AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
NPR is a remarkable news organization for a number of reasons, but one of the most remarkable is that we're known for our founding mothers - the women at the foundation of NPR. Cokie Roberts was one of them. She died today. She was 75 years old. NPR's Linda Wertheimer was another founding mother. She describes Cokie as...
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: My best friend. And what we did was we worked together for decades in this sort of - I could talk or she could talk. I knew what she was going to say. She knew what I would say. It was just a partnership as well as a friendship.
CORNISH: That partnership at NPR began in the late 1970s, when most newsrooms were the domain of men. Linda Wertheimer was covering politics and, at first, was nervous about the competition, but she says Cokie's political family meant she had a keen eye and ear for the stories on Capitol Hill.
WERTHEIMER: Her parents were both in politics. I mean, she came out of politics, and it was just like breathing for her. She was a terrific asset to us. I mean, what a blessing.
CORNISH: Her father was Congressman Hale Boggs, who had served in the house for more than 30 years. She did not go in the direction of running for office herself, but can you talk about what she brought to the beat that was distinctive?
WERTHEIMER: Well, apart from her enormous experience and the fact that she knew everybody - especially she knew all the little, old men, you know, in the House, and she knew the head waiter in the Senate dining room. She knew (laughter) - that all helped tremendously, but she had a great liking for politics. That's the thing that I've always appreciated about her. She had a view of politics which is very similar to my own. She just knew much, much more than I did.
CORNISH: Right. I mean, she's born of both Louisiana politics and very much Washington.
WERTHEIMER: Yeah, but it was - her take on politics was that it was so important and we should pay such attention to it and we should understand exactly why things happened the way they did because she appreciated what the Congress was doing.
CORNISH: It's a cynical town, and she was, in it, a devout Catholic. I want to play a little audio of her. This is tape where she is talking about the visit of Pope John Paul II. This was in 1979.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
COKIE ROBERTS: During the 1960 presidential campaign, a Baptist minister warned that if John F. Kennedy were elected president, the pope would be in the White House within the month, telling the president how to run the nation. But in fact, it took a Baptist president to bring a pontiff to the White House, and Jimmy Carter is playing the visit of John Paul II for all it's worth.
CORNISH: That for all it's worth - to me, that's a Cokie Roberts flourish. How did her faith inform her work - you know, who she was as a person?
WERTHEIMER: I think this was another interesting part. It was a little bit similar to her approach to politics. She saw everything that was wrong with the mother church. She had serious problems with the way the church was run. She always believed if they'd just turned the college of cardinals over to nuns, everything would be much, much better.
CORNISH: And, of course, her mother, Lindy Boggs, became ambassador to the Vatican.
WERTHEIMER: Her mother was a tremendous inspiration to her all her life and to me as well. She even shared her mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ROBERTS: My mother and I drove through drizzle and mist up the Mississippi River from New Orleans past the strange shapes of cypress stumps, pushing through the lowland Louisiana swamps past the oil refineries of the bustling capital city of Baton Rouge.
CORNISH: Whenever I heard her pronounce New Orleans, I always would remember who she was.
WERTHEIMER: She used to give lessons, and her feeling was that nobody who was a decent person would say Nawlins (ph), you know, just as if it were one word - N-W-A - she said New Orleans with a kind of a rolling...
WERTHEIMER: But if I said that she would correct me - New Orleans.
CORNISH: And then she gets sent on a completely different assignment. Talk about what happened and how she got drawn in.
WERTHEIMER: Well, Cokie went to Three Mile Island. We were all afraid of it. You know, the company didn't want to send anybody there who might be pregnant or be about to get pregnant, and Cokie then volunteered. She said, I'm done with that.
(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 had 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.
WERTHEIMER: She came back, and she had a ceremonial burning of the blue poplin suit that she had worn while she was at Three Mile Island.
CORNISH: I think it says a lot about the kind of suit she wore for a radio reporter...
CORNISH: ...To a nuclear incident.
CORNISH: I have been talking with some of the other hosts in the building, and they shared a common experience I have had or had with Cokie, which is that she would send you a little note about one of your stories, you know, which always felt incredible that someone of her stature would notice, you know, your little congressional report. Can you talk about what kind of person she was?
WERTHEIMER: She was incredibly generous with her time and with her knowledge, and she would help whenever she was asked to help. I remember one plane ride. We were coming back. We asked the lady at the airline desk if we could have seats with one empty one in the middle, and she found one because she recognized us. And we set up a little studio. We dropped tape, we wrote and we were ready to record, so we would just come steaming into NPR in the middle of the night and record something for "Morning Edition."
Well, we finished, and there was this ruckus in the front. It was a baby just screaming its head off. Cokie got up out of her seat, walked up to the front of the plane, just held out her arms to this woman, who put the baby in her arms. And Cokie came back, and the two of us sat and played with the baby for the rest of the flight.
CORNISH: What did she think of the whole founding mothers idea...
CORNISH: ...As someone who actually had written about the actual founding mothers?
WERTHEIMER: Right. No, I think she loved it. I think she really loved it, and she loved the idea that people were talking about women having an outsize role in, you know, an enterprise as the right way to think about it, the right thing to do. I think NPR is a living, breathing example of the thing that we always talk about - that if you get a certain number of women into a shop, it will change the character of the shop.
CORNISH: Linda, for you, as you're going through this difficult mourning process - right? - of losing a friend, how do you want people to remember her? How do you want people to think about her?
WERTHEIMER: Well, those of us who were privileged to know her very well, we think of family, which was so important to Cokie. The friendship - the gift for friendship that she had was tremendous. Those people who listened to her on the radio will hear all of those things coming through. And I hope that if people have been listening to her on the radio for years, they have a strong sense of who she was and what she did and how she did what she did, and I think that they'll miss her as much as I do.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Linda Wertheimer.
Linda, thank you so much for sharing your stories.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you. I appreciate being asked.
CORNISH: Cokie Roberts died today at the age of 75 due to complications from breast cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ AND IBRAHIM MAALOUF'S "VENGA LA ESPERANZA")
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