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Transcripts

Interview 1 – August 28, 2007

Johnson:
This is Kathleen Johnson interviewing Cokie Roberts, journalist for NPR [National Public Radio] and ABC News and the daughter of Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, both former Members of the U.S. House.1 The date is August 28, 2007, and the interview is taking place in the office of Cokie Roberts in the District of Columbia.
Today I would like to start off with some biographical information. To begin with, where and when were you born?
Roberts:
I was born December 27, 1943, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Johnson:
What schools did you attend before going to Wellesley?
Roberts:
I went to Sacred Heart, it’s called the—I think it’s called the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans—the Rosary and Sacred Heart here, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart [Bethesda, Maryland]. And we went to school half year in each place during the—we went to school here during the congressional session and there when Congress was not in session until—I did that through third grade. My father ran for governor when I was in third grade and lost. And at that point, we moved pretty much up here during the school year. And so from fourth grade on I went to Stone Ridge.
Johnson:
At that point, where did you live when your father was serving in the House?
Roberts:
When we were little, before the governor’s race, we lived—the part of the year that we lived here—we lived in Northwest Washington in Chevy Chase, D.C., 2911 Stevenson Place. And in New Orleans we lived in the Garden District at 1304 First Street. And then when we started spending the whole school year here, we moved to Bethesda to [address redacted], which is where I still live.
Johnson:
Generally speaking, how would you describe your life as a child of a Member of Congress?
Roberts:
My life as a child of a Member of Congress was wonderful. It was totally interesting and a lot of fun. And my father ran for Congress when he was 26 years old; and my mother was pregnant with my brother, Tommy; my sister, Barbara, was a baby; and she [my mother] was 24. So they pretty much understood that their family life and their political life were one and that there was no separating them. And if they did, either the family wouldn’t be involved in anything and never see them, or the political life would suffer, so we pretty much did everything. We went on campaign trips, we made speeches, we went to the blessing of the fleet or the opening of the headquarters. We certainly went out on Election Day and went to all the polling places and we handed out literature and we put up signs, and we tore down other people’s signs. {laughter} I mean it was very, very much an active involvement.
And when we were here, in Washington, we spent a great deal of time in the Capitol building, and we went to debates, and we knew all of the key players. They were regular people at our dinner tables. And our parents did not have the children go away when the grown-ups came. In retrospect, I’ve sometimes wondered, “What did those people think to have all these children around all the time?” But we were around, and it was great for us.
Johnson:
What do you recall about your father’s office, his congressional office in D.C.?
Roberts:
The office—the first office that my father had that I remember, maybe there was one in Cannon before my memory—but [it] was in Longworth. At that point, they were not called Cannon and Longworth. It was the Old House Office Building and the New House Office Building.2 {cell phone rings} I’m sorry.
Brief Interruption
Johnson:
You were talking about your father’s office.
Roberts:
Longworth, right. So, as I say, at that point they were not called Cannon, Longworth; there was no Rayburn. So it was the Old House Office Building and the New House Office Building, which wasn’t so bad on the House side. On the Senate side it was a problem because all the towels said “S.O.B.” {laughter} But the House side had “H.O.B.,” it was all right. And I remember the office—what I remember is kind of two big rooms. One filled with people; one, his desk. And a lot of the women who worked in my father’s office were always—and it was women—were always very attractive New Orleanians. And so it was fun. You’d come in and have a cup of coffee. I was too little to have coffee, but they always offered coffee with chicory to people. And it was, of course, a place where people worked, but it was also always a lot of fun.
Johnson:
Did you assist your father in any way in the office?
Roberts:
I would go every so often to the office and pretend to be helping, but I don’t think I ever did any real work in the office. But, unlike some other kids, I also didn’t ask anybody in the office to do any of my work. They later said that they were constantly hearing from other staff members that kids were asking to have papers typed and things like that. We didn’t do that. When my father was—when I was older, my father was in Congress pretty much—well, my father was elected in ’40 and then defeated in ’42. So when I was born, he was in the Navy, it was World War II. And then he was re-elected in ’46. So, really, all of my life my father was in—all of my conscious life—my father was in Congress [while I was] growing up, so we’re talking about different stages of my life. By the time I was in high school, I would occasionally go in and really be of some help.
Johnson:
You mentioned earlier that you spent a lot of time at the Capitol, so this would be during the 1940s and 1950s; what kind of access did you have at that point?
Roberts:
In the Capitol in the ’40s and ’50s you had complete and total access, particularly before the Puerto Rican shootings.3 That was the first kind of terror attack—of course, the first terror attack was the British in 1814—but the first modern-day terror attack. And up until that point, there was no security at all, and you had complete free run of the place, which was great. I mean, you could run around, and there were stairs that went nowhere and places that you would find that were just complete surprises and delights. The space above the old chamber, Statuary Hall now, that is one of the most interesting places on earth.4 And a little kid could get up those ladders a lot more easily. The subway to the Senate—and of course there was only one—well, in fact, there was only one Senate Office Building [Russell] when I was a little kid. And the subway was this darling little wicker number; I think they still have one on display. And I would ride it for hours. The guys would babysit me {laughter}. I felt the Capitol was completely this building that was my playground.
Johnson:
Did you have a favorite room or a favorite area? [4:00]
Roberts:
Well, the Ways and Means Committee had a room at that time that was right off of the—no, no, the Ways and Means Committee took it over, excuse me. Danny Rostenkowski took over that room. There was a room called the Members’ Family Room that was on the second floor, right off of the House Gallery. And that was a great room because it was basically a bathroom, but it had, in addition to stalls, it had a big living room area that had couches and desks and places where you really could make yourself at home for the day. And there was always an attendant in there who was a nice person, and that was the place that I would consider sort of the hang-out place. And other kids would be there, too. I mean, if there was a big piece of legislation, other kids would be there too, so you would see each other and get to know each other on days like that.
