‘There will be fireworks for her’: Tania Tetlow on Cokie Roberts
In June, Cokie Roberts was kind enough to write in the pages of America about how her mother helped mentor me to become the president of a Jesuit university. I am heartbroken to write now about Cokie, whom we lost on Sept. 17, 2019. That morning you might have heard a collective howl of grief centered around Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
What has comforted me this week is remembering the throaty laugh that Cokie and her mother shared—looking up and throwing their heads back with infectious joy. I know that heaven is full of their laughter now.
You knew her as world-class reporter. You may not have realized that her reporting was rooted in a profound understanding of U.S. history because she grew up at the center of it.
[Cokie] held public servants to a high standard but also understood their fundamental humanity.
Her parents, between them, represented New Orleans in Congress for 50 years and were a vital hub of Washington life for the entire second half of the 20th century. She bounced on Sam Rayburn’s knee as a child and debated with dinner guests like Jack Kennedy. President Johnson came to her wedding because he would not have missed it. Cokie knew the workings of the U.S. government by heart because she was schooled in congressional procedure alongside her multiplication tables.
As a result, she held public servants to a high standard but also understood their fundamental humanity. As a journalist, she refused to score cheap points by demonizing others. She knew that trust in the U.S. government was a precious commodity not to be squandered.
Cokie also understood that no side had a monopoly on truth. She never discounted ideas merely because of their source. In an era when we seem to be drowning in polemic, she reminded us of a better way.
Her boundless faith in this country did not stem from glossing over its complicated history or the racial segregation she witnessed first-hand as a child. She did not let denial blur her vision, and she was one of the few national commentators to correctly call the last presidential election.
Cokie also understood that no side had a monopoly on truth. In an era when we seem to be drowning in polemic, she reminded us of a better way.
Her clear-eyed realism was also suffused with hope, a virtue deeply rooted in her Catholic faith. She never gave up on the fundamental decency of most people.
She rose to the pinnacle of her profession at a time when women in her field were discounted and disrespected. She navigated the daily indignities of this world with grace, but—as so many have described firsthand this week—the moment Cokie gained an ounce of power, she used it to flatten the obstacles she had just overcome. During countless showdowns, she would interrupt her normal joyfulness with steely resolve, matter-of-factly calling out injustice.
It would have been enough to have succeeded spectacularly and served as a role model. She also pulled hundreds—really thousands—of women up with her, one by one, at great effort.
Cokie’s belief that the talents of women should not be squandered was rooted in her Catholic upbringing. She learned from the example of the Sacred Heart nuns who educated her that women are supposed to run schools and hospitals.
Cokie reveled in her faith, explaining once on NPR, “I am Catholic like I breathe.” She had the great pleasure of covering her mother’s appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. And she had the greater pleasure of watching Lindy, in her late 70s, flirt charmingly with the cardinals.
Cokie’s interfaith marriage to Steven Roberts, the Jewish love of her life, made her ever more purposeful about faith. She hosted a perfect Seder and sang in the choir at Mass.
There is a Passover prayer of gratitude that keeps flooding into my mind. It is a recitation of the gifts God gives us, each one followed by the refrain “Dayenu,” which means “it would have been enough.” It would have been enough to have Cokie as a truth-teller. It would have been enough that she could bend language to her will and write so beautifully. It would have been enough that she fought for justice. How could we be so lucky for God to give us someone who did so much more?
How could we be so lucky for God to give us someone who did so much more?
Her books and reporting mattered to millions, but Cokie also personally made a difference to more people than she could ever know. The intense love and devotion she gave her family multiplied for the rest of us, like loaves and fishes. I have no idea where she found the energy.
When her mother Lindy died six years ago at 97, Cokie took over the role as my mentor and friend without obligation. She gave me advice on leadership, marriage and parenting in equal measure because they matter equally. She reminded me frequently that my 7-year-old daughter’s fierce independence is a blessing (and also karma).
What advice did Cokie give? She worked as hard at marriage, parenting and friendship as she did at her career. Together with Steven, she shared the lessons they learned through 50 years of marriage in From This Day Forward. They reminded us that love requires hard work, patience and a healthy dose of holding your tongue.
Whenever my daughter heard “Miss Cokie’s” voice on the radio, Lucy would demand my phone to send her emoticon hearts, which were always promptly returned in kind. When I explained to Lucy that Miss Cokie had died, she went quiet for a long time and then announced, “On Thursday, there will be fireworks for her.” That has proved so true.