Cokie Roberts is political journalism royalty. Her parents were in Congress. She has been covering politics for decades for NPR and ABC News. She came to the Atlanta Press Club Thursday, lamenting the way Washington now works, where partisanship seems to trump all.
But she said she takes it all in perspective. “People ask all the time: ‘Is this the most partisan time in our history?’ The answer to that question is no.”
In the early 1800s, Roberts noted, it wasn’t crazy for politicians to actually shoot each other in duels, most notably Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasurer Alexander Hamilton. “That’s partisan,” she said.
Nonetheless, she said there is a lot of anger emanating from both sides today. She carted out all the reasons that politicos know well.
There are virtually no politicians left in the middle. Those that are trying to survive have had to go more extreme one way or the other. Other moderates have retired or been voted off. Over time, more sophisticated methods to change district lines have created defined areas that are more and more Democrat or Republican, creating candidates that cater to their more homogeneous constituents. “You never have to talk to anybody who disagrees with you,” she said. She recalls Pres. George W. Bush telling her that district lines made it impossible for him to pass an immigration bill.
Other theories commonly abound. Congressmen are less apt to move Washington so Democrats and Republicans no longer socialize. She said her late father Hale Boggs, a Democratic Majority Leader of the House, was friends with Gerry Ford, future president and House Minority Leader. She said they genuinely disagreed on issues but were able to remain close.
The media has amplified partisanship thanks to the cable news networks, talk radio and blogs. “It’s not only partisan but hateful,” she said. “It’s vituperative and mean. It just demeans the whole process.”
But she is still a hopeful sort. She quoted St. Augustine of Hippo: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.”
She took some questions, too:
- On Super PACs: “It’s wack-a-mole… There’s always been money in politics and there will continue to be money in politics. Obviously, the Super PACs are distorting things in a way that many politicians don’t know quite how to handle.” She said Super PACs appear to be attracting wealthy individuals. “We don’t really know how it will play out. My guess is people will eventually be so undone by them, some legislation will pass that reins them in in some way. Also, TV stations are getting rich off of them.”
- Does she have any sense of hope? She talks about the next generation. And she said anyone who wants to be hopeful should go to a naturalization ceremony. “You spend the entire time in tears,” she said.
- Assuming Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, she doesn’t think he will pick either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum as his running mate. Likely possibilities: Marco Rubio, senator in Florida or Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. She also said she thinks if the election were held today, Pres. Barack Obama would win but there are too many factors that could change the scenario over the next seven months with the turmoil in Europe and Iran. She thinks the Senate will end up being very close to even and the House is in play.
- Roberts is old school. She does not use Facebook or Tweet.
- She worries about how the 24-hour news cycle hinders the ability of journalists to actually do their work. And news operations are still grappling with a problematic financial model. She did note that NPR is one of the few places opening bureaus, not closing them, proving that right now, “the non-profit model is working better.”
Note: I am a board member of the Atlanta Press Club.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk