Cokie Roberts: Media Renaissance Woman, Wife, Mom & Grandmom

By Tobi Schwartz-Cassell

How many women can say that the president of the United States danced at their wedding? Or that they simultaneously work for two different national broadcast media outlets? Or that they wrote four bestsellers, one of which went to Number One on the New York Times bestseller list?

To my knowledge, only one.

Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts. Or, as she is best known—Cokie Roberts.

The daughter of Hale and Lindy Boggs, Cokie grew up surrounded by government and politics. Hale Boggs was first elected to the House of Representatives for Louisiana in 1941, and then again in 1946. He was re-elected 13 times. The last time was just after he was reported missing after an October 1972 plane crash in Alaska. On January 3, 1973, his presumed death was officially recognized, allowing for a special election to fill his seat.
And who better to fill his seat than his devoted widow, Lindy, who’d served as his campaign manager and confidant. Lindy was given the nod by special election and re-elected eight times, serving until 1991. President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in 1997, at which post she served until 2001.

Cokie is the youngest of three. Her late sister, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was the mayor of Princeton and her brother, Tommy Boggs, is a prominent D.C. attorney and lobbyist.

She has been married to Steven V. Roberts since 1966, with whom she’s collaborated on two books. They write a weekly syndicated newspaper column and are contributing editors to USA Weekend Magazine. Their most favorite collaborations are their son, Lee Roberts, daughter, Rebecca Roberts and six grandchildren.

Cokie Roberts has won three Emmys, has been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, was cited by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting, holds more than 20 honorary degrees and serves on the boards of several non-profits. In 2008, the Library of Congress named her a “Living Legend,” one of the very few Americans to have attained that honor.

Many viewers remember her for This Week, the weekly ABC-TV interview show that she co-anchored with Sam Donaldson from 1996-2002.

Girlfriendz Magazine spoke with Roberts right after she sent the manuscript for her fifth and latest book to her publisher. It’s the second one she’s written with her husband. More on this later.

Tobi Schwartz-Cassell: How is your mom doing? What is she up to these days?
Cokie Roberts: She’s great, thank you. She’s almost 95 so she’s up for seeing her family and enjoying life. She lives in a nice apartment about five minutes from my house and five minutes from my brother’s house in Maryland.

TSC: I’ve always been curious how you got the name Cokie from your given name Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts.
CR: When I was born, my brother was three and he couldn’t pronounce ‘Corrine.’ So he dubbed me ‘Cokie’ and it stuck. But in New Orleans every other person is named Corrine. It’s a very common French name, so we all have nicknames.

TSC: Of all your professional roles, which do you think of yourself first and foremost—a commentator, a reporter, an interviewer, an analyst, a writer?
CR: All of the above. The word I put on my passport is journalist. The writing I do is essentially journalism—historic journalism.

TSC: Was there an “aha” moment for you when you knew you wanted to work in news?
CR: Not at all. Quite the contrary. I started off in TV production completely by accident. The job was in Washington, and I got it through my college placement office. (Cokie graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, her husband from Harvard. After graduation, Steven got a job at the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, putting him in close proximity to the woman he would eventually marry.) That job got me on the air and I sort of did jobs as I moved around the country and the world with my husband. (The couple started out married life in New York, moved to California where their children were born, and then it was off to Greece before returning to the U.S.) I never had a moment where I said this is where I want to be when I grow up. I just did it.

Steven, Cokie, Pope John Paul II and Lindy Boggs in the late 90s.

TSC: Was it a conscious choice not to go into the “family business?”
CR: Yes. I very much admire and respect people who run for public office but it would have been very hard on my journalist husband. It requires you to be a good public servant and to have a generosity of spirit in terms of time and willingness to be available to the public at all times because after all, they are your boss. I greatly admire the people who do it. I’m the only person in my original nuclear family not to run for congress. It’s because I know how it’s done and to do it right, it can be very hard on the individual and the family.

