Alas, none of the many encomia to Cokie Roberts, the NPR and ABC commentator and “Washington insider” who died of cancer on September 17, resurrected her single greatest line, which actually had a bit of an influence on world affairs. It involved the Clintons, the culture wars, the Vatican, and Roberts’s mother, Lindy Boggs, and it’s worth recalling amid the other celebrations of Roberts’s life and accomplishments. Remembering it also gives me the opportunity to make a belated tribute to Lindy, who died in 2013, for she deserves to be celebrated at least as much as her more-famous daughter.
The story begins in Washington in 1997. The newly reelected Clinton administration was furious with the Vatican for the Holy See’s role in derailing its plans to have abortion-on-demand declared a universal human right at the 1994 Cairo World Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. Payback was in order. And while an overt assault on Pope John Paul II was understood to be imprudent, even among the feminist ideologues in the East Wing, there were other means of registering displeasure. The chosen vehicle for Clintonian retribution became the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
Standard diplomatic practice calls for the “sending” entity (in this case, the U.S.) to quietly vet its potential ambassadorial nominee with the “receiving” entity (in this case, the Holy See). Twice, the Clintons proposed nominees calculated to express their (and especially Hillary’s) contempt for the Vatican. (If memory serves, one was a triple-divorcee, and the other was an ex-nun then involved in state politics.) The Vatican did not kowtow to bullies in those days, so Holy See officials quietly explained that, as neither nominee was acceptable, and a public declaration of persona non grata blocking the acceptance of either would embarrass all concerned, the administration should try again.
Plan C, for Team Clinton, came down to this: All right, you don’t want the people who we think can do the job. We’ll give you Lindy Boggs, an 81-year-old former member of Congress, instead. Take that, Your Holiness.
Lindy was not enthusiastic about the job, having settled into retirement after nine terms in the House, where in 1973 she had succeeded her late husband, former majority leader Hale Boggs. So she told daughter Cokie that she was going to decline. “C’mon, Mom,” Cokie replied. “It’s the two things you like doing best in the world: going to Mass and going to parties.”
Shortly after her confirmation, Lindy and I ran into each other in Rome, while I was working on the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope. She was visiting the North American College for a dinner in the student kitchen on the college rooftop, hosted by then–New Orleans seminarian Christopher Nalty, and pulled me aside in the corridor to say with some urgency, “Dahlin’, we need to talk.” I asked if 10 a.m. the next day in her office would be convenient, and she agreed.
I had been previously informed that a still-irate Hillary Clinton had planted a mole in the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, in the form of a young woman previously employed in the East Wing and now deployed to the Eternal City as Ambassador Boggs’s “assistant.” When I arrived at the embassy, then nestled in a stand of trees on the Aventine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus, the mole met me at the door and with a singular lack of grace led me upstairs to the ambassador’s office. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to have the conversation both Lindy and I wanted with a Clintonista in the room taking notes. So, after the ambassador and I had greeted each other with a hug and a chaste peck on the cheek, not wanting Lindy to have to play the heavy, I turned to the mole and said, “Ambassador Boggs and I are old friends. Do you mind if we speak privately?” Steam metaphorically escaping her ears, the mole left.
“Thank you, dahlin’,” said the always-gracious ambassador, who then got down to business by asking me, in that elegant New Orleans intonation, “So what’s happenin’ here?” I replied that I would give her the lowdown with, “as LBJ would have said to your late husband, ‘the bark off.’ ” The U.S.–Vatican relationship was a total train wreck, thanks to the beat-down the administration had taken in Cairo and Beijing, which was due in no small part to adroit Vatican diplomacy. Moreover, there was never going to be agreement on the culture-war issues that the Clintons were determined to press in international forums and the Vatican was just as determined to resist. What to do? Find three issues that the U.S. government and the Holy See could agree on, and work on those for the next three years. As for the rest, I said, “you’ll charm the socks off all of them and things will get better because of that.”
Lindy, perhaps seeing a glimmer of light in what had hitherto seemed a very dark tunnel (its gloom broken only by the thought of Mass and all those parties), immediately agreed, and we identified three issues on which there might be an abundance of common ground: international religious freedom; combating the sex-trafficking of women and young girls; and the social impacts of science and technology. Three years later, thanks to some hard and effective work by the octogenarian ambassador and the steady deployment of her exceptional charm, the U.S.–Vatican relationship was back on track, and the groundwork had been laid that would sustain it in the dark days ahead — the days following 9/11.
Cokie Roberts’s brilliant one-liner, assuming it helped reverse her mother’s initial inclination to decline the Vatican embassy, really had impacted the world on which commentators comment.
The Washington Post’s lengthy obituary quoted media critic Jack Shafer snarking that “Roberts doesn’t just voice the conventional wisdom; she is the conventional wisdom.” There was some truth in that, for all that Shafer, who was working at Slate when he wrote those words, doubtless wished he and his comrades were the conventional wisdom. But whatever truth it may have contained, his crack also missed something important about Roberts.
On some occasion or other, we had fallen into conversation about the controversy du jour and I mentioned Henry Hyde, then the undisputed leader of the pro-life forces in Congress, for whom I was doing some work. To which Cokie responded, “Henry Hyde is the smartest man in Washington. And he’s the best debater in the House.” That was certainly not the conventional wisdom, and it’s hard to imagine one of Cokie’s fellow NPR Founding Mothers — Nina Totenberg, for example — saying it. The compliment bespoke a willingness to think outside the box, at least occasionally; to admire talent and commitment for what they were; and to concede that there might be something other than wickedness, stupidity, and misogyny on the other side of the aisle. It was a virtue that I imagine Cokie learned from her parents, who were far more interested in getting things done in Congress than in making headlines.
I like to think of Cokie and Lindy now reunited, beyond the reach of politics and snark, in a place-beyond-places where a great party is always underway. Requiescant in pace.