A collective sigh of shock could be heard from the audience of “The View” when the news of the death of sterling journalist and broadcast pioneer Cokie Roberts was announced by Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s the kind of sound you hear when someone — an individual, a tribe, a group or a family — has suffered a wounding loss, as if an insurmountably empty spot in our lives had been created.
This is especially true for our times, because Roberts, a noted and admired television correspondent, reporter, host and commentator, was a force in her field, a pioneering female star and figure in the arena of television news and especially political reporting. She had certain specific qualities that are increasingly hard to find on television, in the reporting of news and in the practice of the profession of politics.
On television, she brought qualities and unique talent to the journalistic trade. You could see the qualities in her face — a vivacity, a windblown but very focused energy, an elan worthy of a musketeer. The question the loss of Cokie Roberts poses is: How do you replace a person who is the definition of one-of-a-kind?
The answer, sadly, is: You don’t.
Roberts, who died on Sept. 17 at age 75 of complications from breast cancer, with which she had been diagnosed 17 years ago, was the perfect match to what life offered her. Her exemplary success was a gift to the rest of us.
She entered the world of news and politics — the two were inseparable for her in both personal and professional terms — with courage, a sharp, questing intelligence, a sense of humor, a great electric vitality and a quality of civility that she managed to convey without an ounce of servility or sham.
While she managed to rise to the top ranks of her profession, she always insisted that only one thing mattered more than the life she led professionally and through which most of the world came to know her. That was family: her parents and relatives, her husband, her children and grandchildren.
When the interviews with presidents, the holding forth on political convention floors, the sparring with American and world leaders and the presiding over shows with her peers, friends and fellow journalists were set aside, she was always daughter, granddaughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.
The two were connected, as most were aware. Her father, Hale Boggs, was a powerful Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana, presumed dead in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972. Her mother, Lindy Boggs, succeeded her husband and ran successfully for his seat, while her sister Barbara Boggs became mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, and her late brother Tommy was well known in Washington as a prominent attorney and lobbyist with Squire Patton Boggs.
Over the years, she had expressed a certain amount of regret over not entering the political ranks, which her family genes seemed to indicate, but she did the next best thing. She wrote about and became generally immersed in that world in which her family shone brightly. In a way, she did it her way, and brought a spirit of tough grace and open, tolerant, civil style to the world of journalism, especially television journalism.
Her career reflected a way of life in Washington that centered around world and national news and politics as it was practiced on the Hill, at the White House and in the neighborhoods where the wielders of power and those who commented on them in print and on the air lived. That included, of course, Georgetown.
She began her career at WRC-TV, where she hosted a public affairs program called “Meeting of the Minds” (which could pass for a personal motto in the way she conducted herself). She married a journalist, Steve Roberts, in 1966. The couple moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a producer of children’s program and was a stringer for CBS News in Greece.
In 1976, she began working for the fledgling National Public Radio. As an NPR congressional correspondent for more than a decade, she was a contributor to the PBS evening news show “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” During that period, she was also one of the few women working in television, a pioneer along with colleagues Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg. Many younger female colleagues remembered her as a friend, a mother figure and a helper.
She moved to ABC in 1998 as a political correspondent alongside the likes of Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel, co-anchoring the network’s Sunday morning broadcast, “This week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts,” and becoming a national figure.
She had an abundance of the Washington coin of the realm: respect. She also had style, an unwillingness to take guff, a wealth of direct knowledge of the practice of politics and a sparkling personality. Watching her broadcasts, her encounters with senators and presidents, you know two things right away. She could hold her own with anybody, but she also dispensed the joy she showed in her work freely and obviously. She said that having a front-row seat to history was a privilege: “You do get used to it, and you shouldn’t, because it’s a very special thing to be able to be in that room when all kinds of special things are happening.”
Roberts was mostly even-handed in her treatment of elected officials, challenging Democrats and Republicans, Clintons and Bushes, alike on matters of policy or conduct. She disliked the divisiveness that was becoming apparent in the coverage of news, and its characterization. “There is no such thing as ‘fake news.’” she said. “It’s either news or it’s fake.”
Former President George W. Bush said that “she covered us for decades as a talented, tough and fair reporter. We respected her drive and appreciated her humor. She became a friend.” Former President Barack Obama said that “she was a trailblazing figure, a role model to young women at a time when the profession was dominated by men.” Donald Trump said: “I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional and I respect a professional.” But he also said: “I never met her. She never treated me nicely.”
If you perused the comments section on YouTube and news reports, certain words recurred: poise, integrity, grace, humor, honesty, the real coin of the realm. Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs, later Roberts, had a long name, but in the end, there she was — Cokie, one of a kind.