Cokie Roberts on Current Politics and a Storied Career

By John Gregory | 9/17/19 9:00 AM

Cokie Roberts has witnessed many dramatic events in Washington, D.C. – not just in her four decades as a political journalist and commentator for NPR and ABC, but even as a child. The Louisiana native was the daughter of longtime U.S. Representatives Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, who collectively served the people of New Orleans for 46 years.

“It is such a privilege – you have a front seat to history,” says Roberts. “You do get used to it, and you shouldn’t, because it is a very special thing to be able to be in the room… when all kinds of special things are happening.”

Roberts appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her career, the state of politics and journalism today, and her work to document prominent women in American history.

 

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Choosing Journalism Over the Family Business

Roberts admits she considered following in her parents’ footsteps. Her father was elected to one term in Congress during World War II. Hale Boggs, a Democrat, returned to the U.S. House after the war and would stay there until October 1972, when he was killed in a plane crash. Roberts’ mother, Lindy Boggs, succeeded her husband, and represented Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional district until her retirement in 1991.

But any plans of politics ended when Roberts met her future husband in college. Steve Roberts wanted to be a journalist, and Cokie Roberts thought her entering politics would complicate his life too much. She says she has a tremendous respect for people who serve in office, and she sees her role as a journalist as an equally vital public service.

“I do feel strongly that informing the voters about what’s going on, trying to explain it in ways that people can understand it, and putting the issues out there is a form of participation,” Roberts says.

After decades as a journalist, Roberts now she now works as a commentator and analyst in a syndicated newspaper column she writes with her husband, on her weekly chats for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and on ABC news programs. She says she enjoys all three mediums and the unique strengths they have for conveying stories.

Roberts is less sanguine on the rise of new media and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. She’s concerned that much of what people read on the internet beyond traditional news outlets isn’t properly reported and edited. Plus, there are added pressures of being the first to post a breaking story. Roberts says she disagrees with some online news outlets that seek to break news even before all the facts have been verified.

“I think a huge amount of our job as older journalists is to quash that,” says Roberts, “and explain to young people that, no, getting it first is not the most important thing. Getting it right is.”

Even with the challenges facing news media these days, Roberts says she’s thrilled that so many young people still want to pursue careers in journalism. And she’s especially happy to note that many of the nation’s journalism schools are filled with female students.

Politics of Division

In addition to the financial pressures facing some news organizations, especially print outlets, there’s also the frontal assault on the legitimacy of mainstream media. Roberts says she believes there’s a deliberate attempt by President Donald Trump and other politicians and pundits to undermine institutions that have traditionally served as a check on political power.

“There’s no such thing as ‘fake news.’ It’s either news or it’s fake,” Roberts says. “There are no alternative facts. They’re facts or they’re not.”

At the same time, Roberts takes a long view of the division and dissatisfaction in politics today. She notes how many Americans have great confidence in the military now, but didn’t in the years following the Vietnam War. And many voters are dissatisfied with the government now, but had strong confidence in it after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says Roberts. She bemoans that civility has reached a low point in public discourse, but then offers a reminder that the nation was far more divided in the years just prior to the Civil War.

“We’re in a moment when people are feeling very angry and feeling that they want their voices heard on both sides,” says Roberts. “I’m thrilled that there’s activism on both sides. I think that having an active citizenry is a very important part of our republic.”

Roberts adds that voters are tired of political posturing and want to see the government get things done. She says she hopes politicians on both sides of the aisle will reach beyond their entrenched, partisan bases to embrace more people and ideas in the middle of the political spectrum.

Women in American History

Now that she’s free from the rigors of deadline reporting, Roberts has more time to focus on writing books. She and her husband Steve have authored titles about their long marriage (they wed in 1966) and about being an interfaith family (she was raised Catholic, and he is Jewish).

She’s also written a series about women in American history. Roberts’ 2004 book “Founding Mothers” explored the little-known women who played critical roles in the American Revolution. In 2008, she followed up with “Ladies of Liberty,” which profiled more women who shaped the young nation. “Capital Dames,” published in 2015, moves the story to the mid-19th century to detail how the Civil War changed life for women in Washington.

Roberts admits her publisher had to convince her to write about America’s bloodiest conflict.

“I really didn’t want to write a Civil War book partly because my ancestors fought on the wrong side,” Roberts jokes.

But she also had more serious reservations about the idea.

“I hate the Civil War. [It] is such a failure of the political system,” says Roberts. “The idea that they couldn’t get to emancipation without killing a half a million Americans is just so depressing and wrong that I didn’t want to deal with it.”

Her next book project will explore the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Roberts says the suffrage movement of the late 1800s and the work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are well known. Instead, she says she’s curious to examine the fight for ratification.

“20th-century women were tortured and imprisoned and force-fed and terrible things happened,” says Roberts. “But that’s what it required: it was that kind of radicalism [needed] in order to get the amendment passed and ratified.”

That book is scheduled for release in 2020, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of American women finally gaining voting rights.