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Journalist, author Cokie Roberts talks books, women and free press

Cokie Roberts
Cokie Roberts Provided photo

A lot of people have listened to Cokie Roberts report on politics for more than four decades.

And for nearly 20 years, folks have read Roberts’ historical accounts of women who have played important roles in American history.

Roberts, a political commentator for ABC News and frequent analyst for National Public Radio, has won three Emmys during a journalism career that spans more than 40 years. She is in the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and was named one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting by the American Women in Radio and Television.

But it’s her role as a New York Times bestselling author that brings her to Columbia this week.

Roberts, who has written eight books, will speak Friday at the Deckle Edge Literary Festival.

Her books include “We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters,” “Founding Mothers,” “Ladies of Liberty,” “Our Haggadah,” and “Capital Dames.”

We asked Roberts about her career, her books about women, and what she thinks about attacks on the press.

Q: What is the difference between being an author and a journalist?

Roberts: It’s not a huge difference actually. In both cases what you’re doing is learning a great deal of material and then trying to synthesize it so that it makes sense and then communicating it. The biggest difference is communicating in long form in a book whereas as a broadcaster, particularly, I communicate in short form. And also for radio and television, of course, there is the difference between orally communicating and communication only with the written word. Both have their challenges; when you’re communicating orally you can be much more expressive and you can understand if you’re trying to make a joke. But you can do much more complicated thoughts when you’re communicating with the written word, when people can go back and re-read. The one thing I do, because I have been a broadcaster for so very long, and a lot of people know my voice, I try to write in my own voice so that you can hear me talking when you’re reading what I write. And that’s actually quite hard. It’s much easier to just sort of write pretty.

Q: What made you decide to write your first book, and then children’s books?

Roberts:My first book was “We Are Our Mothers Daughters.” An editor came to me and said “please, please, please write a book.” And I kept saying “What book?” And she kept saying, “Oh, you’re bound to have a book” and I kept saying “No I don’t have a book.” And finally she said, “There are bound to be some talks you’ve given or something ” – and when she said that I realized in fact there were. So I wrote that book which is a series of essays about women’s roles both in society and as politicians, and soldiers and scientists … but also personally as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. That book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, then the desire on the part of publishers to have me do more was large.

What I write now is entirely history books. I got started on that because of my time covering Congress and politics, and history is such a huge part of that. But the history I was reading was all about the men. I wanted to know what the women were up to. So I started writing history books about women. Then the publisher just thought it was crazy not to turn them into children’s books, because the children need to know these stories.

Q: Why is it important to write about women’s roles in history?

Roberts: Their stories need to be told. First of all they’re just fundamentally interesting. They’re good stories. But it’s also true that our children need to know that the country was founded – and saved and perfected to the degree that it has been – by women as well as men, and in some cases women more than men. And that is an important story to tell. And not just the little girls. One of the things that makes me crazy is when people say to me, “well I don’t have any daughters, or granddaughters.” Well you know your grandsons can read them, too. Girls do read about men. Boys can read about women.

They need to know the whole story. You’re only reading half the story if you only talk about half the human race.

Q: You’ve written eight books. Do you have a favorite?

Roberts: No, I really don’t because they’re different from each other. The one that is the most ambitious and difficult is “Capital Dames,” but they were all different from each other.

Q: As a journalist, what do you think of recent attacks on the press?

Roberts: It’s not people, it’s the president of the United States. It’s obviously a very dangerous thing to do, because the free press and the trust in a free press is essential to a democratic society.

Q: When someone says “but President Trump isn’t saying he wants to destroy the free press,” do you still think his attack is dangerous?

Roberts: Of course, because what he’s saying, he’s calling into question the veracity and the trustworthiness of the free press, because (they are) the people who tell the truth about the fact that he is not telling the truth.

If you go

Deckle Edge Literary Festival

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday

WHERE: Various locations around downtown Columbia

AMONG FEATURED AUTHOR DISCUSSIONS: “A Conversation with Cokie Roberts,” 4 p.m. Friday at Richland Library; and “An Evening with Leonard Pitts Jr.,” author of “Grant Park,” the One Book, One Community selection, 7 p.m. Thursday at 701 Whaley.

INFO: Detailed events, schedules, locations at www.deckleedgesc.org

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