Johnson:
Were there any sort of organized activities for the children of Members or staff?
Roberts:
Every so often the delegation would have a party, something like that. And the state societies would have things because the state societies started as home away from home for the people who were here from various parts of the country. So those would be somewhat organized. But I think most of our contact was ad hoc.
Johnson:
And you mentioned that at times there would be a group of you, a group of children.
Roberts:
At times there’d be a bunch of us because there’d be something our parents thought was significant. Or it was a late night session, and it was fun to come down and have dinner in the [Members’] Dining Room all together and hang out.5 And the older kids would watch the session or not, and the little kids would run around.
Johnson:
Were there any children in particular or families that you remember spending time with?
Roberts:
Well, we spent a lot of time, as I say, with the Louisiana delegation. So we knew Pam and Kay Long [daughters of Senator Russell Long of Louisiana] and then Dawn Hébert, [Felix] Eddie Hébert’s daughter. And those were sort of, you know, in the delegation. And then we always knew the Gores, we always knew the Johnsons. Those were kids we always knew growing up. My sister and Nancy Gore [daughter of Al Gore, Sr.] were about the same age. Chris Dodd [son of Thomas Dodd] I got to know quite well in high school. He was the best friend of my boyfriend’s little brother {laughter}. He’s now—he is exactly, to the day, five months younger than me. And I know this because he and my sister shared a birthday. He has children the ages of my grandchildren, which just cracks me up. Some of them younger than my grandchildren.
Johnson:
Did you get to know any of the Pages that were in the House at the time?
Roberts:
I didn’t get to know Pages as a little kid. When I was in high school I got to know Pages. And then as we hung around, we certainly got to know my father’s Pages. The only one I really remember is Jan. But I’m sure that if I met others, I would remember them.
Johnson:
Even though there was a gender restriction at the time, up until the 1970s, was this something that you were interested in, becoming a Page?6
Roberts:
Never occurred to me to become a Page any more than it would’ve occurred to me to become a priest. I mean, it was just totally off limits to [8:00] girls. My son was a Page and met his wife—she was a Page. That’s how they met. But the notion of girls being Pages was so off-the-charts that when we first came back from Greece, and it was the first time I had lived in Washington in 11 years, one of the first magazine pieces that Steve [Roberts] and I wrote together was for Seventeen about female Pages. It was newsworthy.
Johnson:
So that was in the 1970s?
Roberts:
That would’ve been ’77–’78.
Johnson:
One thing that we’ve noticed that some families did together or Members did annually was the Congressional Baseball Game.7 Did you attend this?
Roberts:
I don’t remember the Congressional Baseball Game. There were picnics. There were picnics we went to. The Cherry Blossom Festival—often the various girls from the states would be princesses in the Cherry Blossom Festival. And, as now, various lobbying groups, which were not as organized then as they are now, but would have some event like having Members to the circus, that kind of thing.
Johnson:
Building on the idea of the open access in the Capitol, how would you describe the atmosphere or the culture of the House during the 1940s and 1950s?
Roberts:
You mean of the Members or of the building?
Johnson:
The Members—and just in general, the Members. And also the building.
Roberts:
Well, of course, the culture of the Members in the mid-to late 1940s was very different from earlier in the decade. We had these two enormous—this is not my memory now; now I’m talking about what I know as a journalist—but we had these two enormous classes of ’46 and ’48. Huge freshmen classes—118—one a Republican class, one a Democratic class.8 But what made them so different was that they were World War II veterans, and they were very conscious World War II veterans. Self-conscious. They ran as the men who went, not the men who sent. And that made for a very forward-looking, patriotic, bipartisan, yeasty sort of place. The country could do anything. And that was very different from the Congress before the war, which was still suffering in the Depression and feeling depressed about the country. But I have firmly come to believe in the years since the ’80s, ’90s, on, as we have come to decry the partisanship, which I do decry, I have firmly come to believe that that period of the late ’40s, ’50s, into the ’60s was aberrant rather than normal. I’ve now read enough and written enough American history to see it that way because we have been a very partisan nation over our history, and I think that period was deeply affected by everyone going to war together. And they had all served together; they had all had the same experience. The country had all suffered and sacrificed together, and I think that we were all on the same side. And there was a sense that the true enemy was some dictator abroad, not the guy across the aisle. And so I think that that was—that brought people together and that that commonality of [12:00] purpose also made it possible for people to get things done in a way that has been more difficult in years since then.
Johnson:
You mentioned a while back that you sat in the gallery and listened to some of the speeches. Were there any in particular that you remember, especially about your father or a speech that he might have made?
Roberts:
Well, my father was a somewhat famed orator. And, of course, we don’t really have orators anymore, which has got its plusses and minuses. {laughter} But when he would speak, of course nothing was broadcast, so you’d have to come to the chamber to hear somebody, and it would kind of circulate through the office buildings—“Boggs is up.” So people would come to the galleries to listen because he was such a fine orator.
