Cokie Roberts, 75, is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and author of six books. Roberts is a political commentator at NPR and ABC News, and writes a weekly syndicated column with her husband, fellow journalist Steve Roberts. They live in Bethesda, Md., in the house where she grew up.
You have moved from reporter and news analyst to commentator in recent years. What was the thinking behind that? I know there was that kerfuffle at NPR around criticizing Trump, and people said, “Wait, what is she, an analyst or a commentator?” So being a commentator now gives you the freedom to do that?
Right. If you want to. But I’m not a big one for giving my opinions. When I had done, like, the 20th budget resolution, it was enough. I moved from doing the daily stuff. Of course, particularly in radio, there really is a marriage of reporting and analysis. But it did evolve to my doing much more of the analysis. The word “commentator” is something that makes everybody feel more comfortable. Because, you know, if an opinion slips in, you’re a commentator, right? And it’s good to be in a position where you can call people out if it’s something that’s really blatantly racist or whatever. But I’m not all that comfortable just sort of saying, “Here’s what I think.” I’m more comfortable saying, “Here’s what the facts are, and here’s why.”
You grew up in a political family at a much more civil time in politics. Can you talk about how that impacted your view of things?
Well, as my sister used to say, “How would we know?” But, of course, it was wildly influential. It was very much part of growing up that service to the country was a terribly important and exciting thing.
And growing up here in the ’50s, a lot of the kids in the school were political kids. The families moved here then, so we all knew each other across party lines and were friends. I mean, one of my best friends growing up, and still, is Libby Miller, whose father was a conservative Republican from Upstate New York who ran as Barry Goldwater’s running mate. You know, I would go to her house and play board games. Now, it’s pretty hard to demonize someone whose child is playing Clue in the basement, right? Those sets of relationships — just normal relationships — really did make a difference. So that’s gone. And it’s not just gone, [now] it’s: Washington is the enemy. So, you not only don’t move here, you run against it and vilify it.
You brag about it. You live in your office.
Right. All of that. Living in the office is disgusting. Let's just say it, you know? It means we're paying their rent, by the way. Which I really don't approve of. But I was in some district during the last campaign recently — I think it was in Minnesota — and [the representative] was being run against for having moved his family here.
When did it get to be such a dirty thing?
I would say it started with Carter running against Washington. And then it just got exacerbated with Gingrich, and on it went. But, I mean, the notion that it's some sort of Sodom on the Potomac, some sort of hotbed of sin, is so amusing!
As a longtime “Washington insider” — which has become a sort of epithet — what do people tend to assume about you?
They assume — not everybody, right — but they assume that you’re some kind of high-and-mighty person. And then they realize you’re regular. I have what I call a few minutes of de-Martianizing, you know? And the easiest way to do that is with the pictures in the office. You know: I’m a human, you’re a human. Let’s have a human conversation. Talking about kids goes a long way. Or dogs.
Did you consider entering politics yourself?
Well, I certainly admire people who do it. I’m the only person in my original nuclear family who didn’t run for Congress. Now, they didn’t win all of them — the only one that never lost an election was my mother. But Steve and I met when we were 18 and 19. He was always going to be a journalist from the time he was, like, 9 or 10 years old. So, it would have been very hard on him if I had gone into politics. I have always felt semi-guilty about it. But I’ve sort of assuaged my guilt by writing about it and feeling like I’m educating people about the government and how to be good voters and good citizens. And that’s been true through my reporting, but also through writing these history books. I feel like letting people know what this country is all about and how it all happened is not not public service. [Laughs.]
The part that tempts you, other than just believing in public service, is that you do sometimes feel like, “Well, let me just fix it.” In covering Congress, there’s plenty of times when I felt, you know, the mother line: I don’t care who started it, I’m stopping it. So, to be in a position where you could do that. It’s a great luxury to sit on the outside and analyze, or even give your opinion about how it could be fixed. But you’re not in there rolling up your sleeves and trying to make it happen. I certainly admire “the man in the arena” — and now, thankfully, the women in the arena.