The Patient Has the Floor

Over the past twenty years Alistair Cooke has addressed a wide range of audiences: architects, lawyers, soldiers, surgeons, psychiatrists, congressmen, and Shakespearean scholars. He has stood before these audiences not as an expert but, as he repeatedly says, as a reporter, one who mediates between the professional and the layman.

In speaking to these groups he has, however, reversed the reporter’s normal role; instead of explaining to the public the thoughts and actions of the specialist, he has conveyed to experts the thoughts of their patients, clients, or constituents. He warns doctors against the fashions in medicine. With this keen sense of history, he tells lawyers in the early days of the first Reagan Administration that the so-called “New Federalism” has been tried before--under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788). He informs the National Trust for Historic Preservation that he does not regard every building as worth saving, but he also notes the importance of involving the public in making decisions about what to retain.

As Cooke reminds his audiences of their audiences, he speaks with elegant clarity and urges professionals to do the same, since communication is the only link between the lay and professional cultures. Hence he repeatedly inveighs against inflated rhetoric and jargon. As an example of the power of good prose and the flabbiness of bad, he cites Churchill’s response to a note from the Admiralty requesting “immediate implementation of this directive.” Churchill shot back, “If you mean should you build now--do it--carry on!” Whatever his subject, language is almost always his theme.

Cooke is not a pedant or a Mrs. Grundy, though. His popularity as a speaker attests his wit as well as his knowledge. These speeches contain a fund of delightful anecdotes, including one that Cooke claims helped secure John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960. Altogether the selections are models of good speaking and good writing: They are clever, informative, and entertaining, and they ring true.