And, of course, the speech that was his absolute—the speech that sort of was the capstone of his career in some way—was the speech on voting rights in 1965, which he had no intention of giving.9 The night before, we had been sitting on the patio at the house in Bethesda where I live, and we were just driving him completely nuts telling him that he had to speak. And he was essentially saying, “Give me a break. I’m going to vote for it, okay? I’m going to put my political career on the line and vote for this.” He was Majority Whip at the time.10 And my then boyfriend, now husband, and my mother and I were just giving him unshirted grief. And the next day, he was in the chamber and a fellow Louisianan, Joe Waggonner, was up and saying there was no prejudice in Louisiana, and he [my father] just couldn’t stand it. {laughter} And so he got up and made one of the best speeches of his life. But we weren’t there for it because he had said he wasn’t going to do it. {laughter}
Johnson:
I read about that in your mother’s memoirs, and she had said that you in particular were asking him to take a stand.11
Roberts:
My mother has all this about all these relatives being there. But we were there.
Johnson:
Did you attend any special events at the Capitol? State of the Union addresses or…12
Roberts:
Yes. Yes. But my earliest memory of the Capitol, I mean firm memory, was Opening Day. And I love Opening Day. I still love Opening Day. There are all these little kids on the floor in their Christmas velvets. And there is always—I mean, watch for it from here on out, you’ll never be able to go without seeing this now—there’s always some baby in the arms of a man that that baby has never seen before in its life, right? That man has been running for Congress through that baby’s life. {laughter} And the baby will be sort of happy for a minute and then look up and realize that it is in the arms of a stranger and let out a wail, a mighty wail. It is so funny, and it is invariable. And either there’s an older sister on the floor that takes over, or the young Member particularly will look up to his wife in the gallery going {distressed groan}. And she will come down to the Speaker’s Lobby and grab the baby.
But I remember that day very well, and I must’ve been—it must’ve been [16:00] 1949 because in December of 1946, which would’ve been right after my father had been re-elected, my mother had a baby who died three days later. So we did not come up in January of 1947. My mother was ill, and we stayed in New Orleans for a while. So, it had to be two years after that. So I would’ve just turned five, and I remember it vividly. I mean, I was standing—sitting or standing—on the floor, and they called the roll for Speaker. And everybody stood up and said, “Mr. [Sam] Rayburn, Mr. [Joe] Martin. Mr. Rayburn, Mr. Martin.” And I thought they were calling the roll of Members. Remember, I had just turned five like a week before. {laughter} This is an odd childhood. And I turned to my father, and I said, “There are an awful lot of Mr. Rayburns and Mr. Martins.” I guess they said, “Rayburn, Martin;” they wouldn’t have said, “Mr.,” but I said, “Mr. Rayburn, Mr. Martin.” And it took him a minute to catch on to what my confusion was, and then he explained what was going on. And I always remembered it and then when Mr. Sam died, I remember writing to my father and saying I was wrong, there weren’t…
But then, 1,000 years later, I was covering the State of the Union, and I was standing in Statuary Hall, and there was a new shot—a new camera angle that we had never used before—and it was down the center aisle at knee height. And I had this incredible qualm because it all just came rushing back. That was my earliest memory of the chamber, and there it was at the right height for me to see it.
But I still have moments in the Capitol where I will turn a corner, and something will just come rushing back. And I’m 63 years old. And there’ll be times when I’ll turn a corner and sort of half expect to see my father. So it’s a very—a place redolent with memories, to put it mildly.
Johnson:
I came across a story that mentioned that you had—I think it was several birthday parties in the Capitol.
Roberts:
In the Speaker’s Dining Room.
Johnson:
Can you describe one of those parties?
Roberts:
Well, you know, your friends would—it was just a fun place to have a party. People could come, and of course the staff was always so sweet to everybody. And a lot of the waiters in the House Restaurant would also do parties at our house in later years. So we really got to know them very well. In fact, when I moved back to Washington and started—and I resisted covering Congress, but then it sort of became ridiculous—and so I started covering Congress, and I discovered that Walter Little was the—whatever they called him, the clerk or something of the Ways and Means Committee. And he would sit on the door of the Ways and Means Committee. And he turned out to be just an absolutely invaluable source because all those tax bills were happening in the [Ronald W.] Reagan administration, and he knew everything that was happening and when it was happening and all that. And nobody knew where I was getting all this stuff.
Well, the reason Walter and I were thick as thieves was because once we [20:00] had committed a crime together, which was that my parents had—this is now high school—but my parents had this annual, enormous garden party. And it had started as an 80th birthday party for Tom O’Brien, the ranking Democratic Member of the Ways and Means Committee; [Wilbur] Mills was chairman. Tom O’Brien was called “Blind Tom” O’Brien because he was sheriff of Cook County during Al Capone’s heyday. And people didn’t understand why he was called “Blind Tom,” and they would write things like, “Oh, it’s so wonderful that a man with your handicap has gone so far.” {laughter} “Blind Tom” loved the races. And we had this enormous cake that had a racetrack on it. And it was in a box, Walter and I thought, and we each picked up an end of the box to move the cake so he could set the bar. And it turned out to not have a middle. So we dropped the cake. {laughter} So then we had to quickly repair the cake. I mean, the party’s about to begin; he’s setting up the bar. So my job was to—I remember exactly what I was wearing—it was a green and white check dress that had a big skirt. It was that era. And my job was to sort of hold out my skirt and hide the cake while he got a glass of hot water and a knife and patched up the racetrack. And we got away with it.
Johnson:
No one noticed?
Roberts:
No one noticed, and he and I were sworn to secrecy for life. And who knew that 15 years later it would pay off?
