We were driving into Durango Tuesday morning, listening to the news on NPR’s Morning Edition, about the precision drone attack on the Saudi Aramco oil refineries and the settlement in the Purdue Pharma opioid lawsuit – and then, after that half-second between stories, the announcer said, “Cokie Roberts has died.”
In its plainness, its fitting succinctness, that was a gut punch. And we thought, “You won’t see her like again.”
Roberts, a longtime reporter and commentator for NPR and ABC TV news, had a life anyone could envy, of purposeful work, determination and success, the simple formula that eludes so many; so we, her audience, were blessed as she was.
NPR was offbeat when she joined the fledgling network in 1978. Some suspected it was left-leaning. Roberts, the daughter of the late Hale Boggs, the majority leader in the U.S. House, brought it establishment gravitas, while at the same time being a pioneering woman in a man’s world. It was a perfect fit. A decade later, she broke ground at ABC.
People often lament the loss of what had been the almost unitary news media, before all these maddening choices and silos, when Walter Cronkite could say this is how it was and a nation nodded its assent. That nation had been lulled into a false sense of security but it was no worse informed than we are today, only differently, and a false sense of security is perhaps better than none at all.
Roberts was a bridge from that time to our own. At 75, she was still working energetically, before she was felled by breast cancer. Lately she had been doing the “Ask Cokie” explainers on NPR Wednesday mornings, giving crisp backgrounds for news topics. She just did one at the end of July, looking at what the space program had meant for the nation in light of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. She was incomparably informed and upbeat.
She lived long enough to see her work and times changing again, which would rivet any news junkie; and long enough to lately inhabit a D.C. that had become more partisan than she had ever seen it before, which she called “tragically different.”
George Will, the conservative columnist, who worked with Roberts on ABC’s This Week, told NPR, “She liked people on both sides of the aisle and had friends on both sides of the aisle. If you don’t like the game of politics, I don’t see how you write about it well. She liked the game of politics and she understood that it was a game.”
Just as there are no longer just a few stentorian anchormen to tell us the news and what we think about it, there is probably no one left in journalism or outside it today who thinks politics is a game. Everyone will tell you the stakes are too high. She knew that time was coming.
When, in 2016, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables,” Roberts marveled at Clinton’s lack of political instincts, and Pantsuit Nation savaged her in return. That same year, she stepped out of her customary role and co-wrote an op-ed for the Joplin, Missouri Globe calling on “the rational wing” of the Republican Party to stop Trump, whose election, she said, would devastate the country.
But who was listening? By being a pioneering woman, by helping open the field, Roberts ushered in the changes that finally superseded her sensibilities. Still, for a long time, we had them; and it was glorious.
“This year has taken too many great minds from us already,” said a Roberts fan on Twitter Tuesday morning. “Here’s hoping @npr finds someone equally astute to take on the ‘Ask Cokie’ segment.”
There is no one.