Cokie Roberts, Pioneering Journalist Who Helped Shape NPR, Dies At 75 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, has died. She was 75. Roberts died Tuesday because of complications from breast cancer. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and Up First host Steve Inskeep. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Cokie Roberts, Pioneering Journalist Who Helped Shape NPR, Dies At 75

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

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

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith, and it is 12:49 p.m. on Tuesday the 17 of September. And I'm here with Mara Liasson and Steve Inskeep.

Hey, guys.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Tam.

STEVE INSKEEP: Hi there, Tam.

KEITH: And it's a sad day for the NPR family today because one of our founding mothers, Cokie Roberts, passed away this morning. She was a trailblazing journalist, a political journalist at a time when many women weren't able to cover politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

COKIE ROBERTS: 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: So we wanted to gather here this morning to remember her life and her work. Cokie Roberts is a household name here at NPR - also on ABC News, where she was a presence for more than 30 years. But many listeners to this podcast may not know who she is. So, Mara and Steve, what should people know about Cokie Roberts?

INSKEEP: I can begin by saying how I first encountered Cokie Roberts as a kid. Growing up in the 1980s, I watched the news, and I watched the Sunday news programs. And Cokie Roberts was a fixture in the early years - many early years of a program that was then called "This Week With David Brinkley." And it was a period - I'm not sure that I was particularly conscious of this as a kid, but it was not that common even in the 1980s for women to be in prominent roles in news. And decades later, when I came to work at NPR, she was still here.

LIASSON: You know, every cliche you can use - that she was a giant, that she was a legend - all of those things, I think, don't even do justice to her. She was a towering figure, I think, in my profession and in my personal life. I mean, I came to NPR in 1985. I was a newscaster. I wanted to be a reporter. And Cokie Roberts was not just an inspiration to me. She made it possible, like, literally for me to be a reporter.

KEITH: (Laughter).

LIASSON: I mean, I can't - I don't want to bore everyone with a stupid story about how I became a reporter, but she made it happen, I would even say single-handedly. And after I started working on the Hill - under her, because she was the congressional correspondent then - just watching her walking into the speaker's office every morning, watching her question Tip O'Neill, watching her write a story, I mean, and craft it and put it in context - I mean, she showed me how it's done. And I never could do it as well as she can. And she was such a fierce friend. I mean, she was so devoted to the people in her life. I mean, you don't need anybody else if you have her as your advocate.

INSKEEP: You raise a couple of points that are worth following up on for people who are not familiar with Cokie Roberts' career. And the first was that she came from a great Washington political family.

LIASSON: Yes. This was a political family. As a matter of fact, Cokie used to joke that she was brought up to be only - to only be prejudiced against two kinds of people, Republicans and senators (laughter)...

INSKEEP: Because...

LIASSON: ...Because she was a child of the House. But in fact, she was not prejudiced against Republicans. She was the epitome of straightforward, analytical, nonpartisan journalism.

INSKEEP: And the reason I think of this is when you remember her walking into the office of the speaker of the House, that speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, I'm sure knew her father and...

LIASSON: Oh, I'm sure she knew...

INSKEEP: ...Known Cokie as a girl.

LIASSON: He knew her since she was in diapers...

INSKEEP: Exactly.

LIASSON: And she had tremendous authority. And, you know...

INSKEEP: But that's the other part - the authority - because this is a person who we heard on the air, who we worked with on the air, who was behind the microphone, who was in front of the camera but was also working behind the scenes. When I hear you saying, Mara Liasson, that she advocated for you to be hired, it's not the only woman here...

LIASSON: Didn't just advocate...

INSKEEP: ...For whom she advocated.

LIASSON: ...Like, threw her body in front of various roadblocks to that.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: I mean, she was just incredible.

KEITH: And to be clear, there were roadblocks for women to be in journalism. I mean, like, it's hard for somebody who is young now to understand how incredibly difficult it was when Cokie first did it or when Mara first did it. It was different. It was not easy in the slightest.