And Ernest Petinaud, who was the headwaiter at the House Restaurant and was a really wonderful man.13 He was a vaudevillian, literally, and had a wonderful singing voice but was also just knowledgeable beyond belief—knew everything about the workings of Congress, knew every Member, knew all their families, all of that. That’s why the Members’ Dining Room is named for him. But it was interesting, at his funeral—he died during a recess—and he had retired many years before, so it wasn’t like he was still up and serving. But it was interesting to see who was there. Tip [Thomas] O’Neill, Bob [Robert] Dole, Bud [Clarence] Brown, [Jr.], who’s a congressional brat, and me, and then his contemporaries. But it was—it tells you something about someone. Told me a lot about Bob Dole and Tip O’Neill that they were there.
Johnson:
So did you spend a lot of time in the [Members’] Dining Room?
Roberts:
Spent a lot of time in the [Members’] Dining Room.
Johnson:
Did you have access to the cloakrooms?
Roberts:
No. No; I did not have access to the cloakrooms. When I was grown and covering Congress, I was in the Speaker’s Lobby, but never had access. My Page kids had access to the cloakroom and were very useful {laughter}. That was a good summer.
Johnson:
What year was that?
Roberts:
Let’s see—the summer before his junior year of high school because by then they had regularized it all. He graduated in ’86—so ’85—must’ve been ’84.
Johnson:
Did you have the opportunity to get to know any of the reporters who covered Congress before?
Roberts:
Again, the Louisiana people. Edgar Allen Poe, who was here forever, and [24:00] before—oh, shoot.14 Paul—again, this would be in my mother’s book—Paul Tipton. I think that’s right. It was the [New Orleans] Times and the Picayune at that point, it was not…But then again, later, when I was older and my father was Whip, D. B. Hardeman, who had come from Mr. Sam’s office to the Whip’s office, he had a regular seminar in the evenings after work.15 And he had reporters and aides and a lot of people who went on to become scholars of Congress or great reporters were there. One of them was Bob Novak, who was at the Wall Street Journal at the time. Oh, gosh, names—but I have them because a lot of them went on to do this Encyclopedia of Congress.16 Don Bacon. I have to look—I’ll look at the list. But so at that point, yes. I mean, when I was in college.
Johnson:
Did you spend any time in the press galleries?
Roberts:
No. We would walk through the press galleries because it was a handy way across. And you always had a sense of the press galleries because there was only—I guess there was the radio gallery by then, but the only one I had consciousness of was the print gallery.17 And you certainly had a sense of it; there they all were. And it was such a different-looking part of the chamber.
And one of the big things was when I—again, this is a totally weird story—my big thing on my seventh birthday…I remember waking up, and I was in New Orleans because it was Christmastime and getting up and saying, “I’m seven, now I can go into the public gallery.” Because until then, you were only allowed in the family gallery, which I thought was just insulting. And I was conducting tours of the Capitol at that point for people, and I wasn’t allowed in the public gallery, which I just—I’m still kind of irritated about. {laughter} So, my big excitement at turning seven was that I was allowed into the public gallery.
Johnson:
Who did you conduct tours for, constituents of your father’s?
Roberts:
Constituents. You know, coming up here was a big deal. To make the trip to Washington—this is before there was regular air travel—people would either drive or take a train. It was a very big deal to get here. So when constituents would come up, they would come to the house for dinner, or sometimes they would stay with us. That wasn’t great because that would involve me moving out of my room. {laughter} But, yes, we’d show them around, and often it was I who showed them around. I knew the place well, and I didn’t mind.
Johnson:
A colleague of mine mentioned a story he had heard from your mother that at one point she was giving a tour in the Rotunda, and you pointed out Pocahontas in a painting.18
Roberts:
Oh, right, this has to do with this—you know, in the Rotunda there’s that awful painting of the arrival of the Mayflower. And my mother would grandly say that we were descended from this sickly, horrible little boy in [28:00] that awful painting. And nearby, there’s that painting of the baptism of Pocahontas, where she’s all in white and gorgeous and all that. And apparently I said, “I don’t want anything to do with him. I want to be descended from her—she’s the one I want.” And it must’ve had a tremendous impact on me because her baptismal name was Rebecca, and I became bound and determined to name my first girl Rebecca and would interview dates on the subject. And my daughter is named Rebecca. {laughter}
Johnson:
When you mentioned being home for Christmas, that made me think of a story I came across in an oral history done with your father back in the ’60s, and it was a Christmas Eve session in 1963, so it was shortly after President [John] Kennedy’s assassination. And Lyndon Johnson, President Johnson, called the Members back to the House for a vote, and your father was talking about this, and he also said that he [President Johnson] threw a party for the Members because it was Christmas Eve. So you would’ve been in college at the time—I didn’t know if you remembered this—if your father talked about this event because it certainly was unusual.19
Roberts:
Yeah. I’m surprised it was Christmas Eve, but I remember—I’ve listened to the Johnson tapes on this, so I know what you’re talking about. I don’t remember being here for Christmas until my first child was one or like two. We would always go down for Christmas, but maybe that year was an exception; I just don’t remember. But my father—we were often here when other families weren’t because they didn’t move here or something. So we did entertain Members all the time—stray Members.
Brief Interruption
Johnson:
Okay, we’re back on tape now.
Roberts:
So my parents would often have people over, and that, again, that was totally bipartisan. There was never any sense that “Oh, just the Democrats are coming over.”
Johnson:
You mentioned Mr. Sam—Speaker Sam Rayburn—several times, and your mother in her memoirs and in other sources has said that he was a frequent guest at your house. Do you remember any of these dinners specifically? What do you recall about Rayburn?
Roberts:
Oh, yeah. Mr. Sam was around all the time. He was really a surrogate grandfather. And he would call at the last minute and ask to be invited to dinner. And that was fine. I mean, there was always enough food. And he was, again, one of those people that I guess just didn’t mind us being around because we were certainly around.
