National Book Festival: Author and Political Analyst Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts
Author and Political Analyst
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; 3:00 PM

Nearly 70 authors will be on the National Mall Saturday, September 27 for the 2008 Library of Congress National Book Festival.

Among them will be Cokie Roberts, political analyst for ABC News and NPR and author of the recently-published Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. She was online Wednesday, September 24 to discuss her books, whose subjects run the gamut from American history ( Ladies of Liberty, Founding Mothers) to relationships and family ( We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, From This Day Forward). And, of course, she also took questions on the latest developments in this election year.

A transcript follows.


Cokie Roberts: Hi, I'm Cokie Roberts and I'm excited about participating in this year's bookfest. It's really wonderful that so many people come to the National Mall to celebrate reading. Last year more than 100,000 people came--including lots of families with little kids and teachers eager to see what might be useful for their classrooms. I hope we can keep that going this year. I will be talking about my latest book, Ladies of Liberty, the Women who Shaped Our Nation. They are great women and I love sharing their stories.


Washington, DC: Mrs. Roberts, As one of your son's school friends I still have treasured memories of the time you took our entire Jr High class on a tour of Congressional office buildings. I suspect that people who only know you from Broadcasting might not realize that you were able to act as a teacher really well and make the mechanics of government "come alive" for us. So, there are at least several dozen of us out here who know EXACTLY how connected you are to kids and education even if the broadcast audience knows you only for political commentary.

And we don't have to mention what year that was you gave the tour.

Cokie Roberts: That's so nice of you. Since my son is about to turn 40, the folks can do the math. His kids now have to listen to their grandmother go on about government and history.


Edinberg, NY : Which of the founding fathers could stand up to the onslaught of the modern GOP-Matt Drudge-Fox-Limbaugh attack machine? Certainly not Jefferson (Hemings), Adams (defended the Boston massacre shooters), Washington (attempted adultery; refused to torture British prisoners) or Hamilton (illegitimate; very messy adultery). Who would be left?

Cokie Roberts: They suffered much worse from the press than modern politicians do. After all Hemings was written about, and it turned out to be true, unlike much of what was bandied about in the scurrilous 18th and early 19th century papers. Thomas Jefferson was accused of pimping Dolley Madison and her sisters in exchange for votes in Congress. It doesn't get much nastier than that.


Olympia, WA: Yay Cokie!

-A Fan

Cokie Roberts: What a nice thing for an old lady to read, thank you.


Worcester, NY: Of all first ladies, who do you believe had the most impact in terms of setting the tone for future first ladies' activities? Also, the most influential in terms of public activities?

Cokie Roberts: They were all highly influential. The ones I've studied are just those from the founding period--Washington through Monroe--but they give you a very strong sense of how deeply political these women were and how influential they were. What surprised me was how much credit the men gave them for their influence.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How did your own mother help shape you to go into researching and broadcasting public policies, and how did she shape your sister into running for and getting elected in politics?

Cokie Roberts: My mother remains my inspiration in much that I do. And I am thrilled to say that she is still with us and able to add her words of wisdom at age 92. She was always very interested in history, and I think that definitely influenced my interest. And then the whole family's interest in politics and public policy certainly had an impact on my sister's decision to go into elective office and my decision to write about politics and politicians.


Rochester, MN: Hi Cokie: It was a thrill to attend your program at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul last night. You said there are now 16 women in the Senate and they regularly meet and work together in a bipartisan way. What characteristics make it possible for women to be able to set aside partisan differences and come together when there are such deep divisions and so much partisan rancor in Washington these days?

Cokie Roberts: It was wonderful to be in the historic Fitzgerald Theatre, home to Garrison Keillor. Thank you for braving the rain.

I think women politicians are just more practical (obviously this is painting with a broad brush) because women are more practical. We tend to not care so much about who's on what side but more about who can get it done. We're just too busy for all the posturing.


West Virginia: As a woman, I know this has been a watershed year because millions of people have either voted for a woman (Hillary) or will vote (Palin) and I think that will make it a lot easier for all women candidates. But I'm queasy at the idea of Sarah Palin on the ticket. Now I know how African Americans felt about Clarence Thomas. You know these GOP pundits--are they really as excited about her on ticket as they seem to be on TV or is it just show?

