By Rebecca Toov
Season 3: Episode 4. Women on the Air: Cokie Roberts
You are listening to U of M Radio on Your Historic Dial Podcast. Welcome to Season 3 Women on the Air: Episode 4 Cokie Roberts.
You are listening to U of M Radio on Your Historic Dial Podcast. This is Rebecca from University Archives.
On September 17, 2019, award-winning broadcaster, journalist, and author Cokie Roberts passed away at the age of 75. In her memory, on this episode, we’ll share a recording of the speech that Roberts gave at the University of Minnesota Law School Commencement Exercises, held on Saturday, May 9, 1992 at Northrop Auditorium. The recording was later broadcast on KUOM radio on July 4, 1992.
Attendees of the Law School ceremony were provided with a printed program that included the following biography of the speaker:
“Cokie Roberts: A Special Correspondent for ABC News since May, 1988, she regularly appears on the Sunday morning ABC television news hour, “The Week with David Brinkley,” “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” and other ABC News broadcasts to report on politics, Congress and public policy.
In addition to her work for ABC, Ms. Roberts serves as a news analyst for National Public Radio, where she was the Congressional correspondent for more than 10 years. During this time she won numerous awards, including the highest tribute in public radio, the Edward R. Murrow Award. She was also the first broadcast journalist to win the prestigious Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for the coverage of Congress.
Before joining ABC in 1988, Ms. Roberts was a contributor to PBS-TV’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. Her coverage of the Iran/Contra affair for that program won for her in 1987 the Weintal Award.
She is the daughter of Hale Boggs of Louisiana, formerly the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Lindy Boggs, who served in Congress after her husband’s death.
A 1964 graduate of Wellesley College in political science, Ms. Roberts received a 1985 Distinguished Alumnae Achievement Award ‘in recognition of excellence and distinction in professional pursuits.’
Her lengthy and distinguished career as a journalist with a special focus on Congress has developed to the point where Ms. Roberts is considered by many of her peers as the dean of Congressional correspondents.”
In her remarks, Roberts called upon the graduates to consider using their degrees – their credentials – to bring justice to society. She asked them to consider doing this within the political arena, acknowledged the trepidation to do so, and expressed her own criticisms of the political process. Yet Roberts reminded the audience that quote, “what seems to be politics, what seems to be fecklessness, what seems to be inability to get things done, really often comes into great meaning as time goes by.” She referenced the First Congress as example, and recounted the gerrymandering, campaigning, and dealmaking – the politics – that lead to the passage of the Bill of Rights.
Roberts concluded with a reminder that quote, “the legislative branch is the place that brings together this incredibly diverse country. It does it messily, it does it slowly, it does it kicking and screaming all the way. Leadership is not easy. Followership is much easier.” Roberts called upon the graduates to lead, to bring their credentials, their knowledge of the Constitution and dedication to it – because quote, “there’s a great deal more to do in making the laws apply equally to everyone.”
A script enclosed with the audio reel provides an introduction for this historic broadcast: “Script and Tape for 10:00 A.M. Saturday, July 4… A-B-C television news special correspondent Cokie Roberts was the featured speaker at the University of Minnesota Law School commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 9th. A specialist in Congressional politics and public policy, Roberts also serves as a news analyst for National Public Radio. Here is Cokie Roberts:”
Roberts: I should start by saying I am not a lawyer. I am the… [audience clapping] [laughter]
I am the great-granddaughter, granddaughter, daughter, niece, and sister of lawyers. I repeat, I am not a lawyer. And I am the mother of a law student, so I have a lot of sympathy for what… for you, for your families, and for you. And yesterday afternoon, I asked my son, who is finishing his first year, and he’s in the middle of exams, so you can empathize more than I tend to do… with that um, that plight.
I said, “I’m going to Minnesota tomorrow and talking to law students. What should I talk about?” And he started reciting this dread litany. Now, he is in school, in exams, and it’s been raining a lot in Washington so I suppose he’s depressed, but he started telling me about the record applications to law school at the same time that there are no jobs out there; that the ratio of associates to partners has plummeted; that there is a social backlash. Actually, he said societal–that’s a word we don’t use on the radio–social backlash against the profession.
I think this is quite interesting that it is lead by a lawyer married to a lawyer, the Vice President of the United States, but, I must say that this is the kind of year we’re having, you know. Lawyers attack lawyers. We have a billionaire populist running for President, we have someone who came of age in the 1960s and didn’t inhale… I mean, it is a… [audience laughter, clapping]. It is a spectacularly funny year.
