Remembering NPR Political Reporter Cokie Roberts : The NPR Politics Podcast Cokie Roberts was one of NPR's "Founding Mothers," a pioneering journalist whose career blazed a trail for generations of women at the network. NPR's Tamara Keith and Nina Totenberg talk to Cokie's husband Steve Roberts about the ways in which she was also a role model in her personal life. Steve Roberts new book about his wife is Cokie: A Life Well Lived.

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Remembering NPR Political Reporter Cokie Roberts

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House. And if it wasn't for this next voice, it's quite possible I never would have gotten the chance to cover the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: President Carter said that he is committed to a universal comprehensive plan that would provide basic health coverage to all Americans. The 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, they've 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.

KEITH: That's Cokie Roberts. Cokie, along with Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer, paved the way for women to cover politics. They're known as the founding mothers of NPR and established our network not just as a serious news organization but as a place that lifted up new voices. Cokie gave me and a lot of other aspiring journalists good advice along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C ROBERTS: So what is a woman's place? For most women, it's many places, different places at different times. For almost all women, it's the place of nurturer, whether for the planet or one small creature on it. We've learned it from our mothers, both in word and deed. We teach it to our daughters in the knowledge that they must carry on the culture and care for it. Even as they go forward in this new millennium knowing things we never knew, they will be connected back to those women in Marathon, Greece. From that continuity, they will derive the strength to make their place wherever they think it should be.

KEITH: Cokie passed away a few years ago from breast cancer. And her husband Steve Roberts, a renowned journalist in his own right, is out with a new book about her legacy.

And I am here both with Nina and Steve Roberts. Steve is the author of "Cokie: A Life Well Lived." Thanks for being with us.

STEVE ROBERTS: Pleasure, Tam.

KEITH: So I wanted to know - you've written two books with your wife. What made you decide to write this book about Cokie Roberts?

S ROBERTS: Well, you know, people ask me all the time, what is it like being a guy married to such a famous woman? And I - my answer is, you know, if I had a problem with it, I wouldn't have spent two years writing a book about her, right?

The more I got into it, the more I realized that there were really two Cokies and two stories. You know, and the more familiar one is a story about how so many young women for a generation heard her on public radio or watched her on TV and said, I can be that smart. I can be that strong. I could be myself. And that was a marvelous legacy.

But that was the public Cokie. The private Cokie, which Nina knew very well, was a woman who did something good for somebody else every single day of her life. And it was these private acts of friendship and charity and loyalty that, in some ways, as I did the book, became even more important to me and for a very simple reason. Not everybody can be a TV star or radio star like Cokie or Tamara or Nina. But everybody can be a good person. And everybody can learn something from Cokie's private life that they can apply to their own.

And I had one of her friends say, I - you know, I'm going to have one of those bracelets that said WWJD, what would Jesus do? I want one that says WWCD, what would Cokie do? And I think a lot of her friends felt the same way. And that's really the main message I wanted to convey in the book.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: I think a day doesn't go by that I don't think, what would Cokie do? And because she was such a good person, she would give me a pass sometimes. Sometimes I'd say, I'm too - just too tired to do that. I need to take care of myself here for this afternoon. And she would've said, go for it, girl. You know, you can do it tomorrow. And if you can't, you'll make up for that. She was such a human, giving, loving person.

KEITH: And, Steve and Nina, I want you both to reflect on how Cokie came to NPR and sort of the struggle that she had for the early part of her career to be accepted as a woman in journalism. Steve, you write about, for a long time, she was your wife. She was sort of the trailing spouse.

S ROBERTS: Well, and - for 11 years and four moves. We got married in 1966. We moved four times for my job - to New York, California, Europe, back to Washington. She always worked part-time jobs in those places. But I've told this story many times, and it does involve Nina. I came back to the Washington bureau of The New York Times fall of '77. I'm given a desk. I sit down. I look around. There's a young woman sitting next to me I don't recognize. I introduced myself. She said her name is Judy Miller. And I said, I don't recognize your byline. Where did you used to work? And she said National Public Radio. And I said, what's that? Because NPR had been in existence for six years, but we had been in Europe for four of those years. And I just didn't know.

And Cokie was very unhappy about being back in Washington. She wanted to stay abroad. She knew once we got back to town that we'd never leave, which, of course, turned out to be true. So I said to Judy, what's public radio? And she started explaining it to me. And I said, wait, that sounds like the perfect place for my wife to work. What do I do? I've got this wife crying herself to sleep every night in Bethesda. And she said, call my friend Nina Totenberg. And I called Nina, and she said I know you are. And I know who Cokie is. Get me her resume tomorrow. And at that point, the NPR office and The New York Times office were only about a block or two apart. And I walked over. And this was the first time, Tam, that I saw the old girls' network at work, where women like Nina and women like Linda could help other women in the ways men had always done.

TOTENBERG: I think we felt very much lucky, ultimately, that we had broken the glass ceiling - and very few women at that moment had - and that it was our responsibility to make sure that other people had a chance to do that, too. And, you know, it's very different from today. My motto then, and still, is pick your battles, because if you want to fight over everything, you'll get nothing. But I - that is not something that I say out loud very often because a lot of young women would not agree with that. But at the time, we picked a lot of battles that were not for ourselves. They were for other young women.

S ROBERTS: And, you know, the other thing that was - from my perspective that was so interesting, Tamara, was that look; I worked two blocks away at the Washington bureau of The New York Times, right? And The New York Times had had white male White House correspondents for 100 years. It was this deeply encrusted stereotype. And you walked two blocks away to NPR, it was young. It was nimble. It was agile. It didn't have anything like the same weight of history. And so the ability of NPR to put women - Nina always says it's partly because NPR didn't pay very well. That's certainly true.