Cokie Roberts: I'm not sure that their candidacies will make it easier for other women if both of them end up losing. In the lead up to the Ferraro pick all of the politicians were concerned about the women's vote, and then when the Mondale ticket lost 49 states (having nothing to do with her candidacy) all anyone worried about was the white male vote. So I think we have to wait and see.

I would never judge what any pundit really thinks. Too hard.


The U.S. Homeland: What do you think about McCain wanting to cancel Friday's debate to "Focus" on the economy? If McCain/Palin can't face the News Media, how will they face the world?

Cokie Roberts: Just heard about it. But remember McCain does very well in debates. I think he's just trying to look presidential and is flailing about a little bit.


Trenton, NJ: Dear Cokie:

I worked with your nephew David at a newspaper in town, one which is scheduled to close its doors entirely early next year.

My question to you is: are newspapers even less relevant than ever before in the face of 24-hour video, blogging, and other forms of electronic communication?

I haven't heard a single weekend news release (which usually you get even as early as Labor Day) about how a certain newspaper in Omaha, or Manchester, or New York has endorsed one candidate or the other.

Cokie Roberts: No, I think newspapers are still relevant, and in fact more people read them than ever before--they just read them on line instead of in print. The papers haven't found a way to make money from that, so their resources for newsgathering shrink, and that's a genuine problem. I'm sure you will start to see endorsements as we get closer to the election, but I'm not sure how much weight they carry at the presidential level.


Fan Club: Okay, there are quite a few of us reading the chat who love your books, your NPR work, and who tolerate the tv because it pays the bills, but who really live for the odd sighting at Strosnider's and a smile. Now the more serious side: Is it possible that Hillary and possibly Mrs Obama will come in for more criticism because they are not "flat characters" compared to other First Ladies who really exist as supporting plot devices? Martha Washington, flat character. Abigail Adams, developed character. Laura Bush, flat.

Cokie Roberts: But Martha Washington wasn't flat, and neither is Laura Bush. (I admit, I don't quite know what that means, but I'm going with it.) That's part of the point of my history books, is to show people how interesting these women were and how involved. Martha lobbied the Congress for veterans' benefits because she had spent every winter of the 8 year long Revolutionary War in camp with the soldiers. And she had very strong views.

Don't you hate that they re-arranged Strosnider's. I'm too old to change.


Women Senators : Why in the world didn't McCain pick Senator Hutchison of Texas? She would have pleased the right wing just as much, and nobody would have said 'boo' about her credentials. She's feisty and smart, and its a liberal saying this. What happened?

Cokie Roberts: She didn't want the job. She is 65 or so and 6 years ago she adopted two children (unrelated to each other but both six) and she just doesn't want the hassle. The first time she ran in TX there were many nasty stories and a court case that she doesn't want to see brought up again. She's interested instead in governor of TX, where she can live in one place and still do public policy work.


Baltimore, MD: Keep up the great work, Cokie. And don't refer to yourself as an old lady. You're truly old only when you have two social events on the same night, and you go to the one that will get you home by 9 p.m.

Cokie Roberts: Two social events would kill me. I'm on the road working a lot, but when I'm home, I'm home. But I appreciate the kind words.


Pittsburgh: Was your mom in New Orleans when Hurricane Gustav struck? Hope she stayed safe.

Cokie Roberts: Looking for questions where I can give short answers and this is one. Thankfully she was here in DC where she's spending most of her time now. Many grands and great grands here.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for doing this chat. If Obama is elected president, do you think that Hillary Clinton will have a spot in his cabinet? If so, where? And who else would flesh out the positions?

Cokie Roberts: I don't know, but I personally think she should stay in the Senate and become Majority Leader (apologies to Harry Reid) She is a first rate Senator and she could be in a great tradition of the lions there, something no other woman has accomplished.


Baltimore, MD: We love your talks on NPR Cokie! Why aren't you on there more often?

Please forgive a political question -

Is there a feeling among Democrats in Congress that part of Bernanke's urgency may be a need to get Financial Panic off the front page before election day? Have they made the calculation that if they stall the bailout into November, things will go better for them in the election?

