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Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts was a renowned American broadcast journalist and author. Born in New Orleans in 1943, she was honored as a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and awarded three Emmys for her work in television. The daughter of Hale Boggs, former Democratic House Majority Leader and Whip from New Orleans’ 2nd district, she grew up on Capitol Hill with several presidents and members of Congress as family friends. Roberts was a Morning Edition commentator at National Public Radio and a political commentator for ABC News. She was also the author of several books on women in history and modern America. She also wrote two books with her husband, Steven V. Roberts, with whom she  co-wrote a weekly column. She died on September 17, 2019; this interview was conducted in 2017 by Spectator co-editors Nat Goldstein and Lily Parker.

Spectator Magazine: Your father was a prominent political figure during your childhood; what were some of the pluses and minuses of growing up in the public eye?

Cokie Roberts: Well, the pluses were enormous, because we got to really know key figures in American history, but also, to understand what was really going on in the world of politics and government. We’d get out of school on days of big debates and things like that, so it was a lot of fun, first of all; but secondly, it was very educational and has certainly stood me in good stead ever since. The downside, of course, of growing up in the public eye, is that you have to really be good. You can’t do anything that’ll embarrass your parents, that could end up on the front page of the newspaper, or anything like that, so you have to be a good kid.

SM: How often did you go to the Capitol as a kid?

CR: I spent a huge amount of my childhood in the Capitol. My, I think, seventh birthday party was in the Speaker’s Dining Room; I used to conduct tours of the Capitol for constituents. You have to keep in mind this was the early 1950s and 1960s; people didn’t travel as easily as they do today, so when a family would come up from New Orleans to see Washington, it was a big deal. You were expected to show them around and basically take care of them. So I, as a very little child, did tours of the Capitol and stuff like that. I actually remember — this is as geeky as it gets — on my seventh birthday, waking up and saying, “Oh good, now I can go in the public gallery,” because I could only go in the family gallery until I was seven. I couldn’t take the people into the public gallery, so it was a big thing. When I was in the public gallery, I could do the complete tour.

SM: Who were some political figures that you remember coming over to your house for dinner?

CR: Oh, they were all here. One of the best friends of the family was Sam Rayburn, one of the long-time Speakers of the House. Lyndon Johnson was a very close friend as well — Jack Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Gerry Ford — they were all around. My sister used to say that some families collect fine art and antiques; we collected politicians.

SM: You grew up in both New Orleans and Washington D.C., two cities that underwent profound changes during the Civil Rights Movement. How did you experience that growing up?

CR: Well, it was quite traumatic because my father was involved in civil rights in a variety of ways. At first, he was trying to stave off the real crazies by giving a few bones to the anti-civil rights people, but then he felt very strongly, particularly on voting rights, because this was an important issue. So, although he had always been very receptive to the African American community and worked with them very closely on all kinds of issues, this was the first big public stand for civil rights, and he was, of course, the only Deep South person to do it. It became very difficult. People in New Orleans were mad and rude, and threatening. It was a hard part of life, but we were all on that side, so that made it easier because we were proud of it. And then when the Fair Housing Act of 1968 came along, the black leaders all said to him, “Please don’t vote for it. You're gonna lose if you vote for it, and you’re gonna lose to a total yahoo, and we need you in the House.” By this time he was a whip, and I remember him saying “I’m sorry, I’ve crossed that river, and I’m not gonna go back.” And it was the closest election of the House that year.

SM: Did witnessing this influence your decision to become a journalist?

CR: No. I really didn’t make a decision to become a journalist. I just sort of fell into it, because Steve and I got married, and I was, at that point, actually anchoring a local TV show here. It was kind of a reverse “Meet the Press,” and I got the job at twenty-one. But it never occurred to either one of us that he should move to Washington, and I keep my good job. Instead, I quit and moved to New York, and I started job hunting, and ended up with a job for a little business newsletter, so I kind of fell into journalism.

SM: While you were working as a stringer for CBS news in Athens, Greece, your career took an unexpected advancement when you witnessed and reported on the coup that toppled the Greek regime. What was the combination of luck and hard work that gave you one of your first breaks in journalism?

