'Fresh Air' Remembers Cokie Roberts, A Founding Mother Of NPR

Sep 17, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 12:24 pm
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We've got some very sad news today. Cokie Roberts, one of the founding mothers of NPR, has died from complications of breast cancer. She was 75.

In the early days of NPR, when there were few women reporters on radio or TV and women's ability to sound authoritative was being challenged, Cokie Roberts was NPR's congressional correspondent. Along with Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer, they proved that women could do an outstanding job covering the news. In 1988, Cokie crossed over to TV, joining ABC News while continuing to do news analysis for NPR. She became a political correspondent for ABC's "World News Tonight" and a panelist, then co-anchor, of ABC's Sunday morning show "This Week."

She grew up in a political family. Her father Hale Boggs served in Congress for 32 years and became House majority leader. Her mother took over his seat after his 1972 death in a plane crash. Cokie's mother Lindy Boggs was elected to fill his seat. In 1997, President Clinton appointed Lindy Boggs ambassador to the Holy See.

We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Cokie Roberts in 1993 in front of an audience at WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced. We start this excerpt by talking about the period when she covered Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You were one of the very few women covering Congress, and even before you were covering Congress, your mother was one of the few women in Congress. I'd like you to think back a few years to when you started covering Congress, to when it was even more of a men's club than it is now. What were some of the obstacles you were up against as a woman covering Congress?

COKIE ROBERTS: Actually, not any. That is something that's interesting about politicians. They are the most modern of men when they need to be. If you are representing a news organization - as in my case, National Public Radio, which is in every single one of their districts - they don't care what you are. I have always joked, you know, if you walked in and you were a three-headed monster and polka-dotted, they would say - and you had 10 million listeners - they would say, oh - you know, after a moment, hi. Have a cup of coffee, or perhaps you need three. But it is - they were perfectly willing to talk to me or to any of my female colleagues because of the organizations we represented. The problems were much more in the news organizations rather than among the sources.

GROSS: Were you turned down for a lot of jobs that you thought you should have gotten...

ROBERTS: Sure.

GROSS: ...Except for the fact that you were a woman?

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Were you told point-blank that it was because you're a woman?

ROBERTS: Point-blank - we don't hire women to do that. Their voices lack authority. Or we don't hire women writers because men have to work for the writers, and obviously, men can't work for women. I mean, every imaginable thing was said of the reasons they couldn't hire - you'll leave because you'll get pregnant - all of that. And and it was all said straight out loud, and in some ways, it's refreshing because there was no pretense. It was exactly what it is. What they said was what they meant.

GROSS: Now, I know you started in television, but you became best-known for radio, and now you're in both radio and TV. When you started at ABC, was there somebody who was paid to say, well, but now that you're doing TV, of course you're going to have to do your hair differently and do your makeup and dress differently, too, and all of that?

ROBERTS: Well, I don't know. I mean, I assume they're all paid, and a lot of them said it, but they...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But - and look. I always am uncomfortable with these statement - these questions because it makes me sound like I'm some sort of prim, you know, opponent of makeup. Quite the contrary - I've been trying to get the makeup man to move in with me for years. And I mean, I am delighted to look good, you know? Nothing makes me happier than looking like a better version of myself. But that's who I have to look like is myself, and so there's been a continuing fight over these long skirts that I wear, and I just cannot imagine sitting with - trying to make an argument and make a forceful point against Sam tugging on my skirt, you know? It's one thing too many to think about.

(APPLAUSE)

ROBERTS: But...

GROSS: Well...

ROBERTS: And as, you know, I have said before - and I want to say it again - I cannot be a glamorous 22-year-old. I am the mother of a glamorous 22-year-old, and there is reason to behave like my age.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in a political family. I mean, your father was a lifelong politician. Your mother entered into politics...

ROBERTS: No, my mother was a lifelong politician.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But she actually got a seat in Congress after your father passed. I wonder what your exposure to journalists was when you were growing up.

ROBERTS: Hostile (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah.

ROBERTS: We have a famous story in our family, but it's a very useful story for someone who is a journalist to have as her sort of formative story about the press. My father ran for governor in 1952, but the real sort of race was throughout 1951. The election was in January of '52. So I was 7 throughout the race. I was just turned 8 when he got - when the election happened. It was in Louisiana. It was at a time when it was pretty much a one-party state. You had a first primary and then the second primary was the election. And he came in third - very bitter, unbelievably nasty campaign, nasty by Louisiana standards.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: And well, remember this is the middle of the McCarthy era, all of that. And he came in third. The person who comes in third in a situation like that is very influential in terms of the runoff and how he throws his votes and the rest of it. The counting had gone on all night long. And the phone rang the morning after the election, and my sister, who was 12, answered the phone. And the person on the other end asked to speak to my father, and she said he's asleep and he's been up all night. No, I will not awaken him. And the guy on the other end says, well, what does he think about the election? And Barbara says, well, he knows he lost and...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: But then she at 12 had the sense to say, you know, who is this anyway? And he said that he was a reporter for the afternoon paper. And she said, look, I'm only 12 years old. You can't use a word I said to you.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: And that afternoon's paper came out with the headline "Source Close To Hale Boggs Concedes Election." So...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, no.

ROBERTS: Oh, yes. And that is a - and that kind of thing happens much more often than any of us would like to believe.

GROSS: Do you think that you're more thoughtful of the privacy of politicians...

ROBERTS: Yes. Yes, I do.

GROSS: ...Because of the situation you grew up in?

ROBERTS: I do think I'm - that I am more concerned about their privacy, but I also just see them much more as human beings, you know, as people with all the flaws and foibles and families of a human being. And that brings with it the respect that I have for human beings but also the humor that I have about us all.

GROSS: Your father disappeared in a plane crash on a campaign tour through Alaska in 1972. I know he was never found. Was the plane...

ROBERTS: No.

GROSS: ...Ever found?

ROBERTS: It's really remarkable. It was at the end of a Congressional session, and the people who were there - I learn different things about it all the time still from people.

He was exhausted. You know, at the end of a congressional session, you always are. You haven't been to bed for days, and he was majority leader, so he'd been, you know, doing - running the House. And a young congressman from Alaska, a freshman, had begged him to come and campaign for him. And he desperately didn't want to go, I'm told, at the end, that, you know, it's such a long trip, and then the campaigning is difficult, and it is. It always involves moving around in little planes, which he never liked. But off he went because he had promised to do it, and there he did.

The plane never - it left from Anchorage, never arrived in Juneau. And the most extensive search in American history was launched and not only by the good folk of Alaska, who were quite remarkable, but then, of course, the military was all called in, and then the spy planes all came in. We're very good spies, by the way. It makes me feel better about your tax dollars. The planes, from 80,000 feet, took incredibly detailed pictures, which literally rewrote the map of Alaska - found inlets that they had never seen before, all kinds of things.

And when they would send - there were also - you could take some infrared pictures, that kind of thing. And when they would send something that they couldn't tell what it was and send a helicopter down to see what the heat object was, it would often just be a log, or they did find some World War II wrecks, that kind of thing. So I've got to believe the plane went to the bottom of the sea. I mean, that's the most likely explanation. It's also the most comforting.

GROSS: My interview with Cokie Roberts was recorded in front of an audience in 1993 at WHYY, where we produce FRESH AIR. She died today of complications related to breast cancer. She was 75. Our condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. And I want to express my gratitude for how she helped pave the way for other women journalists on radio and TV.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Andrea Mitchell, who also helped pave the way for women journalists. She is NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of her own MSNBC show. Next week, she'll receive the lifetime achievement award at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY CONNICK JR.'S "VOCATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.