Cokie Roberts, Pioneering Journalist Who Helped Shape NPR, Dies At 75

Sep 17, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 11:24 am

Veteran journalist Cokie Roberts, who joined an upstart NPR in 1978 and left an indelible imprint on the growing network with her coverage of Washington politics before later going to ABC News, has died. She was 75.

Roberts died Tuesday because of complications from breast cancer, according to a family statement.

A bestselling author and Emmy Award winner, Roberts was one of NPR's most recognizable voices and is considered one of a handful of pioneering female journalists — along with Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg — who helped shape the public broadcaster's sound and culture at a time when few women held prominent roles in journalism.

Having so many female voices at a national broadcaster was nothing short of revolutionary in the 1970s, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson recalled in an interview with The Daily Princetonian earlier this year.

"[W]e called them the Founding Mothers of NPR, or sometimes we called them the Fallopian Club," she said.

Liasson said it wasn't so much that NPR had a mission for gender equality but that the network's pay, which was well below the commercial networks of the day, resulted in "a lot of really great women who were in prominent positions there and who helped other women."

By the time Roberts joined ABC News in 1988 — while retaining a part-time role as a political commentator at NPR that she maintained until her death — women were increasingly commonplace at broadcast networks and newspapers.

Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts, photographed around 1979, were among the prominent female voices on NPR in its early years.

Roberts, the daughter of former U.S. representatives, grew up walking the halls of Congress and absorbing the personalities, folkways and behind-the-scenes machinations of the nation's capital. She became a seasoned Washington insider who developed a distinctive voice as a reporter and commentator.

In a 2017 interview with Kentucky Educational Television, Roberts reflected on her long career.

"It is such a privilege — you have a front seat to history," she said. "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."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, answers questions from ABC's Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts in Denver.
Dan Chung / Reuters

Although she was the only member of her immediate family not to run for Congress, Roberts considered her role as a journalist and political analyst as her way of giving back.

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

Political journalist George Will, who worked with Roberts on ABC's This Week, said Roberts was not just born to the political class but was a natural inhabitant.

"She liked people on both sides of the aisle and had friends on both sides of the aisle," Will told NPR. "If you don't like the game of politics, I don't see how you write about it well," he said. "She liked the game of politics and she understood that it was a game."

Born in New Orleans as Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs, she was given the nickname Cokie by her brother, Thomas, who had trouble pronouncing Corinne.

Roberts' father was Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., a former Democratic majority leader of the House who served in Congress for more than three decades before he disappeared on a campaign flight in Alaska in 1972. Her mother, Lindy Claiborne Boggs, took her husband's seat and served for 17 years. Lindy Boggs also served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Roberts split her time between Louisiana and Washington as a child and attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Her first job was at the Washington television station WRC-TV, where she hosted a public affairs program called Meeting of Minds.

She married journalist Steven V. Roberts in 1966. After holding a number of other broadcast jobs, she and her husband moved in the early 1970s to Athens, Greece, where he worked for The New York Times and she filed radio stories as a freelance correspondent for CBS.

In 1977, Roberts and her family returned to Washington, where she took a job with a then-almost unknown NPR. She served as NPR's congressional correspondent for more than 10 years. While in that role, she was also a contributor to PBS's The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Roberts left NPR in 1988 to become a political correspondent for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. She was also a regular fill-in anchor for Ted Koppel on Nightline. From 1992 to 2002, Roberts co-anchored ABC News' Sunday morning show This Week alongside Sam Donaldson.

Will said that although Washington is a "town of short leases," with people constantly coming and going, Roberts represented the permanent Washington, a kind of figure who was constant through decades of political change: "The Washington not often denounced by people who denounce Washington because they don't know it exists," Will said. "Cokie represented the durable, ongoing Washington that is a custodian of the manners of the city and the sociability of the city that makes it really function."

Roberts won numerous awards during her long career in journalism, including three Emmys and the Edward R. Murrow award. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. She was recognized by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting.

"Much of Cokie Roberts' fame and credibility resides in her image as a rough-and-trouble woman capable of giving as good as she gets in the equally rough-and-tumble world of male dominated politics," Dan Nimmo wrote in Political Commentators in the United States in the 20th Century.

Roberts said she would often offer this advice to younger women navigating political journalism in Washington: "Duck and file," Roberts said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

"Don't get all involved in the politics of your institution, or competition in your institution. Just do your work and get it on the air, and then people will see if you're good," she said.

Roberts was the author of six books, mostly recently Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, which examined the role of powerful women in the Civil War era.

As a commentator, Roberts sometimes walked a line that threatened to eclipse her role as a dispassionate journalist. In a February 2016 op-ed co-authored with her husband, they called on "the rational wing" of the Republican Party to stop the nomination of Donald Trump.

"[Trump] is one of the least qualified candidates ever to make a serious run for the presidency," Roberts and her husband wrote. "If he is nominated by a major party — let alone elected — the reputation of the United States would suffer a devastating blow around the world."

In interviews, Roberts often said she might have run for public office herself but thought she would spare her journalist husband the difficulty of what could be an awkward dynamic.

"I have always felt semi-guilty about it. But I've sort of assuaged my guilt by writing about it and feeling like I'm educating people about the government and how to be good voters and good citizens," Roberts told The Washington Post in March.

"In covering Congress, there's plenty of times when I felt, you know, the mother line: I don't care who started it, I'm stopping it. So, to be in a position where you could do that," Roberts told the newspaper.

"It's a great luxury to sit on the outside and analyze, or even give your opinion about how it could be fixed," she said.

In a statement Tuesday, former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama called Roberts "a constant over forty years of a shifting media landscape and changing world, informing voters about the issues of our time and mentoring young journalists every step of the way."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Roberts' death was "a great official loss for our nation and a deep personal loss for all who were blessed to call Cokie a friend."