I remember one time coming in, as I alluded to earlier, this was the era of hoop skirts or crinolines and all that. And I must’ve been about 11 years old, and I came into the den and he said, “How many?” And I said, “What?” He said, “How many?” I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Sam, how many what?” He said, “How many petticoats do you have on?” Then I started counting, and he said, “Well, my great-nieces wouldn’t go out of the house with fewer than 16.” But he was always around and always very gentle. I know that his reputation is somewhat gruff, but that was not my experience with him. And my mother tells a true story about him presiding over the burial of my chicken, which he graciously did when my brother was being a jerk, {laughter} as brothers are wont to be.20
Johnson:
What do you recall about some of the dinner conversations?
Roberts:
The dinner conversations with the—when the Members were there, the other Members were there—were political, but I don’t remember us getting into mega-arguments with our parents when they were there. Maybe we did, though. But I don’t remember any knockdown drag-outs when other Members of Congress were there. I think we probably saved those for {laughter} entre famille. But we always talked politics, and we totally expressed our opinions. I mean, there was no question about that. And there were—I mean, I obviously don’t remember the ’48 debates on medical care, but I certainly remember quite well—I was out of school by then—the Medicare debate. We were always in the middle of it. In ’57, the Southern Manifesto, we were all in the middle of all that stuff.21 And I just remember them being very political conversations.
The only kind of embarrassing moment that I apparently inflicted on my parents, which I do have some memory of, was I was about nine and someone had given me a Bible for my confirmation. And at least I prefaced this question—and at this point, we weren’t at the table because there were too many people, there wasn’t enough room. And I had already gone upstairs, and I came downstairs, and they were all at the table. And I did preface the question by saying, “I’ve been reading the Bible,” which was good, because my question was, “What’s a concubine?” {laughter} And these men are just losing it, right.
Johnson:
Who was there; do you remember?
Roberts:
No, no. I don’t, but they were—they all looked the same to me. {laughter} [4:00] They were a whole bunch of red-faced, heavy men who just were waiting to see how my father was going to deal with this one.
Johnson:
Besides Speaker Rayburn, who were some of the other frequent guests?
Roberts:
Regulars? Again, anybody from Louisiana. Jamie Whitten from Mississippi. There was a bunch of people who—I’d have to actually look at some directories to remember their names—but there were some regulars, and they tended to be people whose families weren’t here [in Washington, D.C.].
Johnson:
Okay. Was Lyndon Johnson a typical guest?
Roberts:
Oh, they were. The Johnson family would come, absolutely. I mean, the families knew each other quite well.
Johnson:
Going back to Speaker Rayburn for a minute—do you have a favorite story about him? One that might not be published, something personal that you remember.
Roberts:
Well, I mean, the ones that I’ve just told you. I just have a sense of him as being a warm and constant presence. But the story my mother tells that I just love of after the lights came back on after the war is so significant because I remember this during the first Persian Gulf War, the lights going off. And it’s a terrible moment when the lights go off at the Capitol. And the lights coming back on was just something that was really significant at the end of the war, and him [Speaker Rayburn] walking out and seeing her standing there looking up at the dome and saying, “I know, darling, it really is a special thing.” And that’s something I feel very strongly. Looking, particularly at sort of that blue time at night when the dome is all lit up, it still gives me goosebumps, and that’s a good thing. And if that fourth plane had hit the dome on September 11, 2001, that would’ve been a terrible thing.
Johnson:
In one of your books—since we’re talking more about your mother at this point— We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, you wrote about your mother’s active role that she played in your father’s congressional career.22 Can you provide a few examples of some of the things that she did?
Roberts:
Yeah. She worked in his office, both offices, so she really pretty much ran constituent services. And because Louisiana—up until the ’60s really, or really even beyond that—was a one-party state, the factions inside the Democratic Party were numerous, and at various times Daddy would be supported by all of them, thankfully, so you couldn’t choose a campaign manager from one faction or another. So Mamma was his campaign manager, which also turned out to be the wise thing to do. And she really knew, by the time she was elected to Congress, she really knew the district better than he did. She knew the growth in the district and the neighborhoods in the district and all that because, by then, he had gone into the leadership and was focusing a lot of his energies on the leadership. Of course, it was the era of civil rights and the Great Society and all that; there was a lot to do.23 And so her taking over the district basically is what happened.
Johnson:
Did you and your brother and sister—you did mention a while ago that you worked on campaigns—what kinds of things did you do?
Roberts:
Stuffed envelopes. All that stuffing envelopes. We had a big dining room [8:00] table in New Orleans, which is now at my sister’s house, and we would sit around that table and stuff envelopes. Fold first—you had to fold and then stuff and then seal. {laughter} And that was great because that was a great way to learn politics. And that was a lot of women, and they had different views and you would hear their points of view, too, which was also very useful. And there were a lot of very smart women in New Orleans at that time who were really pushing the men into a more progressive view of civil rights.
Johnson:
Your mother was a big part in the organization of the whistle-stop tour of Lady Bird Johnson. Did you play any part in this? Did you help organize it?24
Roberts:
No. No, by then—well, I was in college at the beginning and then graduated and went to work. But my mother, before that, she was involved in all those campaigns. In 1956 she headed up a big voter registration drive for young people. It was called something like “Operation Crossroads,” where she went all over the country registering people to vote. And we were still in high school at that point. That was great. All three of us were in high school. And my parents were—my father was Adlai Stevenson’s Southern state campaign manager and my mother was doing this voter registration drive. They were gone {laughter}. And then they got home and went on an interparliamentary union trip to Asia, Bangkok, so they were still gone. That was a good fall {laughter}. We had a good time.
