A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NPR's Nina Totenberg discusses her longterm friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Our colleague Nina Totenberg has been covering the Supreme Court for decades.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: I was a young woman at a time when there were almost none of us in the workforce.

INSKEEP: And she has a memory of her early years of encountering another woman.

TOTENBERG: I was a newly assigned, very young reporter to cover the court. And I was reading a brief that said that the 14th Amendment guaranteed to equal protection of the law applied to women. And I really didn't understand that because it was passed after the Civil War for enslaved people to make sure that they were free.

INSKEEP: In a time when men alone had the vote.

TOTENBERG: And when women didn't even have the vote.

INSKEEP: Totenberg called a little-known lawyer in the case named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They became friends and remained so as Ginsburg became a Supreme Court justice years later. Ginsburg is now one of the friends Nina discusses in a book called "Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir Of The Power Of Friendships."

TOTENBERG: We had a lot in common. I remember how distressed she was because she'd applied for a federal district court judgeship. She'd been interviewed by this committee who told her she didn't have enough securities law experience. And she muttered - she said something like, I really wanted to say, how much experience do you have in sex discrimination cases or discrimination cases of any kind?

INSKEEP: Though Ginsburg is the star, Totenberg's book talks of a generation of women - and men who helped them - including some women known as founding mothers of this network.

TOTENBERG: I was experiencing and Cokie Roberts was experiencing and Susan Stamberg was experiencing and Linda Wertheimer was experiencing all of the same kinds of things that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was. We were very lucky to, in our formative lives, be together and to be able to help each other and to learn from each other and to lean on each other.

INSKEEP: How did you keep your friendship separate from your work when it became apparent that you were going to be covering Ruth Bader Ginsburg all the time?

TOTENBERG: It was oddly easy. The Supreme Court is not the House, the Senate, the White House, where the lines are very blurred, and you can get a scoop any day of the week. It's very clear that justices aren't supposed to and don't discuss pending cases that are before them.

INSKEEP: You never asked.

TOTENBERG: I never asked. I never tried to go over that line. And she, conversely, didn't try to do that with me.

INSKEEP: On reflection, she did once. Ginsburg got in trouble for criticizing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Days later, she was interviewed on another subject by Nina Totenberg, and the Supreme Court justice asked Nina not to bring it up.

TOTENBERG: And she said, oh, please don't do that. And I said, Ruth, it's my job. I have to.

INSKEEP: Totenberg did.

TOTENBERG: Why did you just think that it was time to say you were sorry you made these remarks?

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Because it was incautious. I said something I should not have said.

INSKEEP: Their professional duties differed from their friendship. For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, friendship could also be part of her professional duty. The liberal justice was famously close with conservatives on the court.

We are in an era in which a lot of people would ask, what is the point? What is the point of trying to be friends with someone on the other side politically? What do you think she felt the point was?

TOTENBERG: The point was you have to work together, and you might be more persuasive if you can get along, one way and the other way. I mean, there are times that someone might persuade her if she had a good relationship with him - because, most of the time, it was him - or she might be more persuasive. You have a job to do.

INSKEEP: Ginsburg was 60 when she became a justice in 1993. She was in her 80s during the presidency of Barack Obama. In retrospect, even some of her liberal fans criticize Ginsburg's choice not to retire when a Democrat could have appointed her successor.

TOTENBERG: Ultimately, I think she thought - remember, there was a filibuster then - that if she retired, that Republicans would block a successor. And she very much wanted to give what she thought was going to be the first woman president the opportunity to appoint her replacement.

INSKEEP: She thought Hillary Clinton, as most people did, many people did...


INSKEEP: ...Was likely to win.

TOTENBERG: She rolled the dice, and she lost.

INSKEEP: During the Trump administration, she was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors advising Ginsburg included Nina Totenberg's own husband. But neither her husband nor the justice disclosed the cancer diagnosis to Nina until just before Ginsburg decided to make it public.

TOTENBERG: And she said, Nina, I'm just calling you because I wanted you to understand why I didn't let David tell you anything. And she said, I didn't want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligation as a reporter.

INSKEEP: I was thinking that as you told the story, that her not telling you was, in a way, kind.

TOTENBERG: It was very kind.

INSKEEP: Ginsburg's death in 2020 allowed President Trump to appoint Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Trump had explicitly promised to appoint justices who would overturn the right to an abortion, and they did. The ruling quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had herself said Roe v. Wade interrupted political debate on abortion and also that it could have been decided on stronger legal grounds.

TOTENBERG: She thought a woman's right to determine her bodily autonomy should be equal to men's under the Constitution of the United States.

INSKEEP: The 14th Amendment...

TOTENBERG: The 14th Amendment.

INSKEEP: ...On equal protection of the laws.


INSKEEP: What do you think she might say today if she were still around and could read the Supreme Court ruling by Justice Alito overturning Roe v. Wade, which quotes Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

TOTENBERG: I think that's an indication of how much bad feeling there is among the justices on this court that that section was not taken out because it was written out of context completely. Everybody knows that if she had been alive, she would have taken his skin off over that section, but it remained in the opinion.

INSKEEP: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy includes famous legal arguments over equal rights. Nina Totenberg says she has another legacy, as a friend.

TOTENBERG: I don't know how I would have gotten through the long illness of my late husband without Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And I think that if you can do one thing - and I have one word for it - you will find that it solves all of the questions that you have. You have to do your duty. And if you do your duty in the middle of a crisis, you will do the right thing, and you will be paid back a million times over. I really believe that about friendship.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Her book is called "Dinners With Ruth." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.