CR: Well, by the time we left for Greece I had done a combination of journalism and production. I went to all of the networks and told them I’d be living in Greece and that I’d have a telex machine. That’s how you communicated at that point. And you know, I told them to use me. CBS gave me a tape recorder. So we moved there in March of 1974, and I got the kids settled in school and found a house and all that. So the government of Cyprus fell, and Steve went to go cover what was evolving in Cyprus. CBS called me at the crack of dawn and said, “The Turks have just invaded Cyprus.” And I said, “Oh my god, Steve’s there.” They said, “Well, we have a man there too.” That was not my point. [laughs] So they said, “Could you file a news spot?” And I’d never filed a news spot in my life. But fortunately, we had some friends visiting us so they could stay with the children. And I went in the car and drove around. We didn’t live far from the Greek Pentagon. And so I went to see if there was any activity there, and I went to the Visitors Bureau, where no one was aware of what was going on. And so I filed my first spot, and then I was filing pretty much hourly after that. And I did get the world beat on the ceasefire, but I couldn’t get it out; I couldn’t get any phone lines at that point because the borders were closed and things were kind of dicey. Finally, I had been filing really every hour, and I had promised the babysitter that I would get home for dinner because it was her birthday. As I got in the cab to come home, all of a sudden, all this noise breaks out and there are horns honking and people cheering and all that, and what had happened was that the government had fallen. I hopped out of the cab and there were flower stalls all along the Parliament building, and I went into one of the flower stalls and said, “I need to use your phone.” In those days, in order to file, you had to take apart the telephone and you attached what were called alligator clips into your tape recorder and to the phone. So she thought I was CIA and was tapping her phone. They were very paranoid about the CIA — and for good reason — and so I got that out from the flower booth and it led the Cronkite news that night. They called my mother and asked if they had a picture of me and that was how I got put on the map.

SM: So how did you wind up at NPR?

CR: So when we got back from Greece, I was very unhappy. I did not want to come back from Greece, or I wanted to go to another foreign assignment, because coming here was kind of like dying, and I knew I would never leave, which was true. But I was very unhappy, and not working. I see the children walk to school, and Steve off to work, and turn around and my mother was staying here, and I go, “Now what?” And not only do I have to work, for my personality, but I needed the money. So Steve went to work at The New York Times, which was where he had been since college, and there was a new desk mate whom he had never met before. He introduced himself, and she said her name was Judy Miller, and he said, “Where did you come from?” And she said she just came from NPR. And he said, “What’s NPR?” and she told him, and he said, “Oh my god that’s perfect for my wife, what should I do?” And she said, “Get her resume to Nina Totenberg.” So he called Nina — she knew who he was — and said, “Yeah come on over, I’ll meet you.” She took my resume and the rest, as they say, is history.

SM: You were one of the first women covering national public news; how were you received both by the people you interviewed and by the men who worked with you?

CR: So, getting the job, initially, after I moved to New York and got married, it was very difficult being a woman. And people would say out loud, with no hesitation, “We don’t hire women to do that.” That was illegal by then because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they didn’t know it, and it took brave women suing at CBS and The New York Times and Newsweek to change all of that. So that was a time you were totally unaccepted; you had to pretty much claw your way in and up. By the time I got to NPR, which was enough years later that the world had changed, NPR had started as a new company post-Civil Rights, so there were a lot more women than there were in other journalistic organizations. You know, you didn’t have to fire a man to hire a woman. And also the pay was bad, and you could get more women for bad pay. At NPR it was not an issue, I mean there were times when it was an issue but it was not a big issue. And in terms of politicians, they don’t care what you are. I always joke you could walk in with three heads and as long as the initials after your name were ones they thought were useful to them — NPR, ABC, whatever — they would be happy to see you. I always joked that some said, “Have a seat, you wanna cup of coffee? Or perhaps three?” because even if you were a three-headed monster they wanted their voice getting out to their people. But clearly, all along the way, there were challenges. And one of the things that would happen was something like the Brinkley Roundtable. The producers would feel they had their women and one was enough, you know, you just needed one. And so to be able to fight through that was yet another low we had to go through.

SM: Incidents of sexual harassment in Congress have recently gained a higher degree of notoriety than in the past; for example, John Conyers comes to mind. What are the forces at work that make now the time that women are empowered to speak up?

CR: I think “Me Too.” “Me Too” has had a tremendous impact and I at first thought it wouldn’t — I thought it would be kind of a flash in the pan and everyone would go on — but it’s really having a huge effect, not only on harassment, but also on equity. And I’m thrilled about that, I think that's just fabulous that the moment has come. Enough people have spoken up — people of consequence, but also a lot of numbers of people. In Congress it was just unconscionable, we all put up with it. I didn’t know about Conyers until it happened, and a lot of that was inside his office. But Strom Thurmond was notorious. Everybody just laughed about it because by the end he was a hundred years old, literally. But, you know, the male would come and put their arm around you, and then just start rubbing your breast from the side — and that happened all the time. It was pervasive, and finally having them called to account on it is a very good thing. Because women run the Hill, the staffs are so female-dominated, and the experts are so often females; to have them be put into this position is just outrageous.

SM: Do you think that movement will continue to gain traction?

