There is an old saying in the Nation’s Capital, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
The exception to that truism would be to have known Cokie Roberts.
Even if you were a young congressional press secretary, as I was back in the day, she would treat you with grace and respect, despite the fact she was part of Washington’s political and journalistic royalty. She knew the trials and tribulations of the nameless who kept the Congress going, and she expressed her appreciation by treating them with professionalism and compassion.
While working at ABC News, you could see the up-close and personal Cokie, who worked incredibly hard and was as good a competitor as anyone, yet she never let her position or knowledge of the inner nooks and crannies of Washington undermine her manners nor her commitment to great journalism.
Contemporary Washington and a modern news business often driven by technology rather than judgment doesn’t have a modern version of Cokie Roberts in its midst, and that is a loss to us all. She saw her fellow citizens with responsibilities of power as who they are, flawed, fragile, ambitious, dedicated human beings trying to drive the nation forward because, well, its our country, and citizens have to drive it. That didn’t mean she held her reporting punches, but they were often delivered with a measure of context and knowledge that truly informed rather than simply impressed.
In her universe of friends I was but a speck, but every time we spoke she made you feel welcomed and witnessed, no matter your station in the political pecking order at the time. She knew the young press aide might end up working for someone more important, or hold a critical job in a future administration. So while many famous people are expressing their sadness at her passing, all across Washington and across the country there are many many people whose heart she touched in the midst of their professional life who are missing her this moment. My last long conversation with her was at a wedding, where we spoke not of politics but of family; her advice on children I treasure to this day.
There is an art to the kind of journalism she practiced, the ability to develop and hold sources and relationships in the highly transient nature of politics and government. She worked in a more personal era, where the elected and the covered were not filtered by the system, or simply dumped unvarnished into the public space through Twitter.
That is truly a great loss for us all, because that intimate dynamic not only helped the reporting, it helped governing. Relationships and conversations, not Tweets and Likes, helped to kneed the political dough of debate and dialogue, created a safe space for different ideas and perspectives, and brought people together.
Cokie had advantages over other journalists, her family was steeped in American politics and history. She had access that others might not have enjoyed. And she had first hand knowledge of the personal inner workings of the Capital City unavailable to other reporters. Yet these gifts just made her hard work more formidable, her questions more precise and to the point, and her judgement more nuanced.
Many big voices in journalism, politics, and government are mourning the loss of Cokie Roberts this week. This is one small American voice that is adding to that chorus.
Scott Williams, a Utah native, is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C.