Q&A: Famed journalist Cokie Roberts answers questions about the Trump presidency
GREAT BARRINGTON — Famed journalist and broadcaster Cokie Roberts delivered the ninth annual Mona Sherman Memorial Lecture on Wednesday evening in Great Barrington. The lecture is a presentation of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program based out of Berkshire Community College for continuing education for older residents in the area.
Eagle reporter Eoin Higgins sat down with Roberts on Wednesday to talk about the lecture series, women's history in America, and current events.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q.: What about your career path makes you a good fit for the OLLI lecture?
A.: Well, first of all I'm an older person! But I have been, myself, involved in lifelong learning.
As a reporter, you learn something new every day. That's what's fun about it.
I have also, later in life, turned to writing history books, which is a whole different field. And one that I've enjoyed enormously.
And that doesn't just involve the books themselves and the research, it involves you in a whole different community. So history is now something that I'm very much enmeshed in. It's a late in life change in career, while still doing what I've always done.
Q. What made you decide to write versions of your books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty for children?
A.: The two books I wrote basically start in the lead up to the American Revolution and go through the inauguration of John Quincy Adams— it's literally the next generation, so that made it easy.
When I did those books, the publisher immediately wanted children's books out of both of them.
It took a very long time to do because children's book illustrators are very busy people. I didn't know this at all, they have a long lead time. So getting from the idea of writing the books and contracting the books to the actual books took quite a few years, but finally a couple of years ago Diane Good, who is a spectacular illustrator, did Founding mothers and we had a tremendous response.
Going around to schools talking to schools talking to kids about history is thrilling, because they are kids and they are so dying to learn this stuff.
Q.When you said last September that there were "whispers" about replacing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who did the party have in mind? This was a major moment in the campaign.
A.: That was they day she fell, collapsed. It was on September 11th, remember. She was at the September 11th Memorial and she just fell getting into the van.
And then they did typical Clinton campaign stuff— they tried to hide things, they whisked her off to Chelsea's house, I mean, come on.
The person everyone was talking about to replace her was [former Vice President Joe] Biden. You know, if Joe Biden had run in the initial campaign, he wouldn't have done well. He was old, he was the Vice President, people were looking for change.
This is all hypothetical, but if he had come in at the end there, it would have been a very different story. People were kind of floundering around about Trump and he would have been the safety.
Q. Do you think Trump will make it to the end of the year?
A.: Yes, I do. I think that all this talk about impeachment and removal and him stepping down is just talk, and as [Illinois Senator] Dick Durbin, I think, said, Democrats wanted him impeached on November 10th.
The truth is if there's anything there— which we don't know— you have to go through a process.
And, good lord, the process is certainly in place. You have four Congressional committees and the special prosecutor to prosecute. If in fact there is any reason that he has not been faithful to the office, we will know.
What happens is, people start covering stuff up.
If he said to [former FBI Director James] Comey, drop the Mike Flynn investigation, that's a problem.
Q. Trump has called the media the "enemy of the people," threatened to "open up libel laws" and even reportedly asked the former FBI director to throw journalists in jail for publishing leaks. Has the media been doing a good job checking him and can it survive the constant assault by Trump and his supporters who disparage as "Fake News" anything critical of the president and his administration?
A. The campaign was one place where we have a lot of answering to do. In particular broadcast media, because he was good ratings. People would put him on repeatedly, have him call in on the telephone— which we never used to do, unless it was someone under arrest some place.
It gave him an awful lot of airtime. The numbers that people have come up with are in the billions of dollars in free media time.
Then, post-election, the media stepped up their game. And I think you're seeing better reporting and more careful reporting than you've seen in years. Nobody's mailing it in. There's a tremendous amount of effort in making sure we get the story and get it right.
Some of this is because of the attacks on the media. You have to make it clear why this is unacceptable and why people need it. And some of it is that we're dealing with a very different presidency than we've seen before, and it needs to be explained.
As far as the charge of fake news, we do have to answer it. And the way you answer it is with real news. Now I don't think there's such a thing as fake news, if it's news it's news and if it's fake it's fake. But that's strongly out there and there's a tremendous sense out there that you cannot trust us. That's why we have to go out there and put one foot in front of another and do the stories and do them right.
At the end of the day, you let the chips fall as they may and hope that people see it and accept it.
Being disliked is one thing. It's never been our job to be liked.
Being distrusted is another thing altogether and it's something we need to take seriously.
Q. Trump's supporters distrust and vehemently dislike the media. We've seen some reporting recently that some supporters have this real impulse to trust Trump no matter what and to ignore the bad stories. Do you think there's a breaking point coming?
A.: That totally depends. If something happens where people say that's it, I can't keep giving him excuses— or if they start to feel it in their personal lives. If Medicaid cuts really do kick in and people say, "Oh wait, this isn't what I voted for," then yes.
But for right now there's a very strong sense that, "We got our guy, we beat all of the fancy people, the media, the politicians, the movie stars, and now those creeps are not letting him succeed."
So if in fact it reached the point of driving him out of office, it would be seen that way. It would be a recipe for such disaffection from the country. I think it would be very dangerous.
Let it play out. Let people see if this is what they voted for. The numbers today are just astounding. His approval rating is at 35 percent, those who think he's abusing power is at 56 percent.
Independents have gone off him entirely. But his voters are still very supportive. And I think you have to be respectful of that.
Q. We haven't seen anything like Trump before. With his dismissal of tradition and protocol and the fact the country is incredibly divided, do you see this as an irreconcilable problem for the presidency and the country?
A.: It's a real problem. And I don't see how we get around it, how we get past it.
The polarization is enormous and real. I don't know how it gets fixed unless politicians feel some heat from voters saying, "fix it." That's the only way it really does get fixed.
You are seeing in some races now some attempts from moderates to get in. I think this healthcare bill the Republicans passed in the House is likely to be so damaging to them. Now, it's going to be hard to defeat them because of how the seats are drawn. But if other Republicans get in, that could make a difference. So it's finding the people to run, which is not easy, and getting the Americans who all say, "we hate this, we want them to get their act together," have them mean it and be engaged and punish people for not getting their act together.
Q. One idea is to reduce the presidency to a figurehead.
A.: The concept of the president is always changing depending on who is president.
When Jimmy Carter was president, everyone was saying it's too big a job for one man, you need to divide up the presidency and have a head of state and a head of government. Then Ronald Reagan became president and that conversation stopped.
So there is always a re-examination of the presidency.
Has the presidency become more powerful since World War Two? Absolutely.
Was that removed from what the founders had in mind? Absolutely.
But in the modern world where all the media attention is focused on one person and where you have this global society where you have to negotiate with people, I don't see a way to make the presidency less powerful.
Now, if you ended up with a Democratic Congress, you'd have a president who is checked more. And we've seen that in the last several presidencies. We've seen a president come in with one party rule and in the midterms the voters say that's not what they had in mind.
I think our midterms are a vote of confidence.
Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.
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