Cokie Roberts has died. These four words just don’t seem to fit in the same sentence. It is safe to say Cokie’s death has cast a wave of loss and shock over millions of Americans. Cokie had a packed calendar in the upcoming months, looking forward to covering “what promises to be a fascinating election,” according to the president of ABC News, and was coming to Sacramento in April 2020 to headline the season close of the Sacramento Speaker Series.
Trailblazer, pioneer, award-winning reporter, political insider, confident commentator, best-selling author, activist, and educator. Each of these words describe Cokie Roberts, the longtime journalist was even named a “Living Legend” in 2008 by the Library of Congress. Cokie Roberts delivered thousands of stories and round table commentaries at both NPR and ABC News in her balanced and unique way. In her death, I believe she has filed one last report, one that I will implement forever: Honor your leading ladies.
First, the back story. I interviewed Cokie Roberts for the last time in 2008 at WHYY, Philadelphia’s PBS and NPR station. I anchored news and produced for WHYY for 5 years. It was April 22, the day of the Pennsylvania presidential primary. Cokie and I spent the morning discussing her latest New York Times best-selling book Ladies of Liberty: The Women who Shaped Our Nation. We would file a report for Morning Edition and a longer, 30-minute interview for WHYY. Bright, crisp, sharp – the confidently calming yet energizing center of every room she entered. Energizing, because in her calmness, you could sense something active and deep. Cokie was exactly the same on-air as off. Cokie vetted everything, but what impressed me the most, is that it seemed Cokie was vetting her own thoughts before speaking.
Ladies of Liberty is about the leading ladies of America’s earliest days. Cokie was a leading lady who helped shape our nation as well, a pioneer at NPR who spent a decade there as a driving force. I love the phrase “leading lady” when talking about the life of Cokie Roberts. That day at WHYY, Cokie shared with me about reading 500 pages of personal hand-written letters of former first ladies Adams, Jefferson, Madison (her favorite), and Monroe. I asked Cokie how she had time to research and write this book on top her fulltime job at ABC. She quickly said, “this book almost killed me!” I was captivated as Cokie shared stories of Dolley Madison’s letters. How the former first lady was home alone, when a courier arrived with the news the invading British army had arrived in Washington, D.C., shouting for the first lady to “get out, get out.” How Dolley was a power player in Washington, wielding major influence with the president and Congress. Cokie spoke about James Madison’s opponents, who wrote letters that they would have beaten President Madison – if it weren’t for Dolley. What would journalism look like without Cokie? Her vigor for vetting must remain.
While her first-hand account of first ladies is fascinating, I wanted to know about the leading ladies in her life; the “Ladies of Liberty” that liberated her. “My mother and my sister,” Cokie said. Her late sister was the mayor of Princeton, New Jersey. Her mother, 92 and “very much alive” at the time of our interview in 2008, was a member of Congress and an ambassador to the Vatican. Cokie said it wasn’t the political power of her sister and mother that made them her leading ladies. Cokie said it was grace and dignity displayed by her mother and sister during the family’s toughest times that positively impacted her life the most, that made her who she was.
As NPR loses one of its founding mothers, let us remember the lesson of Cokie Roberts. Cokie was all about honoring the leading ladies of our lives. A living final report, that one will never forget.