By David A. Andelman
For 53 years, Steve Roberts was Cokie’s biggest fan. He was also her husband and, at times, writing partner and traveling companion. They also became, for each of them, mutual sources of ineffable inspiration.
That’s the message that comes through in the 272 pages of Cokie: A Life Well Lived and that was conveyed across nine time zones by her husband, Steve, to the many friends and colleagues who dialed in on Zoom for January’s luncheon event.
It was a lifelong love affair—from their first meeting at their respective ages of 19 and 18, Steve a budding journalist on The Crimson at Harvard, Cokie at Wellesley. They were only rarely apart for the next five decades, hopscotching through their years together from Washington to California to Greece and back to Washington. Steve outlined the start of Cokie’s career from her earliest iterations as a journalist, stringing for CBS News as tanks rolled through the streets of Athens in a landmark coup d’état (with Steve on Cyprus and unable to return), to Cokie’s first big breaks on NPR, then ABC, dogged in those far-off days by the burden of being a woman in the man’s world of journalism.
“I was her biggest fan,” Steve said, clearly recalling their decades together until her tragic death cut short their lifelong romance in 2019. “I knew from the day I met her what an extraordinary person she was.”
Still, these were the 1960s and while Steve had a golden pathway from the Harvard Crimson to the Washington bureau of The New York Times, this was not the same avenue for a young woman, even one as talented and with as sterling a Washington pedigree as Cokie (whose parents, Hale and Lindy Boggs, were longtime members of Congress). So, for the first years of their marriage, it was Cokie who would follow Steve as his career path took him from Washington to Los Angeles to Athens and back to Washington again.
From the beginning, Cokie “had an atavistic devotion to newspapers,” Steve recalled, “and an enormous talent” for journalism. She first demonstrated her gift in 1974 when Steve had flown off to Cyprus to cover the Turkish invasion for The Times, leaving Cokie behind in Athens where a Greek coup suddenly erupted. All alone, Cokie found herself in the midst of the biggest news story of the day and rose to the occasion, filing for CBS Radio, though she’d never written a radio story before in her life. Then, suddenly her parents received a phone call from the CBS Broadcast Center. Did they have a photo of Cokie? They panicked but were quickly reassured she’d not been killed. Rather, her radio piece would be leading the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite that evening and they needed her photo for a slide while the radio piece played.
Cokie followed Steve back to Washington, though she was reluctant to give up the life of a foreign correspondent at that point—quite aware of the deep-seated male domination of the news business. That was when she stumbled upon, many would say effectively created, the “old girl network.” When The Times’s Judy Miller suggested Cokie reach out to Nina Totenberg and that led to a job, and eventually a starring role at NPR, as Steve observed, “it was the first time I saw women be able to help each other the way men have always been able to help each other.” NPR in turn led to a guest slot in October 1987—essentially a tryout—at ABC side by side with Sam Donaldson, George Will and David Brinkley, three of the giants of the news business. “It was like the varsity had arrived,” said George Will, “not given to praise of anybody.” Indeed, Steve told the Silurians, Cokie “had a special quality that you don’t teach.”
While she was waiting to go on the set that first day, Cokie was talking with the show’s young producer, Marc Burstein. “There are three things you need to know about me,” Steve quoted Cokie as telling him boldly. “I’m married to the same man for 20 years. I live in the house I grew up in, and I go to church every Sunday. And if you love those three things about me, we’re going to get along fine.” Years later, Steve recalled, Marc told him, “The only thing that hasn’t changed in that whole introduction was the number of years, you were married.”
In the end, that was all we needed to know about Steve and Cokie. But there is lots more in the book he has written as a tribute to his beloved wife of more than half a century—a book at once instructive and inspiring with a life so very well lived.