Friends, Family Say Cokie Roberts' Passing Is 'A Great Loss For America'

Sep 21, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 4:20 pm

Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET

Friends, family, reporters and politicians gathered Saturday in downtown Washington, D.C., to remember journalist Cokie Roberts.

She was hailed as a "servant" of God and referred to as a "special singular soul" by those who delivered remarks.

Roberts died Tuesday at age 75 of complications from breast cancer. She had covered and commented on politics for NPR since 1978 and spent decades working for ABC News as well, including several years co-hosting the Sunday morning political show This Week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a longtime friend, told mourners that Roberts was "a national treasure whose passing is a great loss for America."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivered a eulogy at Cokie Roberts funeral mass.
Heidi Gutman / Walt Disney Television

"Many honors are afforded to members of Congress, especially to the speaker, but nothing surpasses the honor of paying tribute to Cokie's memory."

Pelosi said Roberts' work through the years "shone a powerful spotlight" on the many women heroes of American history whose stories had often been overlooked.

"Her life and leadership took our nation closer to its fundamental founding ideal of equality," Pelosi said. "It was in her DNA."

Roberts was seen as one of NPR's "Founding Mothers" — a group of women who, reporting and hosting the news since the network's very first days on-air, established NPR's journalistic mission, sound, values and culture.

Her funeral Mass was broadcast on C-SPAN and was livestreamed on both NPR and ABC from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, symbolic of the towering legend in media and Washington, D.C., circles Roberts was.

St. Matthew's was the site of President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963. Every fall, it hosts the Red Mass, which marks the beginning of a new Supreme Court term. Two popes have visited the cathedral as well.

An overarching theme of the Mass came from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, focusing on the idea that "there's an appointed time for everything" and that there are major transitions in life that at times bring pain, while others usher in joy.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, left and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrive for the funeral mass.
Heidi Gutman / ABC via Getty Images
The funeral mass took place at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the site of President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963. Every fall, it hosts the Red Mass, which marks the beginning of a new Supreme Court term. Two popes have visited the cathedral as well.
Heidi Gutman / Walt Disney Television
George Will, left, and Sam Donaldson pay respects to their colleague Cokie Roberts.
Heidi Gutman / ABC via Getty Images

"We do not welcome it enthusiastically, because we are not yet ready to release Cokie from our lives and from her splendid professional contributions to the life of our nation," Archbishop of Washington Wilton Gregory said.

"She called us to be our better selves, and she was quick to point out when we behaved as our lesser selves," Gregory added.

Roberts is remembered as a pioneer in broadcast journalism — a field that, when she started, had very few on-air roles for women.

The names of the women who served as ushers at Roberts' funeral were a who's who list of industry titans, including CBS News journalist Lesley Stahl, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger and other NPR Founding Mothers — Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg.

Her husband of 53 years, journalist Steven Roberts, told mourners that over the years Cokie "encouraged us, inspired us, taught us and touched us, cajoled and consoled us."

Pierre Thomas, left and Donna Brazile talk at Cokie Roberts' funeral.
Heidi Gutman / ABC via Getty Images
Archbishop Wilton Daniel Gregory served as principal celebrant and homilist at the service, which included eulogies from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Cokie's husband, Steve Roberts.
Heidi Gutman / ABC via Getty Images

He peppered his remarks with a mix of personal and professional anecdotes about her career and their life together. These included a time early on in her career when editors told her "we do not hire women to be writers" and a long-running argument the couple had on whether she was wearing a pair of charcoal gray Bermuda shorts when they met.

Steven insisted she was.

"For the last 57 years, she has corrected me ... on this and many other points," he said.

Steven Roberts, husband of Cokie Roberts, told mourners that over the years Cokie 'encouraged us, inspired us, taught us and touched us, cajoled and consoled us.'
Heidi Gutman / Walt Disney Television
The family of ABC News and NPR journalist Cokie Roberts celebrate her life at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C.
Heidi Gutman / ABC via Getty Images

He shared stories about how they moved in the 1970s to Athens, Greece, where she covered the collapse of the military government for CBS News. When they returned to the United States a few years later, he described his wife as "distraught" because she knew the prospects of being hired as a female reporter were slim.

A colleague of Steven's at the New York Times got in touch with Totenberg, who was then and is currently NPR's Supreme Court reporter. Roberts said that in short order, Totenberg helped push his wife's résumé through the system and NPR quickly hired Cokie.

"That's the first time I saw the 'Old Girls' Network' at work: women doing for each other what men had always done," Roberts said. "Cokie's been a critical link in the Old Girls' Network ever since."

Left: Nina Totenberg (from left), Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts photographed around 1979. Right: Totenberg, Wertheimer and Roberts pictured more recently at NPR's headquarters.
NPR

Roberts was also remembered as a loving mother of two and a devoted grandmother to six grandchildren, who delivered brief intercessions during the funeral service.

This week former President Barack Obama released a statement calling Roberts a "trailblazing figure," adding that she was "a role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men; a constant over forty years of a shifting media landscape and changing world."

Roberts' grew up splitting time between Washington, D.C., and Louisiana. Her father, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., served as majority leader of the U.S. House and served in Congress for more than three decades before he disappeared on a campaign flight in Alaska in 1972.

Lindy Claiborne Boggs, Cokie's mother, was elected to her husband's seat and served for 17 years. Boggs also served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

NPR is remembering Roberts on Saturday afternoon with a one-hour special broadcast airing on many public radio stations at 4 p.m. ET.

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