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Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts speaks at Auburn High School in November 2013 as a part of the Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speaker Series presented by the Seward House Museum.

For several years, readers of our print edition's opinion page have been treated to the political commentary of Cokie and Steve Roberts, a pair of highly accomplished and experienced journalists whose work held federal government officials accountable for more than four decades.

Sadly, Cokie died this week at the age of 75 as a result of complications from breast cancer. The syndicated column she wrote with her husband was part of Cokie Roberts' remarkable versatility as a journalist. She truly did it all, from her start overseas writing for a newsletter and newspaper, to her longtime presence on National Public Radio to her work as a Sunday morning network news interviewer. She wrote terrific books, was a fixture on public television and also traveled around the country talking to people in communities large and small about the importance of good governance and lessons of our nation's history.

As some of you may remember, that included a visit to Auburn. In 2013, Roberts spoke at Auburn High School for the Seward House Museum's Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speakers Series.

After learning about her death, I looked back at the coverage The Citizen had on Roberts' talk. I was struck by how prescient some of her observations were on the direction of political discourse in our country.

At the talk she gave, Roberts spoke about the high level of partisanship on display in Washington. "It is very hard to convince anybody that compromise is not a dirty word," she said.

And she went on to explain her concern about what the continued growth of that trend could lead to.

"The 1850s were the most partisan time," she said. "This is what William Seward was having to deal with. It was horrible in terms of how people related to each other and what happened in Washington. There were constant duels and threats. It culminated in civil war, so it's not a time we want to replicate. But it's closer to that time than any other time between then and now has been."

In an interview ahead of her talk, Roberts talked about the importance of knowing American history and using that knowledge to deal with current problems.

"(Historic sites) make a big difference in terms of teaching people about our history, so they learn the government does matter and the people who serve do matter. It's worth paying attention to it and not treating it frivolously. With someone like Seward, and his whole family, that's just key. So having that place to remind people of that is one of the answers to the ignorance and incivility we have, to overcome that through the teaching of history," she said.

In addition to looking back at that 2013 visit, I also glanced at some of the recent columns that Steve and Cokie wrote. As a journalist, I was particularly struck by the second to last, which we published Sept. 6 under the headline "Tribes, teams and journalists."

The column talked about the increased anger being expressed about news media from people at both ends of the political spectrum, with Cokie and Steve calling on us to develop a better understanding of why we need an independent free press.

"We belong to no tribe, root for no team. And if that sounds musty and old-fashioned, well, so does the Constitution, which not only protects a free press but defines it as essential to a healthy democracy."

After reading observations like these, it hit me that losing Cokie Roberts is a setback for all of us. We're told that Steve Roberts is going to continue the columns, but he'll be taking some time off before they resume.

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Executive editor Jeremy Boyer’s column appears Thursdays in The Citizen and he can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or jeremy.boyer@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer

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