Johnson:
A little sibling bonding.
Roberts:
Barbara was a senior, Tommy was a junior, and I was a freshman. But then by ’60, we were all in college. So they were completely on the trail. And then by ’64 there was this need to deal with the South and so Mamma—Mamma and a bunch of women were “Ladies for Lyndon.” A bunch of other “Ladies for Lyndon” came up to us at Lady Bird’s funeral recently and they had to wear these ridiculous outfits that would shrink in the rain and all that. But when they organized the whistle stop—that was no kidding around. I mean, that was really dangerous. They were a bunch of brave people. But Mamma was very, very involved with that.
Johnson:
Did you get to know Lady Bird Johnson?
Roberts:
Yes, very well. I was a huge admirer of Lady Bird Johnson. Talking about having people over, I mean Bill Moyers talked about at her funeral about how on Sunday brunch—Sunday is a lonely time for people without families—and that they would have sort of a regular brunch for Richard [Brevard] Russell and Sam Rayburn and J. Edgar Hoover, and that when he came up as a kid he got invited over and realized what this was, and Lady Bird giving him all kinds of sage advice.25 But she and I stayed quite friendly, and I saw her right up until her last years.
Johnson:
How did the political activism of women like your mother and Lady Bird Johnson influence your life?
Roberts:
I was very well aware of the influence of these women. I saw what they did. They were very busy, and they were always doing everything. And they [12:00] were always doing it for the good. They were running goodwill industries, or they were working in family and child services here in the district. And they were working with African-American women to try to make the lives of native Washingtonians better. Dorothy Height and my mother were very good friends.26 They were doing that while still being incredibly wonderful mothers and deeply dedicated wives and gracious hostesses and running everything. So I very much grew up with a sense, from them, that women could do anything, and that they could sort of do a whole lot of things at the same time, and that they were very influential behind the scenes. And it had everything to do with my writing history.
Johnson:
Did you ever consider a career in politics based on your family history?
Roberts:
I certainly would have. And when I first came back and started covering Congress, I had a very hard time {laughing} not just wanting to get in the middle of it and knock a few heads together. But some of that is just being a mother. “I don’t care who started it, I’m stopping it.” {laughter} But my husband, I met when I was 18 years old. He was always going to be a journalist, and it would’ve been awfully hard on him if I had gone into politics. My only foray at all was once in 1972 when we lived in California. I went—the Democrats were having these crazy neighborhood caucuses. CD—congressional district by congressional district caucuses to elect delegates. And I went to the [Edmund] Muskie one just to see what was going on, just out of curiosity. I mean, I went with a friend, and we had her five-year-old with us, that’s how serious we were. But these people got up, and they were just awful, and they made these stupid speeches. So I decided, “What the hell?” and ran {laughter} and got elected. But then Muskie didn’t win.
Johnson:
So that was the end of your political career?
Roberts:
That was the end of it. They were very angry with me for getting elected. This was a riot, actually, because it was fixed. Jerry Brown was running and Paul Ziffren, who was the head of the state committee, and a couple of other people. Those were the people who were supposed to get elected. So they started moaning and saying, “This is a ridiculous system; somebody like you can just walk in here and make a good speech.” I moved their smile muscles for the first time in hours. {laughter} “And this shouldn’t be.” They were right, it shouldn’t be, but they were the people who created the dumb system, it wasn’t me. {laughter} So that was it. That was my only foray.
Johnson:
In retrospect, how do you think the time that you spent at the Capitol and the House of Representatives affected your life?
Roberts:
I became—because I spent time in the Capitol and particularly in the House of Representatives—I became deeply committed to the American system. And as close up and as personally as I saw it and saw all of the flaws, I understood all of the glories of it. And that’s really not too grand a word. I mean it is just remarkable that this country exists. Here we are, so different from each other, with no common history or religion or ethnicity [16:00] or even language these days, and what brings us together is the Constitution and the institutions that it created. And the first among those is Congress. The very word means coming together. And the fact that messily and humorously and all of that, it happens—it doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t always happen well, but it happens—is a miracle.
And I think I came to a real appreciation of that by growing up there. I also learned to hate the Senate. {laughter} My sister used to always say that we were never raised with any racial or religious or ethnic prejudices, that we were raised with two prejudices—against Republicans and Senators. {laughter} And that is true; the Senate was considered the enemy. I have had to come to appreciate both Republicans and Senators in recent years at various times, which was a learning experience. But I think just the beauty of the building helps inspire you to a sense of its mission.
Also, you know, there’s some wonderful hidden places that most people never see that are so wonderful, and when I was regularly broadcasting out of the Capitol on State of the Union day or something like that, I usually did it from the Appropriations Committee Room that’s right off of the—right on the first floor that’s sort of against the West Front. And that’s the room that [Constantino] Brumidi tried out in.27 It was his portfolio. He tried everything in there to show that he could do still lifes, and he could do trompe l’oeil and he could do portraits and all of that. So that’s a fabulous room all just by itself, and most people never see it. And the other thing that I love about the Capitol as a building is the sense of incompletion. I love the fact that there are empty ovals waiting for a future stateswoman to fill them. I think that that sense that it’s living history is very important.
Johnson:
One final question that I had for you was if you had a favorite personal anecdote about your father. There are so many that have been written, but if there was something that was just a little bit more personal for you.