TSC: You are a political commentator for ABC News, and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. It’s kind of unusual for someone to be on two networks. How do you manage this in terms of your time and allegiances?
CR: At this point in my life, it’s not a problem at all because I’m not filing stories every day. There were times when I was filing every day for everybody and it was crazy. But as long as I did good stories and got them on the air and nobody felt like I was missing out, there was never a real problem. It was hard on my body but that was all.

TSC: You serve on many boards of non-profits. Why is this important to you?
CR: I feel very strongly that a woman like me from the paid work force who has the financial wherewithal has an obligation, as our mothers did, to work in the community. I’ve said that for a very long time so it was time to put my body where my mouth was. I’ve always been a member of the Radio and TV Correspondents Association and all the school stuff like the PTA, but this is different because it’s a commitment to the greater community.
When I started thinking about what organizations to get involved in, I realized that what I was most interested in was children. I researched it, wanting to find the most efficacious organizations, and what kept coming up was Save the Children. So I contacted them and said I’d like to help. I’ve traveled all over the world with them and have done events with them and it’s been a very liberating part of my life.

TSC: You’ve written four books. Your first, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, was a number one bestseller on the New York Times list. Your follow-up, From this Day Forward, written with your husband, was an immediate bestseller. From there, you wrote two others about the women behind the men in U.S. history—Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty—both bestsellers. Can you briefly tell me what inspired you to write each one of them?
CR: For my first one, Mother’s Daughters, an editor was after me to do a book. I kept saying, “Well, what book? I don’t have a book. Certainly not a memoir—I’m too young for that and I’m not a fan of memoirs.” So I put together a combination of stories I’d written, talks I’d given at colleges and interviews I’d done. I combined them with some research from earlier times in a variety of fields and put it together in a book. It became a Number 1 NYT bestseller, so they asked me to do another book.
Steven and I had done an article for USA Weekend Magazine about marriage. So the editor said do that book, and we did.
And then, as we were thinking about the next one, I wrote a column around the Fourth of July after John Adams, David McCullough’s book, came out. I felt he gave Abigail short shrift. My article was called, “Let’s Hear It for the Founding Mothers” and Steven said, “That’s your new book!”
It was meant to be something else, but it ended up being way too big a book, and I wouldn’t have hit the deadline, so it became two books.

TSC: What types of books do you like to read? What’s on your nightstand right now?
CR: Obviously I like to read for pleasure but seldom do, because I’m always reading for work. Right now I’m researching a civil war book so that’s all I’m reading.

TSC: Your latest book came out last month. It’s another collaboration with Steven and it’s based on your personal experiences of navigating a very successful mixed-religion marriage. Its focus is on what the Roberts family became known for among your family and friends from the very beginning of your marriage—your Seders. Tell us a little about Hagaddah…Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.
CR: It’s fabulous! It’s really pretty. It has essays we wrote about Passover from each of our perspectives and it explains the echoes of Christianity within the entire Passover story. It has the service, how to set the table, recipes, Seder ideas and songs. There are at least 3,000 Haggadot, but a lot of people are intimidated by many of them and don’t know how to do a Seder. The whole thing is essentially…’be not afraid!’

TSC: You worked so hard to maintain a religious balance in your life for the benefit of your parents, each other and your children. I noticed, however, in From this Day Forward, there were no mentions of lifecycle events like First Holy Communions, Confirmations or Bar & Bat Mitzvahs. Were these rituals a part of your lives and you chose not to write about them? Or were they just not a part of your lives? And if they weren’t a part of your lives, why not?
CR: We did not have them. The children were baptized and that was it, because the rest of those things involve clergy and we were not keen on clergy. It’s one thing for us to teach our children. It’s another for someone else to teach them their definition of religion.

TSC: What one characteristic do you attribute to having such a long, happy and successful marriage?
CR: Steven says, ‘You can tell the strength of the marriage by the number of teeth marks on your tongue.’ It’s a question of not saying the first thing you think of that can be very hurtful. Stop, think, bite your tongue. That doesn’t mean a spouse should be dishonest. It means being respectful and kind.

Note from TSC: Cokie and Steven were married in 1966. So if you haven’t already guessed, the president who danced at their wedding was Lyndon Johnson

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Nov/Dec 2013
Volume 6, Issue 6