Cokie: A Life Well Lived is divided into anecdote-filled chapters with comments from those who knew her best — the famous and those in the background.
Cokie Roberts, television commentator and nonfiction author, valued the observance of Catholic ritual while also adding Jewish traditions into the lives of her family and friends — all along exploring the celebratory possibilities of her interfaith marriage.
Husband Steven Roberts, also a journalist as well as a media professor, wrote and delivered her 2019 eulogy and filled it with personal stories — way beyond religion — that were not widely known. Soon afterwards, hearing positive comments from those who heard the remembrance, he decided that her dramatic public achievements joined with her caring private actions merited a book.
Cokie: A Life Well Lived (HarperCollins) is divided into anecdote-filled chapters with comments from those who knew her best — the famous and those in the background. While there are sections covering her television work and nonfiction book projects (including Founding Mothers, From This Day Forward, Our Haggadah), there is considerable space recalling enduring people connections, philanthropic commitments and cross-cultural religious observances.
“The public Cokie has been well known for many years and was, for generations, a marvelous role model for young women and girls who could hear her on the radio and watch her on TV and say [they could be that smart and strong],” said Roberts, often her co-author and still teaching at George Washington University, serving as chief political analyst for ABC radio and writing book reviews for the Washington Post. “That was a great legacy in and of itself.
“What was not known before this book, I think, was the private Cokie and the fact that this was a woman who, despite her eminence and time demands, found time every single day to do something good for somebody else. Those stories of private generosity, friendship and charity, to my mind, are just as important, if not more important, than the public role she played.
“Not everybody can be a TV or radio star, but everybody can be a good person, and everybody can learn something from the way she lived her life and the priorities she set. That’s the most important thing I tried to accomplish [with this book].”
Devotion to Jewish Ritual
A life member of Hadassah, Cokie can be especially remembered by those in the Michigan Jewish community who attended her local speaking appearances, including one at Temple Beth El and another for the Jewish Community Center of Washtenaw County.
In the private realm, the book recalls how she determined to take her young children to Jewish services during her husband’s New York Times assignments in Greece, hosted seders for interfaith families and even made a chuppah for the civil marriage ceremony of journalist and longtime friend Nina Totenberg as officiated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
How Cokie brought ritual into her husband’s family is described as an important element of their 53-year marriage, which devoted them to their two children and six grandchildren. He asked his children to read the memoir manuscript for pre-publication approval.
Steven Roberts, who also accepted Michigan speaking engagements with his wife and once separately for the National Council of Jewish Women, explained how Cokie grew up in a family that instilled a devotion to ritual. She was the daughter of Congress members Hale and Lindy Boggs.
“Ritual was not central to my identity as a Jew,” Roberts offered as contrast and referred to his early attachments to Judaism coming from tribal and historic points of view. “My father and grandfathers were never bar mitzvahed; I was because I asked to be, much to the surprise of my parents.
“One of the ways which my attitude toward Judaism changed through Cokie was a return to ritual as a part of identity because that’s what she brought to the marriage. My mother often said the first Passover seder she ever attended was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law.”
A Valued Friend
Writing the biography helped Roberts gain insight into the meaningful moments her friends do not forget. He interviewed 50 of them, and the interview that stands out for him involves her prioritizing — in the midst of a hectic day — the comforting of a friend devastated by the loss of a brother.
“I knew how deeply Cokie valued her female friendships and how much time she spent on them, but I was not there when she visited [maternity wards] in the Washington area,” he explained. “I was not there when she went to the funerals of her friends’ parents. I was not there at her office at NPR (National Public Radio), where there were literally lines of young women out the door waiting to talk to her.
“While I made this decision to write the book based on what I knew two years ago, my belief in the value of the stories strengthened enormously as I heard stories that I never heard before. It was a fascinating process because it was my determination that this was the story worth telling.”
One question stands out in the book as a measure of the sensibility and soundness that Cokie represented for so many, whether in front of a camera or privately to encourage women to further their ambitions. Under stress, people would ask themselves: “What would Cokie do?”
That question continues for Roberts as he communicates the partnership aspect of their marriage and moves along with important elements they had shared.
He continues maintaining close connections with children and grandchildren, glad to be present at their special activities. He continues the syndicated column they long wrote together. He continues hosting seders — recently on Zoom but hopefully soon in person.
And what does he think Cokie would do if he had asked her about writing a biography?
“I think she would have been embarrassed about me writing the book in the first place,” he said. “I think she would have agreed that the private Cokie and the choices she made as the private person were enormously significant.
“I’m quite confident she would have shared with me the idea that the most important lesson here was the very day-to-day, ordinary choices that every single person makes matter and that you have to make time to be a friend.”