Remembering Cokie Roberts: the unassuming role model

This week the journalistic world, the real one, lost a great journalist, reporter, analyst, and woman; Cokie Roberts.  She finally succumbed to complications from breast cancer which she had been diagnosed with in 2002.  Born Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs, Cokie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in December 1943.  Her nickname was a derivative of Corinne which her kid brother could not pronounce.  She remained known as Cokie. Her parents, Lindy and Hale Boggs were Democratic members of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, in 1972, Hale Boggs’ plane disappeared over Alaska and was never found.  Lindy took over her husband’s seat.  One can deduce that politics ran in the family and obviously in Cokie’s  blood.

Cokie was best known for her positions at NPR and ABC, but her portfolio runs deeper than that.  Her first job was with WRC-TV in Washington DC.  She had a weekly public affairs program called Meeting of the Minds.  Having married another journalist, Steven Roberts, in 1964 she moved to New York City with him and for a short time worked as a reporter for Cowles Communication.  She was also a producer at WNEW-TV, until she moved again with her husband to Los Angeles and started working for Altman Productions.  Later she joined KNBC-TV as a producer to the Emmy winning children’s program Serendipity.  Following her husband again, she did a short stint in Greece as a CBS News part time correspondent in Athens.

Cokie is best known for her ten years as congressional correspondent on NPR, but her journalism, analysis, and congressional prowess was in demand and she became a “regular” on Morning Edition, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and a co-host to This Week with Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts.  But through it all, Cokie remained a professional journalist without an agenda.  She was raised in a political family when politics were civilized and friendships were made across the aisle.  That demeanor remained with Cokie Roberts throughout her career.  She also served on the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization, and appointed on the Council on Service and Civic Participation by President George W. Bush. 

Behind the TV anchor and journalist was also an author.  In 2004, Cokie was interviewed by CNN’s Larry King on her book new book Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. This book was written and published two years after Cokie was diagnosed with breast cancer.  In the interview, Cokie told Larry that she her profession helped write the book. As a congressional reporter, she witnessed debates on freedom of speech, religion, and bearing arms, bringing her “…closer  to the  founding fathers”.It was time she took a look at the women behind the men.  She brought to light the influence that wives like Martha Washington, and Mrs. Adams (Louisa Catherine) had on their husbands.  Through letters and notes, she put together the lives of these women at a time when men led and women followed.  Cokie discovered the resiliency of Martha Washington at Valley Forge, and Mrs. Jefferson who single handedly took over her husband’s position as Post Master General, and often protected her home with a shot gun.  Through historical letters and notes, Cokie managed to give us a glimpse at the founding mothers.  In a tribute to Cokie, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi described Cokie as a “trailblazer” who gave us stories on the “unsung women who built our nation”.

In 2018, a few days after the death of President George H.W. Bush, Cookie gave a short interview to David Greene host of Morning Edition. David asked her about her friendship with the former president, and the president’s  almost surreal friendship with Bill Clinton.  Cokie described her friendship with the Bush family as developing through Barbara Bush’s Family Literacy Foundation which Cokie supported.  According to her, the former president “exemplified decency”.  His relationship with Bill Clinton developed because of the former president’s “incredible decency”.  Cokie was close enough to the Bush family that one time she sent the former president a pair of Uncle Same Wants You socks from the National Archives. In true George H. W. Bush form she received a “thank you” note from him.  According to Cokie, the former president was big on sending “thank you” notes.

Cokie Roberts personified journalism as it was but unfortunately has not remained.  She was never crass, biased, rude, over bearing, or partisan flag waving.  Whether she discussed, interviewed, analyzed, or reported; Cokie remained true to her upbringing and her professionalism.  She might have had different political ideology but she never wore it on her sleeve.  Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura described her as talented, tough, fair, and a great “friend of the family”. Former President Obama said that she was a role model to women when journalism was dominated by men.  The latter is very true.  Her ten-year tenure on NPR gave her the fond title of “founding mother of NPR”.   

What made Cokie Roberts admired and liked, was her ability to agree or disagree politely and graciously.  She was in the same league as Barbara Walters, who also had to struggle and punch through the male dominated profession of journalism.  Barbara once told a story how on a set everyone man had a chair with their name on it, but hers said “woman”.  These women were special because they worked hard and did not demand or expect entitlements.  They forged through the chauvinistic world of their profession by using their brains not a bull horn.  They were the silent activists that conquered through intelligence, diligence, and professionalism that could not be ignored. 

Cokie Roberts represented decency and ethics in journalism, two qualities dangerously absent today.  The New York Times comes to mind. It’s unethical journalism once again showed its ugly head with an unsubstantiated almost made-up story against a Supreme Court Justice just for politics’ sake.  It does not get lower than that.  As Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post called it: “impeachable journalism”. Cokie Roberts was the opposite. Cokie Roberts “…disagreed agreeably…listened, offered advice, showed patience and poise…” (Kellyanne Conway). Thank you Cokie Roberts for representing the best in us on and off the screen.  Rest in peace, your story is yet to be told.

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