A quarter-century after Wordstruck (1989), MacNeil returns to the memoir form to limn the slow accrual of character definitions, highlighted by critical historical episodes, which marked him as a newsman and shaped his journey from Canadian birth to US citizenship.
In an always amiable voice, proper though candid, the author acknowledges his adopted country’s faults: crude and excessive, its citizens sometimes seem too much the masters of the universe, a preening bunch who scant the poor as they coddle the rich. Yet MacNeil affirms America’s better nature as a great engine of democracy and prosperity, the cockpit of social evolution, the largest home of tolerance, “a force for good in the world.” Growing up in Nova Scotia, influenced by his Anglophile mother, he wound up living on and off in England for much of his life. A burgeoning news career found him cast to-and-fro across the Atlantic, and he took to the “ethnic minestrone of America . . . a spicy, garlicky, herbal potpourri absent or discouraged in Canada’s white porcelain airs.” Yet it was his career that determined his line of sight as he witnessed the hot and cold wars, assassinations, racism, and corruption. Working for Reuters in London in 1956, MacNeil acquired “an early perspective on the Cold War . . . a little to one side and accustomed to skepticism of American behavior.” When he started the first American public-TV news program in 1975, he sought to dig deeper than the empty soundbite, taking a more studied pace and stressing “coherence and editorial discipline . . . with beat reporters heavily outnumbering producers.” MacNeil’s evolution as a reporter has a distinct, entertaining path, while his attempt to situate his search for a homeland amid his professional wanderings seems spurious. “Walking home one fine evening past Lincoln Center, I had the sudden realization: I am a New Yorker!” Point taken, but it’s a minor point.
In any case, there’s not much Broadway razzle-dazzle in these extremely decorous pages, but MacNeil’s seen enough to keep his reminiscences percolating.