Cokie Roberts: I don't think the Dems want to stall. I think they have genuine problems with the package and want to fix it. They want to appear to be responsible, and a good many of them actually want to be responsible. But they don't want to be the ones who carry all of the water on this, so they are making sure of some Repub support, especially the support of the presidential candidate.


Paoli, PA: Cokie,

Please comment on the breaking news that McCain has "suspended his campaign to work on the financial crisis" and that he wants to postpone Friday's debate.

It's a stunt, right?

Washington Post and FoxNews polls come out today that show McCain is losing altitude quickly and now he pulls this.

Cokie Roberts: Think I already answered this, didn't I?


Washington, DC: Why is it that some people are for freedom of the press except if an opposing view is expressed? Is this what the founding fathers intended? Freedom for lefts but not those on the right?

What presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate can survive the onslaught of the likes of the Democratic attack machine of CNN-NPR-MSNBC-Chris Matthews-Keith Olbermann-Larry King-and fellow whackos of the Looney left who know no limits to tear down and stamp into the ground good and decent people with the vulgarity that comes from their views? Their lack of fair mindedness is nauseating. Will censorship be the end result of the looney left's habit of denying free speech to opposing views in this country?

Cokie Roberts: For both sides I've learned that where you stand depends on where you sit. Each side thinks the other is out of line, vituperative, etc, etc. The partisanship in politics obviously extends to elements of the press as well. But in reading history (hint, let's talk about books!) I've learned that it's been true for most of our life as a country that we have endured fierce partisanship and survived. Horrible exception: Civil War. We're not near that today.


Suwanee, GA: Cokie, I remember the red letter year when my sister, my mother and I all gave each other your latest book, so that we each ended up with TWO! We're careful to check with each other when you have a new book now. Thanks for all your books.

Cokie Roberts: Now, that's a note I like to read. Thank you.


The Revolutionary Generation : Isn't there a danger from all these recent histories that the cast of characters from the 1770's to the 1800's have been idealized and scrubbed, and the reader misled as to the realities of our founding? For example, probably no U.S. president has been guilty of more horrifically authoritarian and un-American conduct than John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Act, but McCullough makes him into a kind of secular saint. I don't think, generally speaking, that there's a moral superiority of this group, who founded the country, over the cast of characters (god help us) who are around now. Now, the respective degree of classical education, that's something else.

Cokie Roberts: That's why it's so much fun to write history from a woman's point of view. You can be sure that the Founders' wives did not consider them deities. In the letters, journals, etc of the women you see these men as flesh and blood husbands, fathers, etc. with all of their flaws as well as all of their fineness. And the humor is much more there. I have no desire to tear down these men, just to reveal them as more thoroughly human, and that's what the women do.


Washington, DC: do you want to clarify what you said about Hawaii being a separate nation?

Cokie Roberts: Never said that. Said it was exotic. That's what Hawaii sells what with hula skirts and leis. Obama refers to it the same way in his first book.


Elmwood Park, NY : I've heard you on "Morning Edition" for many years, and I wonder if you anticipate that we'll be hearing in the media about John McCain's expensive makeup lady, and $450 shoes, and multiple homes and cars, just as we heard ad nauseum about John Edward's haircut and mansion? What's the difference exactly?

Cokie Roberts: Well, I have heard about those things, and obviously so have you, so it's not like they are hidden.


New York City, NY: Could you comment on the role of political spouses who have chosen to be involved in their wives' political careers? (Yes, I am thinking about Todd Palin, whose role in the Governor's administration I'm unclear about.)

Cokie Roberts: I can't really give you a good answer here, because I have a sense that some husbands have been problems for their political wives with tax issues, etc. But of course the spouse who caused the most grief was Bill Clinton in this campaign. Who knows what would have happened in the fight for the Dem nomination if he had not said some of the things he said when he said them? I don't have a strong sense of Todd Palin's role, but then I don't have a strong sense of Sarah Palin either. They are both so new on the scene.


Re Clinton and the Senate: YES! Sorry for shouting but I completely agree. Whatever people may think of her public persona and the much bandied about divisiveness she supposedly represents, everything that I have heard and read suggests that she is a formidable senator who can and does work across the aisle with some of the same people who deride her in other settings. In my book that makes her a prime candidate for Majority Leader. She could be one of the greats and probably accomplish far more in that role over many years than she ever would have in 8 years in the White House. I do hope she stays in the Senate.

