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Journalist Robert MacNeil: 'Looking For My Country'

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Journalist and author Robert MacNeil was born and raised in Canada, but he has spent a lifetime reporting on some of the most historic events in American history. He is perhaps best known for his many years as a PBS anchor.

After all those years of living and working in the U.S., he decided to become an American citizen six years ago.

He writes about his decision in his new book, "Looking For My Country."

In an interview with CNN's Judy Woodruff, who once worked with McNeil at PBS, MacNeil spoke about how his family shaped his view of America while he was growing up in Canada.

MacNeil: Well, it was kind of ambivalent. We devoured American popular culture. But the other side of it was my mother's strange anti-Americanism. She was very pro-British.

I grew up in kind of the last generation of Canadians who thought things that were happening in Britain were more important, almost, than what was happening in Canada. And my mother was fervently of that opinion.

Woodruff: You came to the United States for the first time to sort of live here at 21.

MacNeil: Yes.

Woodruff: There was a lot that captivated you about the United States.

MacNeil: Oh, yes.

Woodruff: But it was many -- it would be many years before you would even think about becoming an American citizen. Talk about that.

MacNeil: Yes. It's so tied up with personal affairs, marriages, jobs, where I was working, and what I thought I should be doing. And then going back and forth across the Atlantic to Britain, where I kept going back, that it's very confusing to me.

I was quite willing to become an American citizen when NBC wanted me to way back in '62 or so. And they even went to the lengths, it's extraordinary now, of sending me here to Washington with a PR man who was supposed to talk the NBC lobbyist here into getting a ... congressman to pass a bill to make -- if that's the way it's done, that's the way it's done.

And the lobbyist said, what are you bothering me with this kind of stuff for? I've got an important bill with senator so and so and I've got this going on. Get out of here.

And I said, well, if that's what he feels about my citizenship, the hell with it. And it never was pressed as an issue after that. And then I moved back to Britain after a long time with NBC and it didn't seem urgent then.

But, finally, I just realized a few years ago that this is where I belonged. I mean everything I had was invested here, emotionally and every other way. And the country had invested enormously in me.

Woodruff: But was there something about America that prevented you from doing it before that?

MacNeil: Well, I had a small degree, that little infection of skepticism about America which resides in the minds of even America's closest friends. That America can't be quite as good as it says it is. And why does it need so relentlessly to keep saying how good it is?

And you can sense that right now in the reaction of the rest of the world after the enormous outpouring of goodwill after September 11. The gradual drawing back and saying, 'Hey, wait a minute who does America think it is, doing this and doing that.' And that's just part -- it's a very strange thing, because those, including the British and Canadians, who love America, who have great admiration for all the idealism of its founding, and its generally benign and generous behavior to the rest of the world, still keep this current of, well, show me.

Partly because it's American behavior and the American mood, particularly at the moment, a rather strutting, swaggering posture in the world. And that irritates people.

Woodruff: It was almost six years ago that you became an American citizen in 1997.

MacNeil: Yes, right.

Woodruff: But you write as if it wasn't until September 11, 9/11, that you really, really got the grasp of what it meant.

MacNeil: Yes, I got it viscerally then. That's when I suddenly felt, sitting there in New York -- which has been my home for a long time now -- I felt the vulnerability of myself and the country, and I felt with them as one feels -- as you would feel if your family was attacked or something. And I suddenly recognized that I had emotionally come all the way across the line.

Woodruff: One last thing. Americans who were here take the good things about this country so for granted. What do you, as somebody who has been elsewhere and has come from elsewhere, see about Americans and the United States that Americans themselves perhaps don't even?

MacNeil: Well, I don't know whether they don't see it. I mean smart Americans see everything. I just love the openness and the generosity. And it's basically the common understanding that whoever you are, where you were -- who you were born, does not matter.

It's who you make yourself into. And that is so different, even to a little degree from Canada, where there's a residue of British, who your parents were, just a tiny residue.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 4 pm ET.

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