You can't accuse Robert MacNeil of being impulsive. The novelist, playwright and former host of The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour worked in the United States on and off for 45 years before he decided to cast his lot with the Yanks and become an American citizen. Looking For My Country explains how he reached this decision and traces his career as a frontline newsman.
MacNeil, who was born in Montreal and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had two American grandparents. But his mother was an Anglophile who saw little to admire in that country to the south. MacNeil made his first foray into America in 1952, seeking work as an actor. Then, after laboring as a print and television journalist in England for a few years, he returned to America in 1963 as a reporter for NBC. The new job plunged him into the middle of some of the great stories of the century, among them the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1975, MacNeil launched the program that would become The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. There he remained until 1995. Two years later, he became an American citizen partly for convenience and partly from a growing appreciation of what the country meant to him. "Just when you think that there isn't any new news and you've seen everything come and go," he tells BookPage from his office in New York, "then something like the present war [with Iraq] happens or something like 9/11 happens, which certainly shook my thinking and had a profound effect on me. 9/11 made me understand my attachment to this country in an emotional way that I don't think I understood before. It had been creeping up on me. Then, suddenly, I felt defensive about it, and a lot of my equivocation just vanished."It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the 72-year-old author has become a flack for Old Glory. He still speaks of America with the same measured tone and reportorial detachment that endeared him to a generation of news junkies. Besides the new book, he's written a play about Karla Faye Tucker, the murderer turned devout Christian who was executed in Texas in 1998. The play has already had a workshop production in Connecticut and is now in search of a New York venue. MacNeil is also overseeing a special for PBS called Do You Speak American?, a sequel to the acclaimed The Story Of English series, which he helped produce for PBS in the 1980s.
Being a foreign-born reporter on an American beat was never particularly difficult, MacNeil recalls. "You learn, just as you learn good manners, how to approach things with a certain amount of diplomacy. Also, when I didn't like something, I could keep my opinion to myself. After I became a citizen, I felt freer to say what I thought about this country, both negative and positive. I think I had been, consciously and subconsciously, biting my tongue in the past."MacNeil does precious little tongue-biting in his book. He points out America's lack of comprehensive health care, its harsh penal system and its refusal to control guns. "The luxury of not being in the [news] business anymore," he says, "is that I can say things like that, and I don't have to pretend." But MacNeil is quick to acknowledge that America has become a far more open society than the one he first visited. "Oh, I think hugely less puritanical," he says. "There's the relaxation of the sexual mores, for example, and greater tolerance for all kinds of behavior that would have shocked people 50 years ago. The last half-century has been an amazing period of informalizing in America. [Consider] the sodomy case that is being heard in the Supreme Court now. The expectation is that the Court will overturn those laws because society has become increasingly tolerant of homosexual behavior. That's a huge change. And I'm in favor of that because I have a gay son, who's a very successful theater designer."Citizenship, MacNeil reflects, enables him to engage in politics at a level he finds comfortable: "I never wanted to be a pundit. I never wanted to write op-ed pages or go on television and sound off about things or be a politician. I'm happy to have my own opinion and air it when I think it's necessary." Edward Morris writes from Nashville.