Cokie Roberts: Well, then we probably should just let the other 99 know. Or at least the Democrats. I do think that people don't make a big enough deal of the fact that Nancy Pelosi is speaker. She is the head of a co-equal branch of govt to the presidency. It's a constitutional office. And I think she's quite aware of the impact it can have on women and especially girls.


Riverdale, NY : As a historian, do you believe, like Mr. Broder of this paper, that we have to wait decades before deciding whether Bush has been a successful president or not? Put another way, if Iraq someday turns into the Athens of Pericles, will this by itself redeem everything that has happened in the last eight years?

Cokie Roberts: History certainly has the last word, and none of us will be here to dispute it. But what fascinates me is how much the historians take sides. That's still going on with Adams and Jefferson, for heaven's sake. But I think Bush's answer to your last question would be yes. He holds up Harry Truman as an example of someone not liked as he left office but who has been treated kindly by history. We'll see.....(Or I guess we won't but someone will.)


Washington, D.C.: Talking about books...what are some of your favorites? Both fiction and non-fiction...I'm on the hunt for some good reads!

Cokie Roberts: You should come to the book festival on Saturday and there will be plenty of good reads with authors to talk about them. I tend to like books by southern authors, though I am looking forward to the new Richard Russo. The best fiction I've read recently is Loving Frank.


Seeking a historical perspective: How would the American populace, not to mention the media, have reacted over the past 220 years if the 17-year-old daughter of a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate were at least five months pregnant and unwed? (I recall when Nelson Rockefeller was electoral poison because he'd divorced his first wife in order to marry his second.)

Cokie Roberts: There was plenty of pregnancy of unwed girls to go around in the olden days. That is one thing that is certainly not new under the sun. Most of the candidates did not have children young enough for it to be a problem for them.


Re Senate Majority Leader: Ted Kennedy has never been Senate Majority Leader, yet seems to have been quite effective. Hillary Clinton doesn't have to have that office in order to do her best work. In fact, I wonder if it actually takes time away from legislating and performing constituent service.

Cokie Roberts: Good point. She could be the next Ted Kennedy, but I think having the post gives her more clout. He, after all, wanted it, but lost.


Reading, PA: Back to books for a minute - you said that you were surprised by the credit given by men to the early "Ladies of Liberty". Was that credit given by the public at large, as well, or was it something that was more privately communicated, e.g in personal letters rather than in newsprint?

Love your work! Keep it up.

Cokie Roberts: The newspapers referred to Dolley Madison as the "Presidentess" and did give her a lot of credit. And there was much weeping and moaning in the press when Madison retired to Montpelier and she left town. But the politicians also gave the women credit. In the early days in Washington the political and social worlds were pretty fluid. It was hard to draw a line saying where one started and the other began. Thank you for your kind words.


Buies Creek North Carolina: Hi Cokie, I loved Founding Mothers, very entertaining and educational. Is your new book centered around the same women, or does it pick up where Founding Mothers left off? What is it about?

Cokie Roberts: It's the sequel. I had expected to cover the whole founding period in one book but it got too big so this book finishes the era. It goes from the election of John Adams to the election of John Quincy Adams and includes some fascinating women. Not just the political women, who are great, but also the writers, educators, social reformers, etc. I love these women.


Laurel, Maryland: Do you feel comfortable speaking about race and politics? When you were writing your book, did you write at all about women of color?

Cokie Roberts: Since I am dependent on women's writings for my research it is not easy for me to write a great deal about women of color. In Founding Mothers I included Mumbet and Phillis Wheatley. In this book I have Sacagawea and then some of the African American women who formed benevolent societies, including Catherine Ferguson who started the Sunday school movement. Also I do include the first African American poet. But I wish I had more of the writings of women of color.


Cokie Roberts: It's been great to chat with everyone. Sorry I'm not a faster typist. I always refused to learn how to type fast because in my day it would have meant that I would have been stuck in a secretarial job for life.

I hope to see some of you on the Mall on Sat.




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