CR: Yes I do! I didn’t — but I do. I think that, again, it’s a movement whose time has come. And what’s happening is women are running for office — God love them — and 300 and some have signed up to run for Congress — which is more than ever before, and they won’t all run in the end and a lot won’t win, but a lot will. And that’s the true change.

SM: You’ve had a front row seat witnessing how American politics and the news media have changed. Do you think that the current state of the news media can be blamed for America’s polarization, or do you think the news media is a function of that polarization?

CR: I think both are true. I do think that we’re an unindicted co-conspirator in the polarization; there are a lot of other factors, but it is true that we, being mainstream media, tend to give our microphones to the loudest shouters. To look for conflict, producers would often say, “What's the argument?” and they want to know which people are going to disagree with each other. They think that's good TV and the louder the better, and of course the politicians then catch on to that and respond to it and it becomes a cycle, but it's also true that what we've seen is the growth of partisan news outlets. Particularly cable television and talk radio and that has certainly exacerbated the conversation. We have had partisan newspapers throughout our history and I’m always amazed at the founders and at the First Amendment, because the 18th-century press was so horrendous, but it’s different when it's visual — it’s stronger. It's a stronger impact to have a Fox News and an MSNBC than it is to have a New York Post and a The New York Times.

SM: There is a common sentiment today that the press primarily represents liberal views. Given your experience as a writer and a reporter for mainstream news agencies, what would you say to those who condemn the media for its bias?

CR: I think a lot of that has to do with being anti-authority, and of course that's our job — to question authority — and a lot of viewers find that unsettling. You know, “Why are you asking those mean questions of the president?” or whomever. Some of it has been a very orchestrated, conservative attack that's really been going on since the Nixon administration. It's a good tactic, it raises money, it gets people out to vote, it energizes a base, and so I think that those are the main answers. I do also think that there’s something of a bias towards action, you know, you want Congress to act so you have something to cover. And action generally means more government! And that tends to be a more liberal view.

SM: What role would you say the media plays in America today?

CR: Well I think right now, this minute, they’ve been playing an incredibly crucial role, and I do think that the media has by and large stepped up. I think a lot of people who were essentially mailing it in, in years past, have now really gotten on the game of holding the government accountable, and business, and the academy, and everything else. And I think the reasons for that are that there’s so much attack on the media and on government institutions that there is a real role that everybody understands has to be played. Even if you get attacked for it and the Twittersphere lights up and says evil, horrible things, you have to just do it because it’s an essential role in a republic such as ours. And it is very essential to say that the things that are being said are just not true. Facts are facts. And it is absolutely key that we keep doing that and don’t let people think that it’s just normal to have untruths emanating from the White House or other government agencies.

SM: Do you think that’s become the norm, to accept untrue things?

CR: Yes, I think its a real problem. I’m worried about your generation because there’s so much out there that’s not right and so much that people either accept or just think, “Oh well,” instead of really searching for the truth and understanding what is true and what is not true. I worry about it not just in terms of government but in terms of all kinds of things, you know; the denial of expertise is dangerous.

SM: What do you see in the future of the Democratic Party with senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pushing its platform further and further to the left?

CR: I think that the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party is likely to make it very difficult for the Democrats to win, except in a few very blue districts in the country. The American people are, by and large, moderate. And if you look at the numbers in any polling, people who describe themselves as liberal never get above about 29%; that’s not enough to win! So that’s the biggest problem for the party.

SM: Do you foresee, with the current fragmentation of the Republican and Democratic parties, the advent of parties that might actually challenge the two-party status quo?

CR: I think people try to do that on a fairly regular basis. It’s really hard to do. The parties have fixed the system in a way that it is very hard for a real viable third-party to have any effect. The last third-party candidate who won electoral votes was George Wallace. It does tend to happen but if it’s a regionally based party — that’s the way they can win some votes — but otherwise, it’s really tough. Now, that doesn’t mean that people who are not affiliated with either party have no influence. Those are the people that the parties are constantly trying to group, especially in presidential years. When Ross Perot won 19% of the vote in 1992, it really got attention, even though he won no electoral votes. And so members of Congress checked over their shoulders constantly to see what the Perot vote was thinking about various issues. So, the people who identified themselves as independent, which is the plurality, do still have a big impact.

SM: Do you see, in the future, the media allowing third-party candidates to participate in debates?

