Political commentator Cokie Roberts promotes her new book with a lecture and charity event.
As the daughter of longtime Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Roberts was shuffled between New Orleans and Washington, D.C., during her youth. After her father’s airplane disappeared over Alaska in 1972 (it was never found), her mother, Lindy, was elected to Congress, later serving as ambassador to the Vatican. Roberts is married to political writer Steve Roberts, and the two publish a syndicated column together.
Roberts has written several books about early American women who were an important part of the country’s founding years. Her latest is Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.
Recently on the Stephanopoulos program you were scoffing at Barack Obama’s talk of bringing about real change.
And should he? McCain was saying the same thing: “We’re going to change the way Washington works.” Well, the truth is, a president can’t do that. A president can’t do that for good reason, which is because the founders were very intent on making it impossible for a president to do that. That’s why we have this cumbersome system of checks and balances. They were very keen that they not have a king. So the idea that anybody of any party after any kind of election can come in and change everything is just not in the cards. The closest we’ve come in recent years is Ronald Reagan in 1981, when he surprised everybody not only by his landslide but also by taking the Senate for the first time in decades. . . . Even then he was not really able to get anything accomplished on his agenda until he was shot. I doubt that either of these guys wants to be shot. But that was part of Reagan’s success. His popularity became so immense in the way he handled the shooting that Congress got scared of him for about a year.
Do the Democrats seem to shoot themselves in the foot more often than Republicans do?
(Laughs) Well, yes, they tend to, yes. But part of that has to do with who is being the more diverse party. That’s changing for Republicans. But the Democrats have so many different constituencies and points of view. It used to be fine to say one thing in one part of town and another thing in another part of town. Now you say something, it’s on YouTube and everybody knows it. Barack Obama is talking in San Francisco in terms that San Fransiscans can sit there and nod over their glasses of chardonnay and agree with, you know?
I was surprised from reading a couple of your books that First Ladies played such vital roles in early America.
Very influential, very powerful, and very involved in politics and policy. There’s been this myth that it’s some 20th-century phenomenon started by Eleanor Roosevelt, but when you do the research, you see that’s just simply not the case.
I was amazed that Martha Washington was on the battlefield with George.
Right, year in and year out. And then lobbying for veterans’ benefits because she had been there with those guys.
Why did Britain elect a woman as prime minister two decades before the United States has a viable female candidate for president?
I think it has everything to do with the parliamentary system versus the presidential system. In a parliamentary system, you become the leader of your party and your party gets elected, and it’s nowhere near the same kind of singular election that we have for president, where we vote for one person and we vote for that person based on judgement and character. It’s different from the parliamentary system. Now, that’s changing to some degree. The prime minister of Great Britain is a more personal election than it used to be. It’s choosing the party, not a person. In this country, if I had a penny for every time somebody tells me in a presidential vote they voted for the man, not the party, I’d be a very rich woman.
Do you have a favorite First Lady?
Well, they’re all interesting in different ways. I suspect that the one that would be the most fun to sit down and have dinner with would be Dolly Madison because she was such a “people person.” She clearly made anybody she engaged feel like the most special person in the room. . . . I guess I met all of them since Eisenhower. I had a very special relationship with Lady Bird Johnson. Clearly, that was the one that I loved best, because I knew her very well and she helped raise me. I’m very fond of Laura Bush. I think she’s one of the most interesting and capable people I know. And I think Hillary Clinton did a terrific job.
Lady Bird helped raise you?
Yeah, sure. It was a small town and the political families were all close. . . . She was always an incredibly loving and caring person. When my mother ran for Congress, Mrs. Johnson said to her, “Well, Lindy, of course I’m with you all the way, but how are you going to do it without a wife?” Because, of course, they ran their husbands’ campaigns, their husbands’ offices.
Any memories of Earl Long [infamous Louisiana politician and brother of Huey Long]? Did he and your father have showdowns?
Oh, absolutely. That was the story of our lives. [My father] was very much the leader of the opposition. My father got into politics [to oppose] Huey Long’s successors, who were very corrupt. Earl very much opposed him, particularly when he ran for governor in 1951. My father was very much in support of civil rights.
Was Louisiana more segregated than D.C. when you were growing up?
It was, but Washington was also a segregated town, it was not really Northern. Then there’s the famous Kennedy line: It was a city of Northern charm with Southern efficiency. &
Roberts will give a lecture and sign copies of her new book on Tuesday, May 13, 4 p.m., at Samford University’s Brock Recital Hall. She will also be the featured author for The Literacy Council’s first 2008 Signature Series event that evening at 6:30 p.m., held at a private residence. The private cocktail reception will benefit the Literacy Council. Tickets are $600 per couple for the entire series, $350 per individual for the entire series, or $150 for a single event. Priority is given to those who purchase tickets for the entire series. For more information call The Literacy Council at 205-326-1925 or 888-448-7323 or log onto www.literacy-council.org.