October 15, 2019
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Roberts was the best kind of D.C. insider

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

The bright, bold line that runs through Washington separates the party of R’s from the party of D’s. But there is another line — a more subtle but very pronounced, very important line — dividing the Ins from the Outs. The first group is small and powerful; the second is large and envious. Lin-Manuel Miranda memorialized the line in his masterpiece, “Hamilton.” The Ins are those few individuals who are “in the room where it happens.” As for the rest of us:

“No one really knows how the game is played

The art of the trade

How the sausage gets made

We just assume that it happens … in / The room where it happens.”

Political journalists often strut and pontificate like Ins, but really we’re Outs. We spend our days sniffing at closed doors, trying to piece together the events and intrigues unfolding on the other side. Like the fabled blind men groping toward an image of an elephant, our results are prone to be piecemeal and distorted.

Talented, trailblazing Cokie Roberts — who died Tuesday at age 75 after complications from cancer — was the rare political reporter born and bred among the Ins. Across a career spanning more than five decades, she rarely strayed far from the locus of her family’s inside access: Congress. Her bone-deep feel for the personalities and motivations of the Ins — for the winning, marshaling and using of power — made her a fluent translator between the two worlds. That, I think, was the root of her remarkable career.

In the 1960s, when Corinne “Cokie” Boggs was getting started in journalism, few Americans were deeper Inside than her father, Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs, a Democrat from Louisiana. A deft reader of political winds, he made the transition from Jim Crow to the Great Society as nimbly as any Southern politician not named Lyndon Johnson, and ultimately reached the lofty post of majority leader of the House of Representatives.

If you ask how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 happened, or the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 — or the Warren Commission’s single-bullet theory, for that matter — you’ll find the answer behind a door with Hale Boggs inside. So it was that the President Johnson and the first lady were among the 1,500 guests at the 1966 marriage of Cokie Boggs to New York Times journalist Steven Roberts on the lawn of the congressman’s big house in Bethesda, Maryland.

In Louisiana, politics is a family business. When, in 1972, Hale Boggs vanished in the trackless Alaska wilderness while campaigning for a colleague in a twin-engine bush plane, his widow, Lindy, assumed his congressional seat and held it for nearly 18 years. Their oldest daughter, Barbara, served as mayor of Princeton, New Jersey. Their son, Tommy, was for decades one of the most prominent lobbyists in Washington.

Cokie thought about entering the family business, too, but worried that she would create conflicts for her husband. Instead, she became a translator of politics, an explicator, conduit and buffer between the Ins and the Outs. And together, she and her husband became pillars of permanent Washington — not the so-called Deep State but the society of families that put down stakes and make a transient capital into a multigenerational home. Families like theirs make Washington livable — a trick more difficult with each passing day — by approaching politics as a community enterprise rather than a weapon of mass destruction.

In the process, Cokie played a key part in the creation of National Public Radio as a journalistic force. At a time when Washington news was filtered through a fog of testosterone, she and her NPR colleagues struck a feminine voice of authority. Along with Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg — sometimes called the Fallopian Club around the office — Cokie found a voice for news that was relaxed and intimate and knowledgeable all at the same time. That blend of timbres eventually became the voice of NPR reporters and anchors generally, whether male or female. The “founding mothers,” the four women are sometimes called.

For her work at NPR and as a television anchor and commentator at ABC, she won a wall of trophies, including three Emmys, and membership in the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. The seeming ease with which she turned out best-selling books would have been annoying to fellow authors if she had been less winsome.

Cokie Roberts will be remembered in some circles for the last phase of her career, when she and her husband of half a century co-wrote a syndicated opinion column that was decidedly anti-Trump. Seeing the entire world through President Donald Trump-filtered lenses is the curse of both the left and the right these days.

Better that she be remembered for the news she dug up, for the context she gave it, for the audience she served and for the smile that seemed so effortless.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine.



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