Roberts:
You mean my father as a Member of Congress? Well, he had tremendous respect for the institution and its people while being very clear-eyed about their frailties. {laughter} I mean, he didn’t suffer fools easily. But I think that he never got over the fact that a boy from his background could be in Congress, that he was a poor kid who ended up in the halls of Congress. Now, he was not self-deprecating, to put it mildly, but he really did think that if the system worked for him, it could work for anybody. I used to tease him because when the housing bill came up biannually, they would all get up and tell their log cabin stories. {laughter} No running water, all that. And he always presided over that one. It had as much to do with [20:00] parliamentary knowledge as anything, but I always joked that they’d put him in the chair for that one because they had heard his story enough. {laughter} Enough with Boggs’ story. But I do think that that was fundamental to his sense of the place, that all things were possible in this country if he could be a Member of Congress and rise to a leadership position in Congress. I think he genuinely loved the institution too, loved the yeastiness of it and just the ferment.
Johnson:
Was there anything else you wanted to add today?
Roberts:
Well, I kept sort of things in the back of my mind as we were talking, let me see if I look at this list and if there’s something…Well, you have, “average Member during the ’50s, how’s this changed?” Obviously the change of—it was all white men. It was not only all white men. They were old because there was no pension. And that was key. You have people now complaining about the congressional pension, and they might have a point, but it gets them out of there. I mean they were these poor, doddering souls, {laughter} but they couldn’t leave because they couldn’t eat. And even into the ’80s, there were some of those people sort of still drifting around, not necessarily in Congress but sort of around Congress. There was one guy named Carter Manasco who had been in Congress, and he was from West Virginia I think, maybe, and he was a lobbyist for the railroads or the coal industry or something. And he would come sit in the [House] Radio-TV Gallery and the [House] Press Gallery and sort of spill cigars all over himself. But it was three squares. He could get dinner in the restaurant cheap, I’m serious, and live and have a community and all that. And I think there was much more of that then, both in good ways and bad ways. People who shouldn’t be there anymore, but also a kindness that it’s become much too professional to allow for anymore.
Johnson:
Did it seem like it was, just from what you’re saying and from what’s been written, a much more laidback atmosphere—that people could take their time, get to know each other, and get to know each other’s families?
Roberts:
Certainly. Everybody knew each other, and that is a huge change from now. Because transportation was such that we were here, and we would all be here for a period of time. Members were not going home on weekends. And fundraising wasn’t what it is, and so you didn’t have—I don’t mean to imply that there was no money in politics, of course that’s not the case—but there were not these nightly fundraisers where you had to go meet and greet and all of that. People played bridge. People did get to know each other. And there was that sense that after the sun goes down, we’re all friends. You’d see each other at church; you’d see each other at school events.
One of my very best friends growing up was Libby Miller, whose father was Bill [William] Miller, who was a Republican from New York. And he became head of the RNC and then Barry Goldwater’s running mate. Our [24:00] fathers could not have been more different politically—Northern/ Southern, Republican/Democrat, all of that—and we were best friends. That was normal. In fact, she and I are still very good friends. There was that sense of everybody not just being in it together for the country, but we were all here together; you’d run into each other. Moms were in the PTAs together and as I said earlier, doing a lot of charitable work together. Now, you still can get Members of Congress to show up at a charity dinner. But, what happens is, because everything’s become so much more professional and dollar driven, the charities want to get the businesses to buy tables. And the way you do that is to promise the head of the oil company that he’s going to sit next to the chairman of the Energy Committee. So those aren’t familial events; that’s all just a part of the working week. So a lot of that has just unhappily disappeared.
And then Debbie Dingell and Marianne Gingrich tried to sort of paste some of it together, and they created the Civility Caucus.28 {laughter} I mean, the mere fact that you had to do such a thing and have a family retreat. And they all went off to Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the Members just hated it. The only thing they liked was the chocolate. They were miserable. And finally it just fell apart.
I have been on the board of the Children’s Inn at NIH [National Institutes of Health] from pretty much its inception, and that is one of the rare places in Washington where you still have congressional families involved in a bipartisan fashion. And they really are. I think it would be more true if people were here, but people just aren’t here. You heard it during the [William Jefferson (Bill)] Clinton impeachment when the Senate was all locked up with each other, they all said, “We have never spent this much time together. There are actually some interesting people in the Senate.”29 And it was just so different. That was just so different. And interestingly, the exception—somewhat—the exception to that is the women because the women of the Senate do get together just to be in a testosterone-free zone from time to time. And the women in the House less so, but still so. Still do have the caucus and do come together on issues of importance to women, children, and families. So they are the—I also think, and actually there’s a good deal of data to support this—women tend to be more practical politically than ideological. And so they will get together to get something done. But they’re the exception. We’ll see if there’s others here.
Johnson:
Well, I know there are a lot of topics that I wrote out, and if at some point you are free in the future maybe we could finish up because there are more things I wanted to ask you about your mother’s career and then also with your coverage of Congress.
Roberts:
About my TV work. Well, we can do that.
Johnson:
Great.

Footnotes

  1. For information on Representative Lindy Boggs, see Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006): 500–505 and http://womenincongress.house.gov.
  2. For a detailed history of the Cannon House Office Building, see “Cannon House Office Building: A Congressional First,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/art_artifacts/Cannon_Centennial/index.html; for information on the three House Office Buildings—Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn—see “The Congressional Office Buildings,” Architect of the Capitol, http://www.aoc.gov/cc/cobs/index.cfm.
  3. For information on the 1954 shooting in the House Chamber, see “Four Puerto Rican Nationalists Opened Fire Onto the House Floor,” Weekly Historical Highlights, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=7.
  4. For historical background on Statuary Hall, see “National Statuary Hall,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/
    art_history/art_artifacts/virtual_tours/statuary_hall/index.html
    .
