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Cokie Roberts Answers Listeners' Questions About How Government Works


And I'm joined by someone you, our listeners, know very well. It's Cokie Roberts. She has been doing a new segment with us. We call it Ask Cokie. You send us questions about how government works, how politics work. And she answers them. Hey, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David - try to answer them, anyway.

GREENE: Try to answer them.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

GREENE: Well, I love this one that we're going to talk about because, we should say, both of your parents were members of Congress. And Kathryn Bullinton - she wrote this question. What weight do politicians give to phone calls and letters? What's the most effective way to influence our congresspeople? What do you think?

ROBERTS: You know, that's actually a terrific question. And the answer is that they give tremendous weight to letters and phone calls from people in their districts. If you send blast emails from some sort of organization or postcards or, worst of all, phone calls, they are not only not likely to pay attention. But they're likely to get annoyed.

GREENE: Ticked off.

ROBERTS: Right. If you go into a congressional office, and there's some phone-bank thing going on, you'll see some poor, harassed child sitting at the desk...


GREENE: Dealing with all the phone calls.

ROBERTS: ...Dealing with all the phone calls.

GREENE: Welcome to my office. This is your first job.

ROBERTS: Right. Right. But if it's somebody who is from the district and, particularly, if it's someone who's active in the community in the district, members of Congress pay a tremendous amount of attention to those people. And the truth is if people from a member's district go to their offices and see that member, it really can make a difference.

GREENE: Hmm. But, Cokie, let me ask you about the reality. I mean...


GREENE: ...Almost every single House member seeking re-election wins.


GREENE: So why spend the time worrying about an individual voter if their seats are so safe? Don't they have a lot of other things they could be doing?

ROBERTS: You're right, though. About 96 percent of them get re-elected. But look. Part of the reason they get re-elected is because they pay attention to their voters. I always joke, you know, that they're like the old uncle you can't get rid of.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: They're at every high-school graduation, firehouse opening, bar mitzvah, first communion.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: But they're there to be in touch with voters. And the truth is that when you do that, you learn a lot. And you then bring that back to the halls of Congress. If you listen to your voters, it makes a big difference.

And you saw that this year in the presidential campaign, where, suddenly, the whole question of opioid addiction was high on the candidates' list, which - it hadn't been before the campaign. But once they started listening to voters, particularly early on in New Hampshire...


ROBERTS: They started hearing that. And so I think that members of Congress are very well aware of that.

GREENE: Does this extend to the White House? I mean, I know President Obama, you know, famously asks his staff to give him 10 letters a night from, you know, the throngs of letters he gets. What is the point of that?

ROBERTS: He apparently gets something like 100,000 emails a day...

GREENE: Amazing.

ROBERTS: And thousands of faxes and phone calls, as well as the letters. I think that, again, it's a learning exercise for the president. He's talked about getting at least a tiny bit out of the bubble that surrounds the presidency. He uses those letters in speeches to invoke real-world situations of voters and citizens.

And some of them are lucky enough to get handwritten replies from the president of the United States. And, of course, that's a very valuable thing for those of us who write history books because that's how we write history books - is from presidential letters and letters of the people around the president. So it's nice to have at least a few of them now.

GREENE: What about history? What about before emails, before the digital age? What was the communication with the White House?

ROBERTS: It was letters, of course. But, also, people showed up at the White House. And I have to...

GREENE: Actually walked in?

ROBERTS: Walked in - and it makes me so jealous, David. They were just - they'd just sort of barge on in. And Sojourner Truth had a very famous meeting with President Lincoln. And that was by appointment.

But she talked about going in. And she says - I'm quoting her here - "we found about a dozen persons waiting to see him. Amongst them were two colored women - some white women also. And he showed as much respect and kindness to the colored persons present as to the whites."

So you learn - we learn - something from that. But I have to tell you I love the way these women would just sort of go in and tell off the president all the time.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: And a famous story is during Andrew Johnson's administration, when Adele Cutts-Douglas, the widow of Stephen Douglas, tried to keep him from executing Mary Surratt in the assassination of Lincoln. She failed. But she pushed aside bayonets to go in and harangue the president.

GREENE: My goodness - what an earlier time.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

GREENE: The Secret Service might not be so keen on them these days.


GREENE: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts - always great to talk to you, Cokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.