KEITH: It was true, but...

TOTENBERG: There are no men who would have worked for what they paid us (laughter).

S ROBERTS: But more importantly, NPR was able to reset these models because Nina and Linda and then Cokie were part of a wave, of a generational wave coming into the business. Before that, there were occasional women. There were the Barbara Walters of the world. But they were the first group in any numbers. And that changed the whole concept of what it meant to be a reporter, to have these women in these prominent roles. So NPR not only was important in terms of its own voice, but it served as a model, I think, for many other news organizations around town because they changed the stereotype. They changed the image of what it meant to be a powerful and important political reporter.

KEITH: We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, Cokie as a mother.

And we're back. And we're here with Nina and Steve. I do want to talk about Cokie as a mother. She had children young, sort of had children before her career, which is not the normal path in Washington - well, not these days at least. And she was frequently giving advice, encouraging women who she worked with not to be news nuns, I think it was. And also, she had this thing where she gave mothers permission to both be mothers and to be professionals.

S ROBERTS: Oh, that's absolutely right. I think there were generations of women at NPR who married and had children at least in part because Cokie was so encouraging. And she was such a model. As you say, she had two children, six grandchildren. They were a very important part of her life. And she never hid it. She gloried it. And so many young women said to me, we wanted to be like Cokie. We wanted to be in that club because Cokie was in that club. And you mentioned the phrase news nuns. And I had never heard that phrase before I did this book. But so many women said to me, you know, there were women in an earlier age who felt they had to choose between professional accomplishments and personal satisfaction. And to get ahead, you just got to discard your family. And so many of these younger women of your generation, Tam, came in and said, wait. That's not the life I want. I want - I also want a family. And she encouraged then very strongly, partly just because of the model and also because people literally lined up outside her room to seek advice. And she always - she was a total baby freak. If there was a baby within her zip code, she found it and grabbed it.

KEITH: (Laughter).

S ROBERTS: And she was the first person in everybody's maternity ward. I mean, she just loved babies. And there was a young woman named Alana Marcus, who was a producer at ABC. Cokie had encouraged her to get married. And then she has her first baby, and Cokie is the first person in the maternity room, the first person in the ward, scoops up the baby and starts making the sign of the cross on the baby's forehead. Alana says, Cokie, you know that's a Jewish baby. Cokie said, oh, I know. But we're just covering our bases here. I'll just baptize him.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter).

S ROBERTS: And...

TOTENBERG: You know, I remember - I see this all the time, still. I mean, Cokie died two years ago, but her influence lives on in all of these young women. So I once saw Tamara Keith, for example. I think it was on a stakeout. And she's just - she's reading some sort of a children's book to one of her children while she's waiting for whatever she's waiting. I must have been on the Hill that day myself. And I saw her, and I thought, uh-huh, this is the hand-me-down, the mental hand-me-down from Cokie. (Laughter) So...

KEITH: It's there.

S ROBERTS: You know, Linda Wertheimer used to - 'cause they shared - they covered NPR - Congress together for many years for NPR, by the way, also, while I was covering the Hill for The New York Times. So we commuted together. We had lunch together. We covered the same stories together. And Linda talks about being in this cramped, little booth on Capitol Hill. Three o'clock would come around, and an alarm would go off in Cokie's head because that's when the kids were coming home from school. And Linda says, you know, you would listen carefully. And Cokie would say, now, Rebecca, our daughter - who is now 50 - now, Rebecca, you had a commitment to go to your piano lesson. You have to go. And, you know, she was juggling like so many moms do. But she wasn't hiding it. And she didn't hide her motherhood, and she didn't hide her femininity, either.

There was a woman named Sara Just who worked for years at ABC, is now the producer of the NewsHour on Public Broadcasting. Sara talks about when she worked at "Nightline" at ABC. And she and Cokie would be sitting in a conference room, waiting for a meeting to begin. And they would be doing two things. They both did needlework together, and they also would be talking about recipes because they both loved to cook. And Sara tells a story about as the men start filtering into the room - Cokie, maybe we should put away our needlework. Maybe we should stop talking about recipes. Cokie says, no, I want them to know that we're women. I want them to know that we're different. I want them to - don't put away your needlework and don't stop talking about recipes because she was very clear that she was sending a message to the guys walking into that room, deal with us as women.

KEITH: I - thank you so much, both of you, for taking the time to tell us a little bit more about Cokie. I mean, she is coming off as Saint Cokie (laughter) in this interview and in the book. But it's real.

S ROBERTS: Let me be very clear. She was not.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: No.

S ROBERTS: Would be the first person to tell you that.

TOTENBERG: It is - it's true. She wasn't a saint. But I think, in fairness, Cokie did - among the reasons that she could do so much is that she didn't need a lot of sleep. And so she had more time. She made more time, but she had more time. And there were moments where she leaned on other people. She leaned on Steve. You know, I remember when her sister died. I have them emblazoned in my memory 'cause she was very composed during the funeral. But when we went to the gravesite and it was pouring rain in Princeton - and I remember her literally leaning on Steve and him - I have this vision of him with his arm around her. She - and she leaned on me sometimes. Everybody needs that sometimes. And you can be that person for other people sometimes. And I can't do it every day. I can't do it as much as Cokie did. But I can do it more than I used to. And that's what she taught me.

KEITH: Nina Totenberg, Steve Roberts, thank you so much for being here on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

S ROBERTS: Well, it's been a pleasure. Thank you, Tamara.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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