Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics presents Cokie Roberts

On Wednesday, April 1, accomplished journalist and political commentator Cokie Roberts visited Chatham University as the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics 2014-2015 Elsie Hillman Chair.

Through the Hillman Chair, the PCWP brings, “nationally renowned political leaders, scholars, and activists to Chatham University to enrich the experiences of students and educate citizens about the role of women in the political process,” according to the Center’s website.

At 5 p.m. Roberts addressed an intimate group of students in the Mellon Living Room.  She primarily discussed her background and answered students’ questions.

Roberts was born to two political parents—Congressman Hale Boggs and Congresswoman and ambassador Lindy Boggs.

“I am the only member of my immediate nuclear family, my original nuclear family, not to run for Congress,” said Roberts.  “Now they didn’t all win—the only person who never lost was my mother—but it is something that I feel somewhat guilty about…because I do think that it is the place where you can make the most difference for the most people.”

“I take some comfort from the fact that I try to explain the political process to people,” she said.

At 18, Roberts met Steven Roberts, the man she would marry, while she was attending Wellesley—a women’s college.  He wanted to be a journalist and her political career would have interfered with his journalistic one.

Roberts graduated from Wellesley in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Roberts didn’t know at the time how important the bill—which outlawed employers from discriminating based on race, national origin, religion, and gender—would be to her and other women.

“We knew that it mattered politically, but we didn’t know it mattered to us,” she said.

“The affirmative action that resulted from that has affected many more white women than any African Americans in the country because of the sex provision in the Civil Rights Bill,” she said.

After college, Roberts began working as a question writer for a high school quiz TV show at a woman-owned production house in Washington, D.C.  She was soon promoted to anchor of a news show in which foreign correspondents talked to American public figures.

At 22, Roberts married and relocated to be with her husband, who had a job at the New York Times.

“It never occurred to either one of us that I would not quit my job and move to New York to be with him…because that’s the way the world was,” she said.

After years of working various journalism jobs—including covering Greece’s governmental turmoil in the 1970s—Roberts joined NPR and has been working there ever since, always with a second job (first at PBS and now at ABC).

“It was a long, kind of crooked path that got me here today,” she said.

Roberts now writes history books—the most recent of which, “Capital Dames,” will be on sale in mid-April—and spends time doing non-profit work, particularly with Save the Children.

“Even though it’s not satisfying to tell you these stories because there’s no path and there’s no way of saying you should do this and then you could do that and then you could do that, it’s actually more exemplary of the kind of life you’re likely to lead because the world is changing all the time,” she said.

“You’ve already gotten a big head start…by going to a liberal arts school,” Roberts continued. “It really is by far the smartest thing to do because what you’re learning to do is think and synthesize and communicate in writing and speaking, and those talents will be called upon no matter what you do.”

From a Liberal Arts college, Roberts said, “you can leave and figure it out and you can keep refiguring it out. There’s nothing that says that you have to know at 21 what you want to do for the rest of your life, or at 31, or at 41. There’s lots of time to change.”

“I think that this funny example that I have to offer is in some ways instructive for the world that you’re going into, and I think you’re going to have a wonderful experience in it because of the background you have here,” she said.

After answering a few student questions, the group dispersed, and many headed to the Chapel, already teeming with members of the Pittsburgh community, for Roberts’ lecture entitled, “An Insider’s View of Washington, D.C.”

After introductions from Executive Director of the PCWP, University President Esther Barazzone, and chair of the PCWP Cynthia D. Shapira, Roberts approached the podium.

Roberts began by addressing the camaraderie that used to exist between parties in the mid to late twentieth century and why it is gone today. She attributes this to several factors.

First, in this post war era, Congress consisted of men who, “had literally been in foxholes together.”

“There was a sense that we were all in everything together, and the enemy was not the guy across the aisle; it was the dictator across the sea,” she said.

Second, members of congress used to socialize outside of work more often. They and their families would live in the region and attend events together. Today, Roberts said people view Washington as “Sodom on the Potomac,” and “the enemy.”

Third, for politicians today, the campaign never stops. They are always running, and the decisions they make have the potential to affect their chances in the next election. It is difficult in this environment to make compromises that might be best for the country but may not please one’s constituents.

Finally, Roberts cited the way in which district lines are drawn. Due to gerrymandering—the drawing of district lines by elected officials to ensure victories in their party—incumbents can become so safe from opposition that they need not worry about compromising.

Although Roberts admits that “there probably isn’t any single [cure]” for Washington’s current climate, the “best cure,” she said, is more women in politics.

According to Roberts, women most frequently cross party lines.

“They do come together, and they do it very consciously,” she said.

Women in the Senate regularly have dinners in which they are able to accomplish a great deal in what Roberts called a, “testosterone-free zone,” and their names frequently appear together on pieces of legislation.

“Pennsylvania needs to get with the program,” said Roberts, citing figures Brown had included in her introduction—as of January of this year, there are no women in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, Pennsylvania has never elected a woman governor or senator, and only 18 percent of its legislature is comprised of women.

Roberts then answered audience questions on a range of topics, including how she characterizes herself (primarily as a mother); about if Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner’s occasional working together suggests a, “crack in the mess in Washington” (“I think there’s a bit of a crack”); and about what schools, families, and communities can do to create smarter, more conscious consumers of news media (“First, create consumers of news, period,” and use historical newspapers as teaching tools in the classroom).

One audience member asked if Roberts saw any signs for hope in the political system.

“I know that some of the analysis of where we are right now is always depressing, but we shouldn’t get ourselves in the frame of mind where it makes us depressed about the country,” she said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Is there any good news?’  And the answer is yes, absolutely; go to a naturalization ceremony if you want to feel good about this country.”

In Brown’s closing remarks, she asked Roberts what is in store for the 2016 primary and general elections, to which Roberts replied, “Who knows?”

She has no specific predictions—“That’s what makes it fun”—but she acknowledged the “wide open Republican race” and that, “something’s going to happen on the Democratic side.”

“It’s crazy for people to not get in [the race] because anything can happen,” she said.  “We’re just going to have to see if it’s anybody serious or just a bunch of crazy people.”