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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  March 14, 2016 5:30am-6:01am PDT

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>> funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you. i'm evan smith. she's an emmy award-winning political commentator for abc news and national public radio and the author of several best selling books including "we are our mothers' daughters" and "founding mothers." her latest is "capital dames: the civil war and the women of washington, 1848-1868." she's cokie roberts, this is "overheard." [applause]. >> actually, there are not two
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sides to every issue. >> so i guess we can't fire him now. >> i guess we can't fire him now. the night that i win the emmy. >> being on the supreme court was an improbable dream. >> it's hard work and it's controversial. >> without information there is no freedom and it's journalists who provide that information. >> window rolls down and this guy says, hey, he goes to 11:00. [laughter]. >> cokie roberts, welcome. >> happy to be here. thanks so much for having me. >> so nice to be here with you. this book is so -- it's so interesting and such an interesting and creative choice. although, if you look back at the last couple of books you've done, writing about women is not a foreign experience for you. >> no, it's actually -- >> on some women, particularly. >> well, it is actually a mission. my husband describes it as a mission and i'll go with that. >> okay. >> because it keeps him -- it keeps him from killing me. [laughter]. >> because, you know, when i get into these i'm not doing much else. >> yeah. >> and so i'm glad that he sees
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it in those terms. but it's true. our history is about half of history. >> right. >> because we've left out half of the human race. >> right. there were founding fathers. we never heard about until you started -- >> which of course distorts history. it makes it inaccurate. and so -- >> well, unless you believe that the women behind many of these stories did not contribute something, which you know to be not true. >> but even if you believe that, which would be crazy to believe -- >> crazy. >> but even if you believed that, you've got to figure they were doing something. i mean, i actually have a children's version of "founding mothers" that came out last year and it's wonderfully illustrated. it's a terrific book and i went around talking to children about it. and so i would say to the kids, you know those pictures of the founding fathers, you know, the constitution. is anything missing? >> right. >> and the little boys would say something crazy, you know, the symbol. what are you talking about?
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but the little girls would finally say women. there are no women. and so then i'd say, well do you think there were women then? [laughter]. >> and they'd get all giggly, you know, because of what it implies. they would say yes. how do you know there were women? because there couldn't be men without women, hee hee hee. [laughter]. >> that took a turn, didn't it? yeah. >> but so even if you didn't realize the contributions you'd have to at least be curious about what they were up to. but their contributions were vast. >> now different eras of history we have been aware of women as wife of. >> right. >> martha washington. >> right. >> right. in the case of the civil war, i suppose that's the case. you know, sally field as lincoln's wife in the movies helped remind us, not that we needed reminding that, you know, she was there. but in a lot of cases many of the people we're reading about here we're reading about for the first time. not all of them. clara barton, we know clara barton. >> you probably don't know a lot about clara barton. >> well, i want to come to clara in a second, but many of them actually were people who you came to know through letters, through accounts of -- >> right. >> -- what happened at the time, but whose names we might not know. >> right.
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>> so isn't that a risky bet that we would be interested in these people? you've got to bring them to life, really conjure them. >> but they're so interesting so they're easy to bring to life. >> yeah. >> they come to life through -- i mean, i'm reading their mail, you know. >> right, you're literally reading their mail, right. >> literally. so their letters are fabulous. >> frank and funny, right? >> feisty. the men's letters, you know, are boring for the most part because they are self-aware and so they edit them and they consider them. they're very carefully written. they're often pompous. >> right. >> and the women's letters are just letters. they're just telling you the story. >> right. >> and some of them are just fabulous. i mean, there's one in here where varina davis is the wife of jefferson davis says about stephen douglas that he stinks. and, you know, and that she's glad a new water system's coming to town so he might wash more often. >> right. she means he actually stinks. [laughter]. >> right. and there are lots of things
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like that where -- abigail brooks adams, whose letters have never been published. she was charles francis adams' wife. he being john quincy adams' son. he was in congress and then became the ambassador for the union -- >> right. >> -- to great britain where he kept them from siding with the confederacy. and she is just as feisty as her grandmother-in-law and mother-in-law. and she writes from washington when he's in congress that buchanan is a toad and that, you know, the senate is acting like children and silly ones at that. i can get behind that one. [laughter]. >> sure. >> and she says at one point, i would advise any young woman if she wants to have a calm, peaceful life not to marry an adams. [laughter]. >> well, now, of course, did not know this letter would be one day the subject of -- >> no, that's true. that's true. >> you know, the thing about the time that we're talking about is women were, by expectation and by tradition, i suppose, subordinate to the men. >> well, by law.
