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Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg on friend and colleague Cokie Roberts

The career of political journalist Cokie Roberts spanned more than 40 years and helped to transform the landscape for other women in the field. Roberts, who died Tuesday at age 75, worked extensively in both public and commercial media and was passionate about making history and politics come alive. NPR’s Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg join Judy Woodruff to remember their iconic colleague.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cokie Roberts passed away today in Washington. She was a pioneering journalist and political commentator known to millions over the years.

    Cokie Roberts' career spanned more than 40 years, taking her from the U.S. Capitol.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    Both parties think they can use concern about drugs to play to their own particular strengths.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To the floors of national political conventions.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    We have seen an awful lot of years of the woman. This one could be different. The economy is so bad, and that is something that women care about a great deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She was born Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs in New Orleans, and early on, picked up the nickname Cokie.

    It was a political family. Her father, Hale Boggs, a Democratic congressman from Louisiana, became the U.S. House majority leader, and her mother, Lindy, who succeeded her husband in office after he died in a plane crash in Alaska.

    The young Cokie Boggs graduated from Wellesley College in 1964 with a degree in political science. Two years later, she married journalist Steven Roberts, and the couple went on to have two children. After getting her start in local news and then at CBS, Roberts joined NPR in 1978, when it was still an upstart.

    She became the congressional correspondent, a job she held for 10 years. She later became NPR's senior news analyst and commentator. She also served as a congressional correspondent and frequent contributor to "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," our predecessor.

    That included her award-winning coverage of the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    The contradictions in the Iran-Contra testimony continue, with each witness giving more glimpses of life behind the closed doors of the government, including the locked doors of the CIA.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In 1988, Roberts joined ABC News as a political commentator for "This Week With David Brinkley." She would eventually co-anchor ABC's "This Week," alongside Sam Donaldson, from 1996 to 2002.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    That's all for us this Sunday, until next week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the years, she chronicled the week's political news as ABC's chief congressional analyst, and was a regular fixture on the network's roundtables.

    In front of the cameras, her work was marked by tenacious reporting and sharp analysis, matched by an equally sharp wit.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    The truth is, the president is a lame duck. The 22nd Amendment is a terrible idea.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Cokie Roberts:

    You know, term limits always create lame-duckhood.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Behind the scenes, she was known as a generous mentor to many young journalists. She also wrote a weekly syndicated news column with her husband.

    Over the course of her career, Roberts received countless recognitions, including three Emmys and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.

    She was also a bestselling author, mostly exploring the important roles women have played throughout American history.

    Roberts sat down with the late Gwen Ifill for the "NewsHour" in 2015.

  • Cokie Roberts:

    One of the reasons I have been writing books about women in history is because other people haven't been. And telling history without talking about one-half of the human race seems to me to be an inaccurate way of telling the story.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the end, Roberts earned her own place in history as a trailblazer in journalism.

    President Obama issued a statement today, praising her as a — quote — "role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men."

    And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Roberts that — quote — "She forever transformed the role of women in the newsroom and in our history books."

    Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and died today in Washington of complications from the disease. She was 75 years old.

    Let's hear more about Cokie's life and legacy from two of her longtime colleagues and friends who helped to shape NPR.

    Nina Totenberg is legal affairs correspondent at NPR. And Linda Wertheimer is senior national correspondent. They, along with Cokie, are often referred to as the founding mothers of National Public Radio.

    And welcome to both of you, to Nina and to you, Linda.

    I knew Cokie and admired her so much. But to the rest of us, the three of you were inseparable. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Nina.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Well, I guess we have had a little longer to get used to it than other people, but it's a terrible loss for everybody.

    My phone, my e-mail, they're all bursting with tears. Some pretty hard-bitten female reporters called me this morning just bawling on the phone.

    It's a terrible loss for those of us who loved her and knew her for a long time and knew what she meant to journalism and to women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Linda, what are you thinking about today? Are you thinking back to those early days when it was the three of you?

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    Yes.

    It was an interesting time. And Cokie and I worked together on the Hill during peace time and together on the campaign when we were catching the bus, riding the planes.

    I stayed on the plane pretty much, and she stayed on the ground talking to voters. And she did some of her best work talking to voters. She — you know, she carried that out to making those polls come alive, all that kind of thing. I think she was very, very good at that.

    But, mainly, the thing that I'm remembering today is that getting out on that campaign, talking to people, working together, filing our pieces together, it was really fun, just so much fun.

    People used to tell me, you sound like you're having a really good time, and I said, because we are having a really good time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nina, what drove her as a journalist, do you think?