"Cokie Roberts was a trailblazer who forever transformed the role of women in the newsroom and in our history books," Pelosi said in a statement.

Roberts is survived by her husband of 53 years; her two children, Lee Roberts and Rebecca Roberts; and six grandchildren.

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We are remembering Cokie Roberts this morning. Her family says she died of cancer at the age of 75 years old. Cokie was a leader in two of America's main news organizations, including NPR. But calling her a journalist does not fully capture her remarkable life. Here's our colleague, Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: On the radio at MORNING EDITION, we called her NPR's Cokie Roberts. On television, they called her ABC's Cokie Roberts. Neither designation was wrong, though, as we'll hear, both were incomplete. At birth in 1943, her family gave her a string of names, and an interviewer once wondered why she did not use any of them.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Where did Cokie come from?

ROBERTS: My brother, Tommy, was three years older than me, and when I came home from the hospital, he couldn't say Corrine. And he christened me Cokie, and I've been Cokie ever since.

INSKEEP: Her maiden name was Boggs, as in Hale Boggs, her father, a very powerful Louisiana congressman. In the 1960s, Boggs was able to persuade the exceptionally strong-willed President Lyndon Johnson to do what Boggs needed. In 1972, Boggs was campaigning for a colleague in Alaska when their plane disappeared without a trace. His daughter, Cokie, was just under 30.


ROBERTS: I lived in California at the time. I was a young mom. I had a couple of kids. I had a child who had just turned 2, and my little boy turned 4 while I was in Alaska looking for my father.

INSKEEP: Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, ran for and won her late husband's seat in Congress. Cokie returned to Washington and met an NPR reporter named Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In the late '70s, Steve Roberts, who then worked for The New York Times, her husband, delivered to me her resume. And I then brought it to the head of news at the time, and he hired her on a temporary basis. And you think of an important story in our national life over the last 40 years or so, Cokie was part of it.


ROBERTS: President Carter said that he is committed to a universal, comprehensive plan that would provide basic health coverage to all Americans. But Carter...

The hearings have been about more than the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of funds to the Contras. The events surrounding the Iran-Contra affair have been about two...

Then what happens? Well, it's most likely that there are not enough votes in the House of Representatives to impeach the president.

INSKEEP: In the 1980s, her NPR reporting on Congress caught the attention of ABC News.


INSKEEP: And ABC did something that was still relatively new. It included a woman, Cokie Roberts, among the male panelists on a Sunday morning news show. She worked for ABC for more than 30 years...


ROBERTS: Cokie Roberts, ABC News, Capitol Hill.

INSKEEP: ...Even as she continued with NPR. Critics of her reporting sometimes argued that she was too close to the Washington political figures she covered. Her fellow ABC panelist, George F. Will, saw her outlook differently.

GEORGE WILL: If you don't like the game of politics, I don't see how you write about it well. It's as though someone said, I'm going to be a baseball writer, and I really don't like baseball. She liked the game of politics. She understood that in some ways it is a game, which is not a pejorative and not a diminishing and not a disparaging term. It's hard to connect cheerfulness and partisanship these days. She did it in her career and in her life.

INSKEEP: Roberts said she had empathy for politicians, human beings, however flawed, who mostly tried to do what they considered right. Though in her later years, she added that politics was growing harder to like.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Cokie Roberts, is Washington still like it was back then?

ROBERTS: No, not even close. It's tragically different.

INSKEEP: She told C-SPAN that partisanship was growing extreme. In recent years, younger women viewed Cokie Roberts as a pioneer and mentor, and she offered a particular view of the fight for women's equality. She was not that interested in telling women how to behave differently. She was more interested in changing systems that held them back.


ROBERTS: In recent years, we've heard this business about mommy wars and leaning in and all this stuff, you know. It's just - the conversation to me that's worth having is a conversation about equal pay for equal work, about making the workplace a far more caretaker-friendly place to be.

INSKEEP: Because the caretakers of both children and the elderly were so often women. Roberts wrote several books on the political history of women. Earlier this year, we were discussing that subject on the air when she broke in.


INSKEEP: The House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote.

ROBERTS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no granting - no granting. We had the right to vote as American citizens. We didn't have to be granted it by some bunch of guys.

INSKEEP: OK. That, we should mention, is NPR's own Cokie Roberts correcting the introduction to this story.

A few years ago, we talked about Washington women while sitting in the cottage that had been used by President Lincoln's family when they were in the capital.


INSKEEP: When you have researched and read the letters of the women of this era, the mid-19th century, do you feel in some way that you recognize them?

ROBERTS: I always recognize women in history. It's really remarkable how much we do the same things century in, century out. You recognize their concern about their children. You recognize their interest in fashion. You recognize the jewelry that they're wearing. But you also recognize their intelligence and their political sensibility.

INSKEEP: Women can be overtly ambitious today rather than covertly ambitious.

ROBERTS: They can be overtly ambitious carefully.


ROBERTS: It's still very difficult for a woman to have the word ambitious attached to her.

INSKEEP: Over the course of decades, Cokie Roberts managed to pursue her ambitions. And her NPR colleague Susan Stamberg said she did that with integrity.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Cokie has been a model for all of us. She was a child of the Congress. She grew up to be its brilliant observer. She connected democracy and the truth always and was deeply committed to it. She demonstrated it in every report that she did and in all her behavior as an individual.

INSKEEP: Now, we told you at the start that when people called her NPR's Cokie Roberts or ABC'S Cokie Roberts, it was not quite the whole story. She did not belong to a company but to her country.


GREENE: Cokie Roberts was 75 years old. And there is so much more to say about her influence, and we'll be hearing that in the hours and in the days ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.