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>> by law. so the independence of these women that comes out, the independence of thought is really quite remarkable and it breaks the stereotype. i mean, we know what the public perception of these women is but the reality is something quite different. >> and that's been something that's been true in all of my books. >> right. >> that the reality is interesting, refreshing, and that these women are so engaged in the political world and so, particularly in the revolutionary period, so incredibly patriotic when their lives are so difficult. i mean, just getting through the day was not easy. >> then, right. yes, of course. >> i mean, you'd lose -- often these women, it's heartbreaking. you'd lose a 3-year-old and a 10-year-old in the same week, you know. and still they were so engaged in what the country was about. >> right. >> and it's inspiring. >> so let me ask you about a couple of them. i mean, it's a book full of lots of different stories and lot of women. we don't have, obviously, all the time to talk about everybody, but i want to talk about a couple of them. so mrs. davis who you mentioned. >> she's one of the best. >> one of the best. >> she was one of the best.
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>> she was my favorite in the book. >> right. mine too. so jefferson davis was not a particularly nice person. and she, varina davis, married him as a teenager, which most of these women did. >> right. >> and he was a tough husband to have. but she kept trying to make it all right and all that. and she came to washington as a teenager, really, still. he was in the senate. but she immediately became one of the preeminent women in washington because she was smart and she was interesting. and then he went into the pierce cabinet. and there was no first lady. jane pierce's children had all died and one of them, the last, had been killed as she was about to assume the role of the first lady. so she was in mourning for the whole time. so varina davis became sort of the preeminent hostess in washington and all that. and people loved her. and then she loved washington. to the end of her life said her happiest years were in
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washington. >> yeah. not a lot of people would say that today. >> i still love it but they -- so she wrote these interesting letters, as i say. >> yeah. >> then she has to go off to be the first lady of the confederacy, which is something she did not greatly enjoy. and as with mary lincoln she lost a child in that white house. the child fell off the roof and died. but she, you know, she did her duty. >> yeah. >> but she was always suspect. again, like mary lincoln was suspect for being from kentucky by the north, varina davis' grandfather had been governor of new jersey. so she was suspect by the south. and she was olive complected. she was never quite fair enough for the perfect southern belle. and so after he died, she thought -- and it was a difficult relationship. she moved to new york. and that was shocking, a scandal. the first lady of the
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confederacy going to the north. and the southerners tried to get her to stay and they vilified her and they offered her a house and all this stuff. and she wrote to her daughter and said, i am free, brown, and 64. i can do whatever i want to do. [laughter]. >> a little unusual to assert oneself so much at that time. >> and then when she did go to new york, she made a living. she had to make a living. and she made a living writing for the newspaper, the "new york world." but she also, and this is where i think they became so interesting post-war, all these women. she befriended julia grant, the wife of ulysses s. grant and understood that this was an act of reconciliation. >> yep. >> and it was page one news in all the newspapers. and, by the way, the newspapers are all available online. >> right. >> so you can waste months, i mean -- [laughter]. >> waste. yeah. >> just reading them. >> right.
