Thanksgiving was usually a happy time for the elegant British-American broadcaster Alistair Cooke, whose “Letter from America” series on BBC Radio 4 captivated his millions of listeners for over half a century.
Cooke summed up his talent as “associating something quite tiny with something big. In other words, just looking at the way humans behave.” Every week, in a calming and confiding tone, he would discuss topics ranging from intrigue in the corridors of power in Washington to the significance to Americans of serving cranberry sauce with turkey on Thanksgiving.
But Cooke, in his Nov. 28, 1986 broadcast, had an unhappy story to tell “on the most American of American festivals and the one least tarnished with marketing tinsel.”
Thanksgiving that year, for Cooke, was tarnished by the Iran-Contra Affair, a secret U.S. arms deal that traded missiles and other arms to free some Americans held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon, but also used funds from the arms deal to support armed conflict in Nicaragua. The deal and the ensuing political scandal threatened to bring down the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
“Really the events of the past week have come at us – come at him – with such a tumbling clatter that it would be pointless of me at this stage to try and arrange their chronology. When I first heard about the incredible – every other senator and congressman has been working the word ‘incredible’ overtime – transfer of $30 million by Israel through a Swiss bank to be passed on to the motley band of Nicaraguan democrats, mercenaries and the relics of dictator Somoza’s bully boys, whom the president insists on calling freedom fighters, I found myself verbally paralyzed – a very rare condition with me – and falling back time and again on ‘incredible,’ spoken like a tolling bell,” he said in his broadcast.
Cooke, who was admired for taking the hysteria out of heated subjects, was outspoken on “Irangate,” just as he had been in the McCarthy era, which resulted in his telephone being tapped for two years.
“Two questions come up now, the answers to which will decide if the United States is to regain any credibility with its allies, with the Arab world, not to mention with any Soviet missions they have to deal with. One is the function and the respectability of the National Security Council – an institution set up only after the Second World War, which too often has quarreled with the secretaries of state and defense and, under this administration, evaded and deceived them, and possibly the president, himself.
“The other, more pressing, grave question turns on the honesty of the president, himself. How much did he really know and sanction of these incredible goings-on? It’s the same question whose stony answer brought down President Nixon and we shan’t know the truth until the congressional hearings get underway. They have great powers to subpoena the highest officers of the administration and get at the truth, as we saw with the Ervin Senate committee that probed into Watergate,” he said.
Reagan was hounded by the press, and there were three investigations into the scandal – one by the Tower Commission (led by Texas Senator John Tower), which Reagan himself appointed; congressional hearings in 1987, which were televised nationally; and an eight-year investigation, launched by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, in which 14 people were charged, including National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and Vice Adm. John Poindexter, his successor in that position, and Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council.
Ending his broadcast, Cooke said “the sauce that really soured our appetite” for the turkey that Thanksgiving was “the knowledge that, for the moment, the United States has no declared foreign policy that either friends or enemies can believe in.”
If Cooke were alive – he died in March 2004, less than a month after he filed his last “Letter” -- he would’ve been outspoken about what amounts to President Trump’s pardoning of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This Thanksgiving, we would’ve heard him say gently and mellifluously that in Trump’s America, the incredible is true.
Linda Gasparello is producer and co-host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. She is based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.