LIASSON: I want to correct that because Cokie was the trailblazer. I didn't blaze any trails. I came in her wake. There were no barriers to me as a woman then. I didn't feel that. I feel that Cokie and Linda and Nina and Susan Stamberg, the founding mothers of NPR - we used to call them the Fallopian club...

KEITH: (Laughter).

LIASSON: They were the ones who knocked down the barriers.

INSKEEP: Hey, you can say that. I probably can't say that.

KEITH: So, Mara, when you say that Cokie was a founding mother, that is, like, an actual term at NPR that refers to Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg. They have been leaders at NPR. They made NPR what NPR is.

INSKEEP: There is a small number of people - and they're almost entirely women - who've been associated with this very network for decades and decades. Presidents have come and gone. CEOs have come and gone. Presidents of the United States have come and gone, and they have remained powerfully influential in this organization. And even in recent years, when we heard Cokie a little less on the air, she was still someone who was willing and able to call up the CEO and say, I think you're screwing this up, and someone needs to tell you, so I'm telling you.

KEITH: Yeah. And, Steve, in - you did this really beautiful obituary for Cokie this morning that aired on Morning Edition...

INSKEEP: Thank you.

KEITH: ...That people should go listen to. But there is a moment in that piece where you talk to Nina Totenberg about how Cokie Roberts even got in the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NINA TOTENBERG: 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, and Cokie was part of it.

KEITH: I mean, this is a crazy story - that her husband brought in her resume.

INSKEEP: Crazy and yet not too surprising when you study the history of women struggling for equal rights in the United States or trying to define new roles for themselves in the United States. I think this is really common, where you have to take a mixture of the old and the new, and you embrace traditional roles or accept traditional roles while trying to do something new. So it is a little unusual, I guess, to hear that her spouse would be the person to pass over the resume. But she took that opportunity in any way that she could and rose up the ladder very quickly.

KEITH: And, Steve, there was this moment from not that long ago - there was this Ask Cokie segment...

INSKEEP: Ah.

KEITH: ...That you and Cokie did on Morning Edition.

INSKEEP: Yeah, so this is a segment that we did the last several years of Cokie's life. She, of course, in addition to being a journalist, was a historian, had written books. And this was an opportunity to take advantage of her decades of experience by giving us the long view on things. And I began reading this introduction on the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, and Cokie didn't like how it came out. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 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...

KEITH: And that wasn't, Steve, premeditated.

INSKEEP: No, no. That is exactly the way that Cokie was in conversation. She would tell you what she thought. She would tell you right away. She was super quick but also gracious about it. You never felt like you were being, you know, punched in the face. You were being told what...

KEITH: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...What was what.

LIASSON: Everything she was given in life, she put to good use. And she worked harder than anyone. And she was, obviously, super smart and talented. But she had a very personal kind of almost organic sense of political history, partially because her family had lived it. And then the fact that she - when she did start writing books later that she devoted so much of her time to writing books about women's role in American history - I just think she leaves just such a huge, huge hole.

KEITH: We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, tributes have been pouring in for Cokie Roberts.

And we're back. And not a surprise to anyone, but the NPR family isn't the only family that is really sad today about the loss of Cokie Roberts. Michelle and Barack Obama, the former president, put out a statement. This comes from President Obama - former President Obama.

(Reading) Michelle and I are sad to hear about the passing of Cokie Roberts. She was a trailblazing figure, a role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men, a constant over 40 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. She will be missed, and we send our condolences to her family.

INSKEEP: I want to pick up on the mentoring part because...

KEITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We heard Mara's story there. I have a note here from Susan Stamberg, another of the founding mothers you just mentioned. And it says she volunteered to go cover Three Mile Island. Now, people will remember, of course, that was the nuclear near-disaster, the near nuclear meltdown in Harrisburg, Pa., in, I believe, 1979. People didn't know how dangerous it was or how dangerous it was going to be. Susan writes (reading) she volunteered to go cover Three Mile Island - said, send me, not one of the young ones. I've had all the children I'm going to have. And she burned the suit she'd worn there when she got back. I think of that now because she was thinking about people other than herself.

