Steven V. Roberts: What would Cokie do?

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 5, 2021

DEAR READERS: My wife, Cokie, and I wrote more than 1,000 of these newspaper columns together. After she died in September of 2019, I began working on a book about her life and legacy. “Cokie: A Life Well Lived” was published this week. Here’s a brief excerpt.

Through her visibility and celebrity, Cokie was an inspiration and a role model for innumerable women and girls. She was portrayed on “Saturday Night Live,” mentioned on “The West Wing,” pictured in comic strips like Doonesbury, and featured on magazine covers. She joked with Jay Leno, sang with Garrison Keillor, sparred with Conan O’Brien, balanced a pencil on her nose for David Letterman and was the answer to numerous crossword puzzle clues. Many dogs, and at least one dairy cow, were named for her. In 1990, Spy Magazine ran a drawing documenting all her connections and associations and headlined it, “Cokie Roberts — Moderately Well-Known Broadcast Journalist or Center of the Universe?” They were only half-joking.

But as I think about her legacy, I’m convinced that her private life was as significant as her public life. Few of us can be a TV star or bestselling author. Every one of us can be a good person. Everyone can learn a lot from how she treated others. Cokie did something for someone else virtually every day of her life, and I tried to capture that spirit in the eulogy I gave after her death:

“During the last days of her life, she was hospitalized at (the National Institutes of Health), and when I would pull up, the valet parkers — all immigrants and not very fluent in English — would say to me, ‘We’re praying for Miss Cokie.’ She became very friendly with one of her nurses, Letitia, and absolutely insisted that I rummage through her recipe box at home and find a recipe for crawfish cornbread she wanted Letitia to have. The author of that recipe, by the way, a man named Big Lou, is serving a life sentence in Louisiana’s Angola prison, but he was Cokie’s friend, too. And then there was Judith, another nurse, who had two small children at home and was pregnant with a third. Cokie kept bugging her, ‘Judith, I want to see pictures of those children!’ … and in the last hours of the last day that Cokie was conscious, Judith finally relented and showed Cokie pictures on her phone. Cokie’s face just lit up with that incandescent smile we all have loved for so long. ‘Judith,’ she exclaimed, ‘what beautiful children.’ And the two embraced. That moment captured the Cokie I’ll remember most: caring about someone else, helping them feel good about themselves, opening her heart and her arms and making the world around her a better, brighter place.”

There’s a bright line, a clear arc, that runs through many of the stories in this book: Cokie’s commitment to celebrating and supporting, praising and promoting other women. Through every part of her life, in public and in private, her sense of sisterhood was prominent and powerful. “I think (Cokie) believed, maybe, women would be the ones to save the planet,” said Diane Sawyer, her colleague at ABC and a fellow graduate of Wellesley.

For many of her innumerable friends, Cokie was their moral touchstone, their guide to good behavior. As her childhood friend and college roommate, Cinda Pratt Pearlman, told me, “Early on, I remember thinking, this is what I’m going to do. Instead of wearing one of those little bracelets that says ‘WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?,’ I’d have one made saying ‘WWCD: What Would Cokie Do?’ Now we’re talking. That’s the real deal.”

As I was writing this book, my sister-in-law called early one morning to say that my younger brother Glenn had died overnight after a lengthy illness. “Go back to sleep,” she urged me, but as I sat there with the phone in my hand, I actually asked myself, “What would Cokie do?” And I immediately knew the answer: Get up, get dressed, and go over to my brother’s house about 15 minutes away. As I was driving there, I called my sister and told her I was following Cokie’s example. You’re wrong, she said — Cokie would have been there last night, sleeping on the couch. When I told my son Lee this story, he corrected me again: Mom, he said, would have been there for the last three nights, sleeping on the couch.

Perhaps, after reading this book, you too will start asking that same question: What would Cokie do?

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Contact him at