One was a pioneering female journalist with a deep understanding of the totems and taboos of Washington. Another was a pioneering television broadcaster with a sharp eye for history. Cokie Roberts and Sander Vanocur died within hours of each other, an unusual moment of mortality that reminds us not only of how fragile and ephemeral life is, but also of the passing of an era of probity and civility in public affairs that seems almost antiquarian in our amped-up world.
Cokie Roberts was the daughter of two House members, one a Capitol Hill baron en route to the speakership when he perished in an Alaska air crash, the other a quiet but imposing lawmaker who also was a diplomat. The president of the United States attended her wedding. She grew up in, and as an adult moved back into, a courtly house at the bend of Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland, where the four lanes of a rush-to-work suburb suddenly but not inexplicably turned into two lanes redolent of a country road; the street engineers of the time knew better than to extend the bustle of Bethesda to the front lawn of the home of U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, the House majority leader and member of the Warren Commission.
She married Steven V. Roberts, a force of nature at The New York Times and for many years a Cokie colleague on the marble floors and, often, in the cloistered back rooms and hideaway offices of Capitol Hill. She and the formidable Linda Wertheimer, her NPR colleague on the Hill, knew more of the inside workings of Congress than most backbenchers and half the leadership. She and Steve drove me home from work in the Capitol press galleries every night. It was a graduate education in American politics, and they paid for the tuition, which was the gasoline.
But Cokie's impact was only part in her work, which was not simply professional but peerless. It was also in the role she grew into with remarkable grace, as the grande dame of Washington journalists. She, along with fellow New York Times wife Judith Weinraub, recoiled and rebelled in their identity as Wives of the New York Times and blazed a trail of independence and accomplishment that was an inspiration to a generation of female journalists.
In a different but equally potent way, Sander Vanocur was a figure of elegance and refinement in the raucous environs of the press room. Working for the Manchester Guardian and The New York Times before assuming his principal role as inquisitor and intellectual at NBC News, he was the final surviving participant of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. He was a towering figure, but not looming so large that my 8-year-old daughter, at lunch with him in his Santa Barbara retirement, couldn't share an inadvertent off-color comment and prompt an embarrassing laugh around the table.
At work, Sandy was a figure to reckon with; he broadcast all night and into the morning the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot. In retirement, he was a gentle critic and genuine booster of those he chose to follow — and when Sandy followed you, he read every word. He was possessed of humankind's greatest attribute, the gift of friendship, and perhaps his oldest friendship was with his Northwestern roommate, Newton N. Minow, who gained fame of his own when, as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, he described television as a "vast wasteland." (It was no surprise that the shipwrecked boat on television's moronic "Gilligan's Island," which ran from 1964 to 1967, was named the S.S. Minnow.)
"Sandy was equipped with deep intellectual and political curiosity, which gave him exceptional insight into how government succeeds or fails," Minow, now 93 years old, told me. The two men were neighbors in Washington's Cleveland Park section during the Kennedy years. "Always ahead of the curve, Sandy's reporting enlightened our nation with his mind, heart, courage and wisdom."
We mourn and miss them already, even as we thank, and celebrate, them for their work, their lives and above all their sacred honor.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.