But after my son finished this horrendous litany of complaints, I said, “So what are you supposed… what are you saying to me, that I’m supposed to say to these young people, abandon hope all ye who exit here?” I mean… [audience laughter]
And he said, “No, what you should say is it’s a challenging time to be leaving law school.” And I realized of course that’s true, but it’s also a challenging time to be entering the real world. And now you take into it what many of you came here for… the credential.
I went to my Webster’s to look up “credential.” I of course knew the meaning, I’m a good Catholic girl, I know it comes from credere, credo. I say my credo, my creed. I know it comes from “to believe.” But, I decided to see what Webster thought. I did by the way also look up what Webster says about lawyer and I guess you all know this, but I did not know about the second and third definitions of lawyer. Mudfish being the second definition [audience laughter]. And the third definition is, “a New Zealand bramble that scrambles over all other growth and can only be held in position by backward-pointing hooks.” [audience laughter] [laughter] I’m sure that has some deep inner meaning, but I don’t know what it is. But a credential, a credential gives you believability. It is a warranty. It is a diploma certifying your academic achievement and your personal character… something we’ve talked a lot about this year. I wear credentials around my neck every day, lots of them to get past guards and show people that I have a believability, that I’m not going to shoot up members of Congress the minute I walk in the building.
You have a credential now. To do what? And Dean [Robert] Stein and I have not talked ahead of time, did not know that we would be on the same theme, although it’s not unusual. Your credential I think, in its widest sense, is to bring justice to the society. And if you ever needed a better example, of course, the last few weeks have given us the need again, brought to mind very strongly, of the need for justice not having been fulfilled in the society. And in all kinds of ways… not only the verdict, which is going to once again call into question the jury system, but the resulting violence, and then what will come as a result of that. First, a call for order, and then a call for law. And sometimes those calls for law and order have brought with them a diminishment of our rights, a diminishment of justice… and so what happens is that the fight for rights always gets harder at some time like this because there are competing rights. And that will be part of your job, to sort all of that out.
And what I would like to call on you to do, in a very sort of contrarian way, is to… for as many of you who can, to try to do that in the political arena. I know that members of my trade, it’s not a profession, my trade, are not very kind to politicians, and I have been among the most critical, lord knows. And uh, and it is very… it is very easy to beat up on the Congress and the legislative branch. In times like this, it is an extremely dispirited time in Washington. We have more members of the House leaving every day. There was a cartoon this morning in the Washington Post of a person on television going like this you know, waving their hands at the viewers and says, “Another member of Congress decides to leave.” The Congress is blamed for everything and credited with nothing. This morning on the airplane on the way here the pilot announced that it was a no-smoking flight due to Congress. I mean, it was just, ‘Don’t blame me, blame them.’ I actually, when it comes to smoking, am willing to give them a little credit, but I want you to think of it though as a worthy task where there is a great deal that you can accomplish. And I know that a lot of people think there are too many lawyers in the legislature. Too many lawyers making laws… I find that kind of interesting. I looked back at another lawyer, Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography. In 1821 while he’s writing about something completely different–he’s writing about the ratification of the peace treaty with France–he goes into an aside where he says, “If the present Congress errors in too much talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which people send 150 lawyers whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour, that 150 lawyers should do business together ought not be expected.” [laughter] But in fact they have, and they have through the centuries. And just because I think that we, and you, dismiss it as playing politics… a lot that seems to be playing politics accomplishes a great deal, including that great embodiment of our rights, the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights is the closest thing we have in this country to a national religion. If you go to the archives in Washington there is a room that is for all the world like a chapel. It is small, it is dark, it has an altar. And in that altar, are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and then up above it like a tabernacle, the Bill of Rights.”
And I have to tell you… you probably… for all of your great knowledge of the Constitution you might not know the true story of how we got to the Bill of Rights, and it’s quite wonderful, because of course, it’s politics. And what happened in that first election in 1788, it was not a redistricting problem, it was a districting problem. It was the first time that state legislatures had drawn congressional districts. And the state legislatures were still deeply divided over whether they approved of the Constitution or not. They were federalists, approvers of the Constitution, and the anti-federalists, the people who didn’t like it. And the anti-federalists were in control of the Virginia state legislature, under the very firm sway of the Governor Patrick Henry, and they drew a district for James Madison the likes of which you’ve never seen. It makes some of these districts that are being drawn today look like totally unimaginative works of art. James Madison’s district had fingers, and they went up and grabbed every anti-federalist anywhere near his neighborhood. And then they ran a great anti-federalist against him, James Monroe. And Madison was making the mistake that many members of Congress have made since, which that he thought that he was such a great figure, and so well known… and after all he had written the Constitution, that there was no need for him to go home and campaign and do what regular politicians do, until he got a letter from George Washington saying, ‘Jim baby, better get home because you’re going to lose this election.’ And Madison got home and discovered, in fact, he was going to lose the election. So he went frantically around the state promising – around his district – promising, as they had promised during the ratification battle on the Constitution. But he reiterated the promise and made it every place, every time he could that as soon as the Congress convened in Washington that they would pass a Bill of Rights. Well, he gets elected, they get to Washington. The other founders and the rest of the First Congress has absolutely no interest whatsoever in approving the Bill of Rights. They’ve just gone through a horrendous ratification battle, they’re not really very interested in doing it again. They think there are far more important things to get on with in terms of establishing the government and that this is just unnecessary. And Madison keeps saying to them, “But we’ve got to do it! It was a campaign promise! I gotta go back home in two years and campaign again and I’ve gotta have a Bill of Rights if I expect to ever get re-elected.” And so I keep saying… in this year when we’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, we should say a little word of thanks to an oddly drawn district in Virginia, because it was very instrumental in getting it to us.