  • Nina Totenberg:

    You know, one of my colleagues said to me today that he thought it was fitting that she died on Constitution Day.

    And I think that Cokie really saw journalism as a calling to carry out the values of our system of government and our Constitution. And she — later, she wrote books about it and about the role of women, even when we didn't have the vote, in actually playing a role in the Constitution.

    So I think that is what drove her. But, as she often said, you know, male historians make it boring.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Women know that gossip is history.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nina Totenberg:

    And it can be fun to learn about what's happened and to know what's going on behind the scenes. And it tells you something about history.

    And I think that drove her, too.

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    She also came from a political family.

    Cokie's father was in the House leadership. And, after he died, her mother ran for his seat and became one of the leaders in the Democratic Party in the Congress.

    And then, after she left the Congress, she was an ambassador to, of all places, the Vatican. But that immersion in politics that Cokie had, it informed everything that she did.

    And the thing that I always loved about her was that — how much she liked politics. She even liked the sort of down-and-dirty aspects of it. She just — she enjoyed the rough-and-tumble politics.

    She was never prissy about it, never saying: I could never vote for someone who could — she was — she was — well, she loved it.

    And I think that would have driven her, too, just the notion that she had all of this knowledge and all of these extremely good instincts about politics. She should put them to a good use.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She also…

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Linda said today on the air that she — that Cokie knew all the little old men in the Congress, and she knew the waiters in the cafeteria.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nina Totenberg:

    She knew how to find out everything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She liked politicians, too. She didn't just like politics. She liked the people who practiced politics.

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    That's true. Yes, it is.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    And she didn't think — you know, she said, you know, there are high crimes and misdemeanors, the kind that inflict, great grievous damage on the country, and then there are the little, bitty sort of crappy bribery scandals that she thought were not pleasant, but not the be-all and end-all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Linda, what do you think she loved about public media? She also obviously worked in commercial media. But what was it about NPR, about public media that attracted her, do you think?

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    Well, I think, among other things, it was that it was a very open and diverse staff.

    We have a lot of women at NPR. A lot of people of color work here. It wasn't impossible to get a job here if you were a woman.

    Cokie and I had two of the best jobs at NPR, and Nina had the other best job at NPR.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    And I don't know what we would have had to do if we had gone to work for a television network or gone to work for a massive daily newspaper of the kind we don't have too many of anymore.

    We would have had no way to get to the top, because, by the time we got within shooting distance of the top, we would have been too old, and they would have not wanted us to be there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nina, what do you think about the public media part of who she was?

  • Nina Totenberg:

    She was really devoted to NPR. Even after she worked principally for ABC and only partly for us, she did fund-raiser after fund-raiser, speech after speech for every station.

    She did way more than I did for National Public Radio. And she played a very important role in securing a new president for NPR who was up to the task at a time when we desperately needed that, about five or six years ago.

    She really cared about this network desperately. She thought it was an essential part of a democratic system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Linda, the last thing I want to ask you both is about Cokie as your friend. What she was like as a friend? Where did that energy level come from?

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    Well, it was kind of terrifying.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    I mean, Cokie, even when she was sick — I was sitting at the kitchen table with her. You know, we — having a little chat.

    She kept getting up and rearranging the dishes in the cabinets. I mean, anything that was — anything that needed doing, she got up and did it.

    But the thing about Cokie that I think endeared her to everyone was her generosity. She would do anything for her friends. She would do anything for total strangers if she felt that they needed her to.

    She was just incredibly kind and good.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    And generous.

  • Linda Wertheimer:

    And, at the same time, she was funny. And she didn't you feel like you were sitting down next to Saint Cokie.

    She was very mischievous and funny. And that was wonderful, too.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    I wrote a piece today that said she was the embodiment of our better angels.

    You know, people who were only casual friends would find her at their hospital beds with a visit. She would — as Linda said, she would do anything for every — anyone.

    People who worked for her and who were in terrible financial straits suddenly found they had a whole bunch of new work to do for her. She wanted to leave them with their dignity, but she wanted to help them get out of financial straits.

    And, for me, when my late husband had a prolonged illness after a fall, and at the time of his death, I don't know what I would have done without her. She was just always there. She heard my voice even faltering on the phone someday. She would magically turn up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we think of her in so many ways, and her voice on the radio, seeing her on television, but, most of all, the Cokie in person.

    Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, thank you both.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Cokie Roberts, a singular figure in journalism, someone we will all miss, someone who mentored so many younger women journalists. We will miss her so much.

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