the country, including Bernell Trammell, a 60-year-old black man whose only offence was to prominently display his support for the President.
A more impartial, better-informed interviewer might have challenged Bishop Curry on some of his opinions. He might have been asked about why he did not articulate his grievances so clearly during the eight years of the Obama Presidency. He might have been asked why it is the President who bears responsibility for police malpractice when this is a wholly devolved responsibility to the city mayors and councils where the problems occur. He might have been asked about the fact that most of the troubled cities have been under Democrat control for decades. Instead, we had the BBC interviewer pressing the Bishop on whether the President was truly a Christian. The Bishop declined to answer, but could not resist dropping a few hints.
A key area we hear little about from the UK national broadcaster is the so called ‘Blexit‘ movement which has turned its back on the Democrat party. When President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which swept away barriers to America’s black population, he famously cynically remarked that this would have America’s black population voting Democrat for 50 years. He was right – until now. The Blexit movement challenges Johnson’s presumption, and it is a worry for the Democrats. That seems to be why Bernell Trammell was murdered, and the contrast between how George Floyd’s death has held the news headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and how little interest has been shown in the death of Bernell Trammell for exercising his democratic right to support his party of choice is both striking and shameful. Social media is filling the gap, and this example is worth watching. I am sure Alistair Cooke would have been interested in Blexit and explored it.
Those of us who remember the better years of the BBC were reminded by journalists such as Cooke of when the US Government sent the 101 Airborne Division to force the enrolment of nine black students into the Central High School in Little Rock. Subsequently, Democrat Governor George Wallace stood to bar entry for black students to the University of Alabama in another assertion of States’ rights. Tellingly, having made the gesture, he stood aside. He knew that the Civil War was lost, that mayors and governors have no place defying the Federal Government enforcing the law and peace on the streets if they are unwilling or unable to do so. This is not incipient fascism, but the rule of law that guarantees public safety, economic prosperity, local community, free speech and ensures that black lives matter, including that of Bernell Trammell and all those who will be killed in Democrat-controlled cities this coming weekend.
So it is all the more odd that the BBC, with full access to the Alistair Cooke archive, has such a poor grasp of the issues raised by these Democrats seeking to exclude the Federal authorities from enforcing the law and restoring order on the streets when mayors and councils refuse to protect federal buildings, or even to challenge the concept of ‘sanctuary cities, or admitting illegal immigrants to voters’ rolls to which they have no lawful right to do so.
The Democrat Party was the party of States’ rights. It still seems to be on some issues. It was the party that created the Ku Klux Klan. It still has a penchant for masked armed militias. While its young, under-informed followers have attacked the memorial to General Grant – who actually won the Civil War and abolished slavery – the memorials to Senator Robert Byrd of Virginia, who actually was the ‘Exalted Cyclops’ of the Ku Klux Klan, remain undaubed and untroubled. He was, of course, a Democrat friend of Hillary Clinton.
For many years, subtly and informatively, Alistair Cooke expounded such complexities. It was a time when intelligence and nuance was appreciated in Broadcasting House. I may listen on Saturday, or I may not. The contrast between quality broadcasting and partisan activism might just be too painful to listen to. If I were to offer one example which illustrates the style, the deep understanding of his subject, the nuance and the accessibility of Alistair Cooke, it might be this one, delivered on the death of Alabama Governor George Wallace. It traces one man’s path from prejudice to reconciliation. Listen and lament how far public broadcasting standards have fallen.