LIASSON: That doesn't surprise me one bit. I would say that's exactly the Cokie Roberts that I knew. But like all stories involving legends and larger-than-life figures, as Cokie Roberts is fast becoming, stories like that often have a different version. And here's Cokie's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERTS: The real reason was that I could drive. NPR at the time was a driving-impaired shop. Several of our correspondents have been raised in Manhattan and never learned to drive a car. Others, like Linda Wertheimer, didn't drive because she had had a bad accident when she was young. And none of us wanted Nina Totenberg to drive because her eyesight is so bad. So I could drive the two-plus hours to Harrisburg, so I was the designated driver/reporter on the scene.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Oh, that is beautiful.

LIASSON: Just - she was a great human being. She was a great human being.

KEITH: Yes. I can say that from personal experience.

INSKEEP: Go. What's your personal experience, Tam?

KEITH: No - she was just incredibly encouraging, giving nudges when nudges were needed. And, I mean, going back to when I was a teenager and sent letters to all these NPR personalities asking them how to do what they did when I grow up, she responded. She called, left me a message, said, whatever you do, don't major in communications.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) All right. And did you follow that advice?

KEITH: Absolutely. I majored in philosophy. There's no way I'd major in communications. Cokie Roberts told me not to.

INSKEEP: All right - nothing against those who may be listening who majored in communications.

KEITH: Absolutely. But if young people ask me for advice, what do I tell them? I just repeat what Cokie said.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Be more like Cokie. Be more like Cokie.

KEITH: Be more like Cokie.

INSKEEP: That's great.

KEITH: So Cokie Roberts was this fixture on air for many, many years. And because she was a fixture on Morning Edition, she frequently did her segment live from home. You know, we have magical, little boxes and devices that make it possible for us to be on the radio without, you know, actually doing our hair sometimes. And when you think of Cokie, there is one moment that a lot of people remember. It involves both Cokie and someone named Abner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEVIN PHILLIPS: ...Bad taste across the country.

BOB EDWARDS: Liberal Democrats don't care for a deal here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

EDWARDS: But, Cokie, we haven't heard much from them in...

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: That was a basset hound.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: And I think that was Kevin Phillips...

INSKEEP: And - but...

KEITH: And Bob Edwards...

INSKEEP: Yes.

LIASSON: ...And Bob Edwards...

KEITH: ...The former host of Morning Edition.

LIASSON: ...And Abner the basset hound.

KEITH: And then later, because she definitely had a sense of humor, she did an interview on NPR about Abner the dog's appearance on Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERTS: He is about 4 years old, brown and white, very long ears and very sad eyes. And he has been very, very eager to make his radio debut. This has been a difficult task to keep him away from the microphone. This dog wants to be a radio dog. And Wednesday morning, my husband happened to be up, let him into the room next to the room where we were broadcasting, Bob. He was outside of a door - behind closed doors while he was barking. He wasn't right at the microphone (laughter). If he had been, I would have introduced him.

EDWARDS: Good lungs in that household.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) All the way around.

EDWARDS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: So he really wanted to be on the air - wasn't a case of his needing to go outside. It wasn't...

ROBERTS: He had been outside. I had been up for an hour.

EDWARDS: Had you fed the beast?

ROBERTS: The dog eats anything he can get. This dog can open the icebox door, helps himself. And the thing that really irritates me is then he doesn't close it.

EDWARDS: Well, Abner has a lot of fans. He could conceivably get his own program here.

ROBERTS: He doesn't seem to talk on cue. And I'm not sure how good he is at talking to time, but he is a dog well worth getting to know.

EDWARDS: One more appearance on Morning Edition, and he has to join the union.

ROBERTS: I think that's absolutely right. But then, of course, he'll have a good retirement plan.

EDWARDS: Thank you very much, NPR's Cokie Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

KEITH: That was glorious and a great way to end on something a little bit happy. Thank you, Steve and Mara, for taking time today.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

LIASSON: Glad to do it.

KEITH: And that is a wrap for today. We will be back as soon as there's news you need to know about. I'm Tamara Keith, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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

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