We’ve had a lot of news in the last couple of days about the 11th Amendment, that did not pass at that time, the one that prohibits members of Congress from raising their own pay until the intervening election occurs. That has just gotten ratified by the last state the day before yesterday… 202 years later. Now, that’ll be work for lawyers – figuring out whether that’s legal or not, to have a 202-year time frame for the ratification of an amendment. I figure if the answer is yes, we might get women in the Constitution if they have enough time. [audience claps]
That tradition of playing politics, of doing things for political reasons, has brought us the best we have today by way of women’s rights, which was Title 7 of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. And the reason that the women was added, the reason that the discrimination by sex was added to that title was because Jim Eastland, the Senator from Mississippi who was trying to kill the bill, figured that people might be foolish enough to vote for equal rights for minorities but they certainly wouldn’t be foolish enough to vote for equal rights for women. And, uh, so he figured by putting ‘sex,’ the word ‘sex’ in the bill, that it would kill the bill. And instead of course what’s happened is the greatest document that women have today to prevent discrimination in the workplace.
So, what I’m saying here is that what seems to be politics, what seems to be fecklessness, what seems to be inability to get things done, really often comes into great meaning as time goes by. It’s not only that we heap this kind of disgrace on members of the legislative branch, on the lawmakers. The White House heaps it on them, they heap it on themselves. Every member of Congress runs against the Congress. But again, in going back in my history I find it ‘twas always thus. The First Congress was a riot. You know, the first thing they did was have a huge fight about pay. Well, so much has changed. Then the Senate, which was meeting behind closed doors, they wouldn’t let the press in… they decided that the only way… this was John Adams’ big idea… that the only way that anybody was going to have any respect for the President of the United States and other great office holders is if they had titles, titles of royalty. So the Senate was locked up debating titles, and the one that Adams had put forward for the President was, His Highness the President of the United States and the Protector of the Rights of Same.
So quickly the House of Representatives started making great fun of the Senate calling John Adams, “his rotundity,” and the papers also ridiculed them wildly… and it was that Congress that passed the Bill of Rights. So, what I’m saying is, is that a few centuries later, after those farmers and lawyers that met behind closed doors in Philadelphia – keeping us out again – it a, I think is a remarkable institution that they created. I think that the legislative branch is the place that brings together this incredibly diverse country. It does it messily, it does it slowly, it does it kicking and screaming all the way. Leadership is not easy. Followership is much easier. But, I think that when you look around this country, and see its diversity… its diversity of topography, its diversity of what it produces, of what it uses, its diversity, of course, of region, and religion, and race… and look at it today, in comparison with what’s happening in Europe, where when ‘bad daddy’ Soviet Union disappeared and the authoritarianism went away, the ancient battles just came right back to the fore. hundreds of years later in many cases for people to be battling it out instead of bringing it together. And it is, it is that legislative branch where it all does have to come together. Where the people from the energy using states have to make deals with the people from the energy using or producing states… where the agricultural states have to make deals with the urban, primarily urban, states. And those deals are laws that govern our country and bring it together and allow it to function. And obviously there is a great deal more to do. And there’s a great deal more to do in making the laws apply equally to everyone and include all of us in the same fashion. But I think the place to do it, and I want to encourage you, is in the political arena. Take advantage of it, use the anger that’s out there right now at this moment, these calls for changes, and come on, come on and join us. Bring your knowledge of the Constitution and your dedication to it. Bring your credentials. Come on, we’re waiting for you.[audience clapping]
About this podcast
The U of M Radio on Your Historic Dial podcast is produced by University Archives and Libraries Communications for your enjoyment. Subscribe or download on iTunes or GooglePlay so you don’t miss another moment of historic Minnesota radio.
Recordings were digitized in 2016 in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.
—Rebecca Toov is the collections archivist for the University of Minnesota Archives.