Cokie Roberts’ creed: ‘Do something good for somebody else every day’

Courtesy of Steven Roberts/Harper
Steven V. Roberts is the author of “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.”

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As a pioneering female broadcast journalist, Cokie Roberts served as an inspiration for women coming up in the profession. She took that role seriously, becoming a mentor while still cherishing her roles as a wife, mother, and friend.

When she died in 2019, her husband, journalist Steven V. Roberts, gathered anecdotes from her colleagues and friends, snippets about her kindness and generosity that surpassed even the stories he knew firsthand. The result is the book “Cokie: A Life Well Lived,” which Mr. Roberts discussed recently with Monitor correspondent Barbara Spindel. 

Why We Wrote This

Amid the grueling demands of a broadcasting career, journalist Cokie Roberts felt a “profound obligation” to show aspiring female journalists that they, too, could succeed at their careers and still have vibrant relationships with husbands, children, and friends.

Cokie Roberts seemed to have more hours in a day than the rest of us. In addition to being a trailblazing journalist and pundit for National Public Radio and ABC News, she was the bestselling author of several books on women’s history, including 2004’s “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.” And as her husband of 53 years, veteran journalist Steven V. Roberts, tells it, she still found time to nurture her family and many friends and to mentor a wide circle of young women. Cokie Roberts died in 2019. In his loving and moving tribute, “Cokie: A Life Well Lived,” Mr. Roberts writes, “As I think about her legacy, I’m convinced that her private life was as significant as her public life.” He spoke recently with the Monitor.

Why did you write this book?

I gave a eulogy at Cokie’s funeral in which I simply tried to tell stories. I was overwhelmed by the response I got, with people asking for more stories. I started gathering them, and there were many I didn’t know. I wasn’t there when she sat in her office counseling young women about their careers or when she went to the funeral of a friend’s son or when she went to countless maternity wards to hold new babies. She was an extraordinarily productive professional, but I was stunned to realize how much of her time and energy was devoted to other people.

Why We Wrote This

Amid the grueling demands of a broadcasting career, journalist Cokie Roberts felt a “profound obligation” to show aspiring female journalists that they, too, could succeed at their careers and still have vibrant relationships with husbands, children, and friends.

Early in her career, she was often the only woman in the room. What was her perspective on gender in the workplace?

She knew that a lot of young women wanted to be like her and didn’t have many models. There’s a phrase in the book I’d never heard before: “news nuns.” Several people used it to describe a lot of the pioneering women in journalism who felt they had to make a choice between professional success and family life and partnerships. Cokie comes along with a long marriage, two kids, six grandkids, and a rich network of family and friends, and these young women said, “That’s the life I want.” She felt a profound obligation not just to model her life but to be there for guidance and advice. 

When you got married in 1966, you both expected that your career would come first and she would play a supporting role. How did your relationship evolve?

We were creatures of our age. When we were married, we shared the expectation that my job would be more important, and that expectation governed the choices we made together. We moved four times for my job. She was profoundly unhappy at times about submerging her own talent. When we came back to Washington, she went to work at NPR, and over the next few years the balance in our life changed profoundly. Then in 1988 she gets hired by ABC and her trajectory takes off. I had been, as most men were, the dominant figure in the family from a professional point of view. I had to adjust to being the less prominent figure, I had to adjust to her celebrity, and it took a while. I don’t pretend it was easy. But I always knew who I was married to, what a powerful, talented person I had partnered with. That was part of the attraction from the very beginning. 

You say she was a conservative and a radical all at once.

No one was a more ardent feminist; no one fought harder for women’s rights within her organizations. But she never lost her conviction that women had a traditional role to play in society, culture, and families, that women were the caretakers, the nurturers. She always said, even as we advance in the workplace and fight for equality in income and position, we cannot forget that we’re the mothers, the grandmothers, the keepers of the family flame. That’s a profoundly conservative idea. 

How does her legacy influence you now?

Telling her story got me through some hard days. I heard from so many people who explicitly said, “I ask myself, ‘What would Cokie do?’” She’s the moral touchstone for me. I try, not always very well, to live up to the basic message of her life, which is to do something good for somebody else every day if you can. It was particularly meaningful as she became famous because she never forgot. The public Cokie was a role model for countless women over many years who saw her on TV. But it’s the private Cokie that I think is more important because that’s a model that everybody can follow. You don’t have to be a TV star to understand that message of Cokie Roberts’ life. 

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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