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NewsNov 30, 2017

Lesley welcomes Cokie Roberts

Veteran journalist and author shares insights on problems in Washington, her career in journalism, and reflections on American history

Cokie Roberts speaks at the podium.

Journalist Cokie Roberts warned the crowd that she wouldn’t be as uplifting as the classical music concerts that typically grace the Boston Symphony Hall stage, but she prompted some laughs amid grim observations on the state of American politics and discourse.

The Lesley University Boston Speaker Series welcomed Roberts on Wednesday evening to a packed house in the historic concert hall. The three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist covered dozens of topics during her lecture and Q&A, touching on everything from fake news and bipartisanship to the Electoral College and First Lady Melania Trump, as well as her predictions on the tax reform proposal and controversial Senate candidate Roy Moore’s campaign.

(View more photos from the event.)

She began on a light note, with recollections of trips to Bourbon Street in New Orleans to visit her mother, longtime Louisiana Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, who later moved to Rome when President Clinton appointed her ambassador to the Vatican in 1997.

Tom Malone and Bopha Malone stand on either side of Cokie Roberts. All are smiling.
Lesley alumna and Trustee Bopha Malone (right) and her husband, Tom, meet with Cokie Roberts.

“When my children were young we would walk past the strippers and the other neighbors. ‘Over the river and through the woods,’” quipped Roberts. “She moved to the Vatican and said the costumes didn’t change. She still saw guys in dresses.”

Reflecting on her decades in journalism and her “front row seat to history,” the longtime National Public Radio and ABC News commentator mused that “we really are in uncharted waters.”

“We live by Tweets,” said Roberts. “As a reporter, you need to wake up at six and check the Twitter feed. That has never happened before.”

She said the mainstream media is obliged to cover it all – like when the President refers rudely to Pocahontas in front of Navajos or re-Tweets virulent anti-Muslim Tweets – but the coverage can’t be at the peril of other news.

“Is the president just waving a bright shiny object in front of us to distract us?” she posed. “But I don’t think you can ignore that.”

Polarization is poisoning politics

While she sees echoes to darker times in U.S. history, Roberts said this is not the most polarizing time the country has weathered.

“The most polarizing time ever was the period right before the Civil War,” said Roberts. “Thank god we have no major issue before us today, a huge moral issue. There can be nothing like slavery.”

What’s similar is the failure of politics, which is crippling the nation, she said.

“The Civil War was such a failure of politics. That’s what politics is supposed to do. It’s supposed to get us there” to a resolution, said Roberts. “Right now, it’s very hard to get there.”

Roberts lamented the waning number of moderate politicians, the rise of gerrymandered redistricting, the permanent campaigning and fundraising that elected representatives must engage in, and even the shift in the way some legislators no longer relocate to Washington or bring their families – robbing each other of the opportunity to know and like each other.

She recalled that a childhood best friend of hers was the daughter of a Republican congressman, while Roberts’ father, Hale Boggs, was a Democratic congressman.

“You can’t demonize somebody who is playing ‘Clue’ in your basement,” she said. Now “they live in their offices, which is fundamentally disgusting. That’s frat boy behavior.”

Roberts said that the days when House and Senate members from opposing parties would argue at the Press Club and still remain friends are over.

“That is gone,” she said. “Nothing like that even vaguely exists in Washington now.”

Lesley is a fabulous institution with a storied history.
Cokie Roberts

She recalled how the country was unified after World War II, when politicians shared a sense of common purpose.

“The enemy was not the guy across the aisle, it was the dictator across the sea,” she said. “They had literally been in the trenches together. They ran as the men who went, not the men who sent.”

She recalled a conversation she had with President George W. Bush, as they were heading to meet the Pope at Andrews Air Force Base, when she pressed him on immigration.

“He said, ‘Cokie, I tried and tried and tried to get my party to do the right thing on immigration, but I couldn’t because of the way district lines are drawn. They are afraid to lose,’” Roberts recalled President Bush saying.

“It is a poisoning part of our politics because it makes compromise almost impossible,” Roberts said.

Women: “The last bastion of bipartisanship”

“So how do we fix this?” she posed. “We know it helps to elect women,” to which the audience applauded.

Cokie Roberts stands on stage behind the podium.
Lesley welcomed three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist Cokie Roberts to Symphony Hall.

She said the women in the Senate have a monthly dinner during which they work on moving legislation forward.

“Women in the Senate are the last bastion of bipartisanship,” said Roberts. “We know that women tend to be less ideological and more pragmatic and more willing to cross the aisle.”

Roberts, who has written several books about women who have influenced U.S. history, praised Lesley University founder Edith Lesley, a visionary who recognized the importance of early childhood education and educating the educators.

“Lesley is a fabulous institution with a storied history,” said Roberts, who read aloud the Lesley mission statement, after which she exclaimed, “Yes!”

Roberts hailed women throughout her talk and called on more women to run for office. She said she fears there will be a backlash against women in response to the surge of sexual assault and harassment allegations that are surfacing in halls of power across the country – “almost a daily revelation.”

“There are a lot of scared people on Capitol Hill,” said Roberts. “They know they need to clean up their act.”

Roberts recalled her own encounters with harassment.

“We were all sexually harassed,” she said. “It was absolutely routine. ... At dinners, a senator would sit there with his hand on your knee and you constantly put it back.”

Roberts joked with moderator and WGBH personality Jared Bowen, “If you don’t watch out, you may be the last man standing in public radio.”

The danger of questioning facts

At the close of her lecture, Roberts fielded audience questions read by Bowen, which ranged from queries about North Korea and Melania Trump, to whether she chimes in on NPR’s “Morning Edition” while in her pajamas in her kitchen (“No the kitchen; Yes the pajamas,” she quipped, eliciting roars of laughter).

She told the audience that her greatest concern, by far, is the questioning of facts.

“There’s been a deterioration of discourse. Most serious is this questioning of fact,” said Roberts. “If you can’t agree on facts  being facts, I don’t know where you go from there. The idea to question something palpably true is discomforting, to put it mildly – and dangerous.”

When asked whether the country should abandon the Electoral College, Roberts said a country as large as the U.S. needs the college to give power to minorities, including black, Hispanic and Jewish voters, she said.

Donna Halper stands to the left of Cokie Roberts.
Lesley communications professor Donna Halper, who spent more than 35 years in journalism, gathers with Cokie Roberts.

“The founders, who had just come out of a monarchy, were very concerned about tyranny of the majority,” said Roberts. “They were very concerned about protecting minorities.”

She said that she believes Melania Trump is “trying very hard to be First Lady in all the right ways,” but it’s unclear whether she has her husband’s ear or any ability to influence him.

“In most of history, the First Lady has been the most powerful woman in the country because she had the ear of the most powerful man,” said Roberts.

Roberts believes it’s likely that Alabama voters will elect embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore, and that the odds of tax reform passing are “high” out of desperation to get something passed. “I think they’ll pass it, and they’ll regret it.”

“(Moore) has taken a leaf out of the Trump book: Just deny, deny, deny and keep moving,” she said of the allegations of child molestation and sexual misconduct leveled against Moore.

Roberts assured the audience that Americans will weather these times, as they have always done.

“We have lived through many times in the past and we will live through this one, but it will be very interesting to see how we do it.”