CR: So that’s always an issue, right. And so we keep trying to set up criteria that seem fair, and nobody’s ever quite sure what those are. At the moment, for the Presidential Debate Commission, it’s x amount of money raised, and y amount of attention in the polls. And that has allowed some candidates in, like Ross Perot, and not others. But you know, the debates now are so diffuse. I mean, they’re all over the place. And the Republicans tried, last time, to limit the number because they thought that it was such a dog and pony show. But it’s really hard to do that, because the news outlets want a debate, and they’re constantly pressuring the campaigns. And often the campaigns want more debates too. So the criteria can differ tremendously depending on the host.

SM: What lasting effect do you think the Trump administration will have on the Republican Party, as well as American politics in general?

CR: Well, obviously, it’s hard to know what the lasting effect will be when we’re in the middle of it, but right now it’s the Trump party, it’s not the Republican Party. And that was true, I remember getting to that convention and saying, “My gosh, there are no Republicans here!” It really was the Trump convention. And now in the White House, for instance, there are really no Republicans, except Don McGahn, the lawyer. I mean, it is his party. And as long as the Republican leadership in Congress does not feel that it’s in their interest to challenge him, it will be Trump’s party. And that’s got pluses and minuses for them, and they’re very well aware of that as they look toward the midterms. They know that there are an awful lot of people, particularly suburban women, who are turned off by him, and he could be a liability. But there are an awful lot of people who are deeply devoted to him, and they’re Republicans, and they need to not make those people unhappy. So it is a work in progress, to put it mildly.

SM: In lots of circles, people have a negative gut reaction to the Electoral College; why do you think this is the case?

CR: People think the Electoral College isn’t fair. They think if somebody wins the popular vote, they should be elected. And that’s been true since Andy Jackson. But the truth is, the Electoral College serves a purpose. My father, when he first came to Congress, introduced a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but I disagreed with him. I think that there are a variety of reasons that it has value. One is: this is a great, big country. And people say, “Oh, why can’t we do it like England?” England’s New Jersey; it is. So you need to have some time for somebody to get out and around the country, for the voters to get to know them, and they do that because of the Electoral College, because every state makes a difference. Otherwise, it would just be national media, and it would not be a true presidential campaign. And, you know, you learn things on campaigns. It’s not just you getting out and talking; at least, normally it isn’t. If you are a good candidate, who really is interested in public service, you’re also listening. But the main reason I like it is because I think it protects minority votes. Nobody would care about the Jewish vote if it weren’t for an Electoral College. Because, you know, it doesn’t matter nationwide. But it matters in Florida, and it matters in New York, and it matters in New Jersey. And the same thing is true about the African-American vote that matters more; sure because it’s about twelve percent of the vote nationwide. But in certain states, it’s thirty percent of the vote. So I think it just gives much more of an impact to groups that would be left out if it were just a nationwide referendum. And you know, the founders were always interested in that; they were always interested in protecting the minority. They feared the tyranny of the majority, and I think the Electoral College is one of the ways to do that. In fact, one of my last interviews with Ron Brown before he died was about the Electoral College, and he was a great supporter of it as an American political figure.

SM: What has been your experience writing a weekly column with Steve for newspapers around the country?

CR: Steve writes most of them. He’s still just such a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman that he wants to be a newspaperist. I write them and I get mad. But it’s been a perfectly nice experience. The way we do it mostly now is we discuss a topic and then he’ll write it and I’ll edit it, but when we discuss, we both throw in ideas and all of that. We’ve written a lot together over the years and we like doing that. It's not cumbersome. We’re careful not to edit too heavily. But it’s a perfectly pleasant thing to do.

SM: We can’t let you go without asking you about New Orleans, your hometown. There is a certain timelessness where people seem to enjoy living in the moment, a quality attributed to few other cities in America. As a New Orleans native, how would you describe it?

CR: It’s an ethnicity. It’s really like being from Italy or something. You have your own music, your own food, your own funny way of talking, and a spirit of the city that’s really different from any other American city. You hear about Mardi Gras, but there are parades all the time. It’s unbelievable, you could be walking down the street and there’s another parade. “What are you all parading about?’” There’s this constant joy. After Katrina, what struck me so profoundly was the silence. I had never heard the city silent. The playgrounds were empty. Finally, I heard one lone horn and followed it. It was somebody just trying to bring some music. The city is always so full of music. One of my favorite stories that I think really captures the essence is — well, this is just from the last year or two. A building at the foot of Canal Street, which is right at the river, was a big gambling hall, Harrahs Casino, and they had apparently done some work in the building, and there was a huge sinkhole that just developed in the middle of this major street. The reaction of the community, other than grumbling about it, was to declare it “Sinkhole De Mayo” on May 5th. All of a sudden, out of nowhere comes food, music, and a festival that just pops up at Sinkhole De Mayo, which I think is not only clever, but it’s a way of turning bad moments into happy ones.

—Cokie Roberts for Spectator Magazine, 2017

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