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Journalist Cokie Roberts Pursued Her Ambitions With Integrity


We are remembering our colleague Cokie Roberts throughout the show. She died today due to complications from cancer at age 75. She was a leader in two of America's main news organizations, but calling her a journalist does not fully capture her remarkable life. Here's NPR's Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP: 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.


PETER SLEN: Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hello (laughter).

SLEN: 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 Corinne. 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 F 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.


SLEN: 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 of this stuff. You know? I 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 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...

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Correcting the introduction to this story and...

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.

SHAPIRO: That was Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. Cokie Roberts was 75.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.