“Hi, it’s Cokie.” By the time she phoned, she’d already been on ABC’s “This Week,” gone to Mass, gathered gossip at both places, hit the Safeway, checked email and the wires, revised a book chapter or a speech, and begun contemplating what to cook for dinner with her husband, Steve.
“We’re having about 30 people tonight,” was a typical next sentence, referring to a legion of family and friends, great-grandmothers and grandkids who were routinely convened for Sunday supper. “So I have to keep this brief, and I’ll check back after everyone’s gone. What are you thinking about for tomorrow?” I was, of course, wondering how anyone could pull off dinner for 30 on a Sunday night. She’d get more done on a Sunday than I would all week — and check in on more people than I do in a month.
She was a centrifugal force, pulling into her orbit Washington’s greenrooms and hearing rooms, its church aisles and carpools, its unsung women and kids and elders and friendships spanning generations and party lines, in a place that, every year, feels more balkanized. (She loved to tell the story of her mother’s arrival in town: Lindy Boggs, then the young bride of a new congressman, would be picked up in a car by dowager congressional spouses once the new legislative session commenced and brought along to meet other wives from both parties.) She took Political Washington and Neighborhood Washington and Historic Washington and Regular People Washington into the studio with her, and shared them with the rest of the country.
Editing Cokie was like peering around the wall at a party of jaw-droppingly entertaining guests. She was the connective tissue between so many communities and, as Spy Magazine memorably diagramed, so much power. And she was impossibly, unfailingly kind.
In Washington and around the country, thousands of people whose names we’ll never hear — from the lowliest news assistant to the mom with a baby in the NICU to the colleague with a cancer diagnosis to the friend you didn’t realize had met her husband through Cokie (and then married him at Cokie’s own house) — have deeply affectionate, personal memories of her. Strangers on social media shared their own stories. “Mixed scents of coffee, toasted bread and cinnamon with the voice of Ms. Roberts are how my days started,” read one Facebook reminiscence from a Japanese man. “I always loved it. Thank you so much for your professionalism.” Twitter was flooded with memories and selfies with Cokie — often pictures of grandmothers and girls in their teens. In a city as transactional as Washington, the breadth of mourning has been genuinely remarkable.
Cokie brought something foundational to her audience: the knowledge of, and deep belief in, the laws of the country. Enough of her relatives had been involved getting them written or enacting them or getting someone else — often a woman — into a position to do it. She had a taproot to the beginnings of America, right there in her own family, from her Louisiana roots through her long Washington pedigree, and she drew from it naturally, knowledgeably and un-self-consciously most Mondays just after 6 a.m. (Because it was so early in the morning, NPR eventually set up a small studio at her home, which is how audiences got to know about the family basset hound, Abner, when he interrupted a live interview, barking from a nearby room.)
Our country’s history, alongside her family’s, was a legacy she took seriously but wore lightly. She really did see part of her job as keeping the nation’s capital decent and civil and doing the business it was supposed to do, which of course she did with relish. She loved dishing about which high-level officials were real “girl’s girls” in ABC’s makeup chair and which officials wrote their own condolence notes immediately and sincerely (Condi Rice, Denis McDonough).
She loved being in the know. Once, on a summer Sunday nearly a decade ago, after she’d mostly moved to ABC News, she phoned around 9 p.m. “The White House just called ABC and told them to, quote, ‘Get an anchor in the chair.’ They’re not saying, but I think it’s bin Laden.” The White House hadn’t called NPR, but her tip kept us in the game; we rallied our anchor from bed.
Each time NPR got a new CEO or senior-level manager, that person would be invited for lunch with Cokie, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer. It was clear to most of us that these “founding mothers” (as Cokie titled her book on women in the Revolutionary War) together had far more sway than whichever of the latest chiefs was about to take the helm. You got the sense that they were deliberately, and with unfailing courtesy, exercising their powers of intimidation — scaring the newcomers into recognizing the significance, the meaning, of the network they were being hired to run. She vetted new leadership and read a few honchos the riot act when they promoted people above their abilities, especially if better-qualified women had been passed over. She and the other founding mothers fought to preserve the DNA of NPR. After all, they’d birthed the place.
There are legions of women in media and politics who are feeling motherless now, in Washington and New York and New Orleans and for all I know dozens of other places she visited quietly but influentially. She leaves so much — goodness, intellect, integrity, humor — to live up to. I hope we’re worthy.