  5. For information on the history and artifacts of the Members’ Dining Room, see “The Members’ Dining Room,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/art_artifacts/DiningRoomsite/index.htm.
  6. On May 21, 1973, Felda Looper became the first female to serve as a Page in the House of Representatives. For a brief summary, see “Felda Looper, the First Female Page,” Weekly Historical Highlights, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=131. The Office of History and Preservation conducted an audio oral history interview with Felda Looper on May 21, 2007.
  7. First organized in 1909 by Representative John Tener of Pennsylvania, the Congressional Baseball Game was held sporadically until 1962, when it became an annual event. For a detailed history, see “Congressional Baseball Game,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/art_artifacts/baseball/index.html.
  8. The 80th and 81st Congresses (1947–1951) each had more than 100 freshmen Members in the House. For a list of the number of freshmen Members for each Congress, see Mildred Amer, “Freshmen in the House of Representatives and Senate by Political Party: 1913–2008,” 20 August 2008, Report RS20723, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  9. To read Congressman Boggs’ House Floor speech in favor of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, see Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (9 July 1965): 16221–16222.
  10. Designated to assist party leadership in managing the legislative program on the House Floor, the Whip keeps track of all legislation and ensures that all party members are present when important measures are to be voted upon. For a complete list of Democratic and Republican Whips, see http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/dem_whips.html and http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/rep_whips.html.
  11. For more on this incident, see Lindy Boggs with Katherine Hatch, Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994): 202–205.
  12. For historical background on the State of the Union address, see “State of the Union Address,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/stateunion.html.
  13. Ernest Petinaud worked as a busboy and later served as the maitre d’ in the Members’ Dining Room. For more information, see “The Members’ Dining Room,” http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/art_artifacts/DiningRoomsite/diningrooms.htm; “Ernest S. Petinaud, 88, Retired House Maitre’d,” 11 November 1993, Washington Times: C11.
  14. For more on the longtime Washington correspondent for the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, see “Reporter Edgar Allen Poe Dies; Covered Washington for Louisiana,” 17 August 1998, Washington Post: D06.
  15. For information on Hardeman’s career, see Richard Pearson, “D.B. Hardeman Dies; Rayburn Aide, Teacher on the Hill,” 6 December 1981, Washington Post: B8.
  16. Reference to the four-volume set on the U.S. Congress edited by Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller; Cokie Roberts served on the editorial advisory board. Encyclopedia of the United States Congress (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  17. Congress authorized the creation of the House Radio Gallery in 1939. In 1953, the gallery welcomed TV reporters when it became the House Radio-TV Gallery. For historical information on the establishment of the House Radio Gallery, see “The Opening of the House Radio Gallery,” Weekly Historical Highlights, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=288; Donald A. Ritchie, Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 58–59.
  18. For historical background on the painting of Pocahontas that hangs in the Rotunda of the Capitol, see “Baptism of Pocahontas,” Architect of the Capitol, http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/rotunda/baptism_pocahontas.cfm.
  19. Transcript, Hale Boggs Oral History Interview II, 3/27/69, by T. H. Baker, Internet Copy, LBJ Library, http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/oralhistory.hom/boggsh/boggs-h2.pdf. For additional information on the 1963 Christmas Eve session, see “A Rare Christmas Eve Session,” Weekly Historical Highlights, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=184.
  20. For more on this incident see, Boggs, Washington Through a Purple Veil: 139–141.
  21. For historical background on the Southern Manifesto, see “The Southern Manifesto of 1956,” Weekly Historical Highlights, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=168.
  22. Cokie Roberts, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters (New York: W. Morrow, 1998).
  23. The Great Society was the name given to the wave of social reform legislation championed by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s and passed in the wake of a Democratic sweep in the 1964 presidential and congressional elections. The crowning legislation of Johnson’s reforms included increased aid for education; the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, providing healthcare for the elderly and the poor; immigration reform; and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests and provided federal monitoring of elections in southern states.
  24. Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson made headlines in 1964 when she campaigned for her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson’s, first full term as President. Aboard the “Lady Bird Special” train, she spent several days in the Deep South on a campaign trip beginning in Washington, D.C., and ending in New Orleans, Louisiana. For an example of the press coverage, see Winzola McLendon, “Whistle-Stop Tour Set,” 13 September 1964, Washington Post: F13. For information on Lindy Boggs’ role in the whistle-stop campaign, see Boggs, Washington Through a Purple Veil: 189–193. For information on Lady Bird Johnson, see A White House Diary (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
  25. J. Edgar Hoover served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—originally named the Bureau of Investigation—from 1924 until his death in 1972. Hoover was the first director of the FBI.
  26. For information on civil rights leader Dorothy Height, see Dorothy Height, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003). On December 6, 2003, Congress approved legislation to award Dr. Dorothy Height with the Congressional Gold Medal. For a complete list of Congressional Gold Medal recipients, see “Congressional Gold Medal Recipients,” Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/goldMedal.html.
  27. For information on the life and career of Constantino Brumidi, see Barbara A. Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1998). On July 1, 2008, Congress approved legislation to award Constantino Brumidi with the Congressional Gold Medal. For a complete list of Congressional Gold Medal recipients, see “Congressional Gold Medal Recipients,” http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/goldMedal.html.
  28. Debbie Dingell is married to the Dean of the House, Representative John Dingell, Jr., of Michigan and Marianne Gingrich was married to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia. For information on the bipartisan retreat, see “Congress’s Retreat Is Called Good First Step,” 10 March 1997, New York Times: B8.
  29. The House of Representatives impeached President Clinton in December 1998, and the Senate acquitted him in February 1999.