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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,163

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This is the grave of Cokie Roberts.

One of the most genuinely annoying and useless figures in the history of American political media, Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs was born into an elite Louisiana political family in New Orleans in 1943. Her father was Hale Boggs, who at the time was in between terms in Congress. Years later, he would become Majority Leader in the House before dying in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972. Moreover, her mother was Lindy Boggs, who would take Hale’s seat after his death and serve another 18 years in the House before Bill Clinton named her ambassador to the Vatican in 1997. So this is a pretty elite family and she grew more in the Beltway than Louisiana. Well, you already could figure that out. Who was a greater creature of the Beltway than Cokie? No one. She was known as Cokie from the time she was a little girl. She did attend high school at an elite girls Catholic school in New Orleans and then went onto Wellesley. She graduated from there in 1964, with a political science major. I’m not sure what she grabbed from that major, but it sure wasn’t an understanding of American politics.

Roberts decided to go into journalism. Do you think the daughter of Hale Boggs would start like most young journalists, working in some Baton Rouge TV station? Please. She got a job at WRC in Washington immediately, where she soon hosted its weekly public affairs program. This would mostly be her whole life, hosting these programs and not understanding the dynamics of what really mattered in America. But then how could she know this? Her whole life was the Beltway. For her, that was America. She married the journalist Steve Roberts in 1967 and they moved to New York, but she was determined to continue her career.

And continue it she did. If you ignore the quality of her journalism and her utter hackery to defend American institutions she believed in, not to many the given Republican talking points of the day, you can look at Roberts as a pioneer. I guess being the first of a minority group to be a hack is something….just like Sandy O’Connor or Condi. Anyhoo….she really got her start out in Los Angeles, where she briefly followed her husband and won a LA Emmy for her production work on a children’s show in 1971. When he got a job in Athens, she went too and became a stringer for CBS. But pretty quickly, the career really was hers. She got a job at NPR in 1978 and was their congressional correspondent for a decade. The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour brought her on frequently and she got a lot of notice for that. She soon became the ultimate Beltway insider. She won the Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting in 1988 for her work covering Iran/Contra. In the early 80s, she hosted a TV program on PBS that covered public affairs. World News Tonight and other ABC news shows had her on frequently.

And she remained the ultimate NPR reporter, often taking questions from listeners about current politics. If you wanted the true DC insider view, Cokie is who you went to. There was nothing unconventional or interesting. It was straight Beltway pablum. But people love Beltway pablum, especially serious liberals. These are the types who today still watch the terrible Sunday morning TV news shows, where they are routinely insulted by the continuation of Republican talking points as the view of Real America, as if Tim Russert or Cokie Roberts had any clue what Real America even was. Cokie was always on these programs. She probably spent more time with John McCain than Cindy did. Her reporting was never less than trite and often infuriating. And for this, she was absolutely beloved.

Meanwhile, her reporting was often absolutely horrible, especially if the facts pushed back on her narratives about Real America. For example, in 1989, the American nun Diana Ortiz was abducted and raped by Guatemalan paramilitaries advised by the U.S. They believed she was a subversive, by which they meant she was helping the indigenous population survive the genocide being conducted against them. Ortiz claimed that one of the kidnappers and rapists was an American himself. Cokie went absolutely ballistic. Why, that was impossible!!! Not an American!!! She went so far as to claim that Ortiz made up the whole incident. Why would Cokie erase the brutal rape of a brave woman? Well, it became quite clear. See, the Guatemalan government had hired Patton Boggs to run its DC PR campaign. Yeah, that’s the law firm named after her daddy and which was run by her own brother. So basically, she became the American television flack of the Guatemalan military. This my friends, is Cokie Roberts in a nutshell. What did she actually believe here? I don’t doubt that she genuinely believed Ortiz made this up. She wasn’t necessarily that bright or even that cynical. But if The Right People told her The Truth, then it was The Truth and if it was her brother, than who was more right than that?

Cokie took to writing books too, particularly the kind of terrible histories that make Beltway elites swoon. Her histories were widely panned by real historians, the kind of work that just uses the past to reinforce her ideas about the present, which defended the American institutions she loved because they were small-c conservative at all costs. That these books were all about women make them all the more infuriating, as they place Cokie at the center of the story, imagining herself in these situations. They include Founding Mothers : The Women Who Raised Our Nation, from 2004; Ladies of Liberty, from 2009; and Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848–1868, from 2015 and with a title guaranteed to cause maximum cringe.

If you’ve never read Jack Shafer’s classic 2009 takedown of Cokie, it’s well worth your time. It’s combines her literally phoning it in to the word salad at the core of her work to the ways that she uses the word “interesting” to discuss things of utterly no interest or obvious facts. Then there’s Cokie’s discussion, with Tucker Carlson natch, of the future of the Texas Republican Party, where she stated that Texas Republicans’ only hope was to put Latinos on birth control to stop their breeding.

Roberts worked for the rest of her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and it didn’t look good, but she managed to beat it back repeatedly until it finally killed her in 2019. When she died, George Will stated, “She liked the game of politics and she understood that it was a game.” Indeed. For her, it was all just a game. None of it really mattered. And she reported like it.

Cokie Roberts is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other horrible people of the Beltway Chattering Class, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. David Broder is in Saint James, Michigan and Robert Novak is in Silver Spring, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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