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>> they're so much fun. and one of the things that did surprise me, because even when i was growing up it was women should only be in the paper when she's born, married, and dies, right? well, these women were in the newspapers all the time. >> they were, right. and thankful for you, you know, the letters are available, in many respects, you know, more than one would have imagined and the accounts of the day are available in many respects. >> right. >> the material for something like that. >> so she then went to the dedication of the grant memorial -- >> yeah. >> all of that. and there are several examples of these women -- >> right. >> -- coming together after the war to try to bring the country together. >> you mentioned clara barton would be a bit of a surprise to somebody who comes to this book thinking they know who clara barton is but in fact not. explain why that is. >> well, because there's so much more, you know, than what you think. and also, this is one of my pet peeves, you know, in the history books. and then she founded the red cross. oh? >> period, right. [laughter]. >> you know, was that hard? >> yeah, nothing consequential. [laughter]. >> exactly. yeah. >> and then women got the right to vote. you know, it was like that. but so she had grown up in a new england family where her mother
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had been -- i think her mother was a little bit of a nut cake. but she was our nut cake. she was an abolitionist and suffragist. and so clara was raised with a sort of sense of self. >> yeah. >> and she got jobs as a teacher, mainly, but always complained that she didn't make as much as a man. which, for the period, was really quite something to do. >> yeah. >> ended up -- >> it's not working out so great right now either. >> i know. i'm well aware. tell me about it. but she then went to washington to work in the patent office. and she was paid. and then when the war started, the massachusetts regiments arrived in washington and they were her hometown boys. >> yeah. >> so she started providing them with supplies. and then people started sending her supplies because people wanted to know -- because the boys wrote home and said this nice lady is getting stuff. so she ended up with three warehouses full of supplies for the soldiers and finally the
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quarter master general understood what her worth was -- >> yep. >> -- and allowed her to deliver them. and then when she got to the battlefield she was just in it. >> yeah. >> and she was working around the clock nursing, helping, supplying. and she did that through the war. and then after the war went to europe and discovered something called the red cross. and so she came home and tried to establish a red cross here and she was able to do an american version. but she was not able to connect with the international red cross because the senate had not ratified the geneva conventions. so she spent decades lobbying the senate -- >> right. i don't think people know that part at all. absolutely not. >> and it was a huge lobbying effort. >> and look what it produced, right? >> right. and she also, in geneva, interjected what was called the american amendment which allows the red cross to go into disaster zones. it wouldn't be, as it is now, in natural disasters.
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>> and we take it for granted, almost, right? >> that was all clara barton. >> all her. there are so many other great stories in this book. i'm a political junkie. i have grown up watching presidents and washington, d.c. things, blair house across the street. >> gee, i haven't at all. >> not at all, no. [laughter]. >> well, but see, it's expected for you but for me i'm kind of going, oh, this is so interesting. blair house -- >> right. >> you have elizabeth blair lee, whose father is the namesake of -- >> well, he was francis preston blair -- >> right. >> -- who was first a confidant of andrew jackson. and she grew up on jackson. in fact, he gave her his wife, rachel's, wedding wing. >> yeah. >> but, and so her father was jackson's confidant and then lincoln's confidant. her brother, montgomery blair, was in the lincoln cabinet. >> yep. >> her brother, frank blair was in the congress. but her husband, phillips lee, who was a cousin of robert e. lee, was in the union navy. and because he was in the navy, she wrote to him pretty much every day. >> yeah.
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>> and the letters are just a treasure trove. >> they're great. yeah. >> they really are. >> well, there's so much in here i encourage people to spend a lot of time with it because it's just great reading. >> well, they were great ladies. fun to learn about. >> good for you. i want to ask about this concept of women in leadership roles performing amazing feats and contributing but perhaps not getting, you know, enough credit for it or claim for it. in the two areas in which you have lived your life, journalism, and politics, i was reminded when john dickerson was named to replace bob schieffer on "face the nation." his mother -- >> nancy. >> -- was one of those pioneering women journalists. it is not that long ago that women did not occupy an equal place. i mean, just the other day -- >> are you kidding? [laughter]. >> right. but, you know, the other week we had a deal where every questioner at the president's press conference was a woman. and that was noteworthy. people were like, oh my god, this is this first time this has ever happened. >> right. whereas for most of human history, every questioner was a man. >> was a man. >> right. how far have we come? you have straddled the two eras. so how far have we come -- [laughter].
