A School of Media and Public Affairs professor discussed his recent book honoring his late wife Cokie Roberts, a prominent reporter and anchor who covered U.S. politics for years, during a talk at the University Student Center Wednesday.
Steven Roberts, a professor of media and public affairs, talked about his book – “Cokie: A Life Well Lived,” which was released in November – alongside Dana Bash, an alumna and CNN’s chief political correspondent, and SMPA Director of Strategic Initiatives Frank Sesno. About 150 attendees filed into the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theater for the event, which was hosted by SMPA.
The speakers reflected on Cokie’s time at NPR, PBS and ABC News, her advocacy for women in the workplace and her personal life that remained grounded by moral and religious values.
Roberts – who was married to Cokie for 53 years before she died in September 2019 – said he wrote the book as a way of grieving, which was difficult but also “exalting” because he was able to honor her memory.
“Everybody grieves in their own way, and this was really my way of grieving,” he said. “It was my way of remembering. It was my way of celebrating. I wrote the book in the same house we shared for 42 years together.”
Roberts, a member of The Hatchet’s Board of Directors, said many women who started in journalism when his wife did in the 1960s and 1970s needed to choose whether to pursue their careers or have a family. He said she broke that mold when she became successful in the field with two children and six grandchildren.
“She fought for women’s place at ABC and NPR,” he said. “She wrote five best-selling books that rescued the stories of women. For American history, no one was more devoted to promoting, encouraging, supporting, advancing women’s interests.”
Roberts said Cokie viewed her job as a commitment to public service, recalling how she would aim to check the power of elected officials and help others through her reporting on underserved communities. He said his wife was a devout Roman Catholic and would support organizations that aligned with her beliefs, like charities that support recent refugees in the United States.
“She always felt that, while she never ran for public office, that journalism was a profound form of public service and that this was traced to some extent to her religious obligations,” he said. “But it also meant that her celebrity gave her a chance to use that.”
Roberts said Cokie’s extensive knowledge of U.S. politics from her family partially led her to enter journalism.
Her father Hale Boggs served as the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives before her mother took his seat after he disappeared and was presumed dead in a plane crash in 1972 – the two combined for about 45 years of service in Congress. Her sister was elected as the mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, serving for about eight years, and her brother ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in Maryland in 1970.
“She always said ‘I became a journalist because I married one, and it was easier to switch than fight,’” Roberts said. “She actually had a very natural talent for it, there’s just no doubt. And the camera loved her, and she loved the camera.”
Bash said Cokie’s advocacy and support for her fellow colleagues highlighted her traits as a good person in public and private life, which she said is uncommon in broadcast journalism.
“That is – in a nutshell – why Cokie was so powerful, the stories that you didn’t know that you learned, and you wouldn’t know about the maternity wards and the funerals that she attended,” she said. “And that speaks to what a good person she was, and newsflash, you don’t always find that in television.”
Bash, one of Roberts’ former students, said Roberts would talk about his and his wife’s love for teaching and pass down on their experiences together to his students.
“As part of your teaching, you impart the wisdom – the heartfelt wisdom – to your students, to people you meet on the way, people who know your story or read your book, particularly on this issue,” she said.
Sesno said Roberts’ book succeeds in highlighting his and Cokie’s years of experience with political reporting in the journalism industry. He said students looking to learn more about journalism should read the book to prepare for their own careers.
“What’s so amazing about this book is full of great stories like this,” he said. “There are active lessons for us to take out of it.”