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>> what do you think? >> well, obviously, a very long way. i was talking to some lawyers earlier and reminding them that this required the law to make a change. the 1964 civil rights law changed everything. and it took brave women bringing suits to make a change. and in my field it was women at the "the new york times" and at cbs news. >> right. >> when i was first applying for jobs people said quite directly, you know, we don't hire women to do that. they usually said it with a hand on your knee. [laughter]. >> we do hire women to do that. >> and until the '64 civil rights law the help wanted ads were male, female, white, colored. and so, you know, the law had to change and it did. and it changed just as i and many of my cohorts were coming out of college. and so we, you know, we were
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the -- there were singular women ahead of us like nancy dickerson or barbara walters but they couldn't knock down barriers because there was no way to do it. the barriers were too big for one person. so they would jump over them or go under them or whatever. we came as a whole generation and -- >> pushed them over, yeah. >> you know, i have the splinters to show for it, but the younger women coming after us had a different time. >> yes. >> now, is it perfect? not by -- >> well, as we sit here, there are still major american newspapers having this ongoing conversation about do we have a women editor, are women accurately represented -- >> and then for a long time -- >> -- tv networks -- >> -- it was well, we've got our one. >> that's enough, right. the token. >> but then certainly at the entry level it's completely different. where it starts to get difficult, as in most fields -- >> up at the top. >> -- is as you go up. >> well, speaking about the top, let's talk about politics. as we sit here we have the prospect of the most famous van passenger/chipotle customer in
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history being the next president. finally the discussion of a woman being president is not some sort of fantastical look in the future. it could happen. it might not happen. >> right. >> but it could happen. >> right. >> and yet it's the exception that has proven out the case that this is still a largely male-dominated universe. more women in the senate now than ever -- >> but that means 20. >> but that only means 20, right? and the population is certainly not 80/20, right? >> quite the opposite. >> so can you observe -- you really have the vantage point of history. >> and also, you know, think about it. because, look, i think it's wonderful that 20 women are in the senate. for most of my life there were never more than two. >> right, right. >> and, by the way, they are terrific women and they're the only bastion, the bipartisanship in congress. >> they're vastly different, vastly different. >> right. but they're really -- harry reid recently, women are different from men. [laughter]. >> that's dynamic leadership, right, on the part of harry reid, clearly. >> news flash, right? but he was making the point that they improved the senate. >> right.
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>> but there still is resistance. it's interesting because you would think -- i mean, now more than half of our college graduates are female. >> right. >> two-thirds of our graduate school graduates are female. you would think that that was sort of permeating the rest of society, but it hasn't hit yet. >> why? >> i think some of it is it takes time. some of it is that the workplace is still very caretaker- unfriendly and that's a big problem that needs to be solved. >> so that -- >> and i think, by the way, it's a problem that needs to be solved for american competitiveness. >> period. >> because if you drive out the best and the brightest, meaning women, since they're the people coming out of these schools -- >> right. >> -- because they can't lead a complete life, it's a problem. >> well, no one was ask of men many of the questions they ask of women, right? >> oh, never. i mean, you know, even with sarah palin i was outraged by the questions. and pat schroeder who, of course, was the kindest woman from colorado. >> ran for president, probably in the mid '80s, yep.
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>> and she -- or '90s. i've forgotten. but anyway, she -- but she was one of the first to run for congress with little children. >> yep. >> and she had this great thing when people would say who was going to take care of the children. she would say, oh, the children. the children are fine, you know, jim and i get up in the morning and we give them a healthy, wonderful breakfast. and then we put them in the freezer and go -- [laughter]. >> nobody wondered who took care of tip o'neill's kids, right? >> exactly. >> yeah. >> exactly, exactly. >> right. >> so the question of a woman president, obviously, please, god, let there be one in my lifetime. and there could be one in the next cycle, absolutely. i mean, this is the best shot there's been. >> right. >> but there still is resistance. and just recently the abc poster
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sent out some data saying that there's still a sense, and he called it inherent, which really upset me. but it was data that people, for women, not for men, see a competent woman who leads as being unfriendly and unempathetic. so it's a terrible catch-22. so to run for president you have to have all of those things. >> you have to be strong. >> you have to be strong. you have to be a leader, but you also have to be friendly and empathetic, so it's a problem. >> and so what happens is you project those traits and then, well, you're inauthentic or your cold, right? >> any number of things. >> right. you know what i thought about a lot lately, maybe because of the barney frank memoir. i thought about your mom. >> my mom was an incredible human being. >> your mother was an incredible human being who bore up under extraordinary tragedy, death of your father and served her -- >> death of my sister very young. >> death of your sister. served her country, served her community for many, many years. i wonder what you took away from
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her and what you learned from her and how she intersected with so many of the issues at a much earlier and more difficult time. >> my mother, lindy boggs, who was in congress for nine terms. but before that was a congressional wife for ten terms or 12 terms, i guess. she was a truly extraordinary human being. and, you know, i wrote a book called "we are our mothers daughters." but i wish i were. you know, i mean, when i'm being my really best self, i am my mother's daughter. and i really do think that it stemmed from her deep-seated religious belief that every person is made in the image and likeness of god and you act on that. you don't just mouth that. >> yep. >> and so every person is due respect and dignity and if that means changing the laws in order to give african-americans equal rights or women access to credit or whatever it is, you change
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the laws. if it means treating somebody who you just encounter in daily life in a way that that person would want to be treated and trying to help them as much as you humanly can -- >> right. >> it means that. and that's what i took away from it. and god love her, you know, she did it all day every day and i try but i don't come anywhere near close. >> so she did this at a time, as i say, very different time than now. everything you just articulated, boy, it would be nice if that were on display in the politics of the world. i mean, it's not really unique to one party. >> no, of course not. >> across politics today there seems to be not what you just described. what's happened? you watched people come and go through washington over many decades, what happened? >> a whole variety of things have happened. the post world war ii period that i grew up in was really aberrant in its civility. it was the least partisan, most civil period. >> right. >> and i think the war had everything to do with it.
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there were two huge classes that ran for congress after the war. the republicans, '46. democrats, '48. and they were self-conscious veterans and they had literally been in the trenches together. >> yep. >> so they knew that the enemy was not the guy across the aisle, it was the dictator across the sea. and the whole country had gone to war. the whole country had sacrificed and had rationing and all that. so we have somewhat of a rosy view of how things used to be because we did have this little period of history. but now it is awful. and not to put too fine a point on it. and it does get to the fact that families don't come to washington and so they don't know each other so people can be -- >> correct. >> you can see someone as the devil if you don't really know them, you know. i had the great honor of being asked by mrs. ford to eulogize her at her funeral.
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and, as i always joke, i would have been terrified except she told me exactly what to say. >> what to say, right. hard part's over. >> but what she wanted me to talk about was how the families were all such close friends. but that's because we were all there together and we all knew each other. and so that's gone. >> so you think there's a legitimacy that the old chris matthews trope of late that when tip o'neill and ronald reagan at 5:00 would knock off, they'd go have a scotch together and that it was better in those days because people, the fraternity and the fellowship was actually -- >> but it wasn't just fraternity. i mean, the wives did it. you know, there was pta, there was church, there was all of that where people were together. so, yes, it was better because it's much harder to be enemies with someone that you actually have a relationship with. >> right, look them in the eye. >> and the kids play with each other and all of that. so i do think that -- >> is all hope lost? we just have a couple of seconds. is all hope lost? can we expect that at some point -- >> no, it's actually not all lost. i mean, it's tough and the media
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is definitely a co-conspirator here. >> right, but you mean them, not us, right? that's it. [laughter]. >> right. >> yes. >> and the bloggers' fear and all of that. >> right. >> but there are people consciously trying to make it better right now. >> good. well, let's leave on that up note, how about that? wonderful to be with you. congratulations on the book. let's hope it's another big success. >> thanks so much. >> good. cokie roberts, thank you so much. [applause]. >> we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our web at to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. >> i had a really interesting conversation with george w. bush the last year of his presidency. i got a call from the white house press secretary, dana perino, who i didn't really know. and she said, you know, would you like to ride with the president out to andrews air force base when he goes to greet
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the pope? and i said, okay. >> sure. [laughter]. >> let me think about it for a second, yes. [laughter]. >> funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global healthcare consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you.
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