Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent, inspired an audience Thursday evening, Feb. 2, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a Q&A conversation based on her book Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendship, describing her friendship with former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her talk, moderated by Kerry Tymchuck, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, was part of the historical society’s Mark O. Hatfield Lecture Series.
Totenberg described her nearly fifty-year friendship with Justice Ginsburg, which began at a time when women could not get a mortgage or apply for credit cards on their own. Totenberg and Ginsburg were pioneers who tore down professional and legal barriers and paved the way for future generations of women. Mostly, though, the book is a tribute to the friendship between the two women that ranged from the challenges each felt to the personal joys and tribulations each endured during their respective careers.
“From the start,” Totenberg said, “we sensed just how hard the other had fought to climb the ladder to get to where she was.” Totenberg also enjoyed strong friendships with two of her NPR colleagues, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer: “We saw each other through enough ‘stuff’ and tough stuff–outside of work that there was no space for anything adversarial. We recognized that we needed each other.”
Totenberg told her Portland audience she was able to keep her friendship with Justice Ginsburg and their husbands at a cordial level while maintaining her boundaries with her. “The implication was, I cannot ask what is going on inside the court and she could not dictate what I am going to write,” she said. They were both very successful in keeping these boundaries, Totenberg said, and as a result were able to have a marvelous friendship not only between themselves but also with their husbands. When Totenberg’s first husband, former Sen. Floyd Haskell (D-Colorado), died in 1998 it was Justice Ginsburg who urged her to keep working, and offered her a meal or a ticket to join her at the opera. Nina eventually met and married a doctor, David Reines, and a deep friendship soon began between them and Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, enjoying dinners, movies, and evenings at the opera. Sadly, Marty Ginsburg had a reoccurrence of his cancer and died soon afterward. It was now the task of Nina and David to help Justice Ginsburg with adjusting to widowhood.
What distinguishes Totenberg’s book and conversation are Ruth Ginsberg’s friendships with fellow justice and political opposite Antonin Scalia. Ginsberg said they truly liked each other and made each laugh. They enjoyed a love of opera and theater and had a similar sense of humor. “He was just a delightful human being and so much fun,” Totenberg said of Scalia, “an amazing combination of interesting and hilarious. No one could tell a joke better. His timing was, quite simply, impeccable.”
One of the highlights of Totenberg’s journalistic career, she said, was to cover the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, and the allegations of the nominee’s sexual harassment toward law professor Anita Hill. The Thomas-Hill hearings never resolved the allegations against Thomas, and he was confirmed by the Senate in a close vote. Republican members of the Senate wanted to charge Totenberg with contempt of Congress for her reporting about the hearings. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) prevailed upon Congress not to subpoena Totenberg or to cite her for contempt, saying she was protected by the First Amendment.
Justice Ginsberg’s health began declining after a cancer diagnosis in 1999. Soon after, Ginsberg began a series of surgeries and radiation treatments to treat the cancer that would take her life 21 years later. Throughout Ginsberg’s cancer, Totenberg said, her friends and family supported her in many ways. When Ginsberg’s cancer became terminal, she continued with her duties on the Supreme Court with distinction. As Justice Ginsberg was dying of cancer, Totenberg and her husband took care of her and made sure during her last days that she would be treated with respect and dignity. Totenberg had Ginsberg and members of her family over to their house every Saturday evening for her favorite meal, bouillabaisse. During these evenings, she said, they regaled each other with fine conversation and large doses of humor.
Totenberg said she believes local news coverage of events in the United States needs to done better. Local coverage of school board and city council meetings, she said, is missing from local newspapers and news organizations. Young people, she declared, need to consider journalism as a career.
Totenberg concluded her conversation with a quote from her book regarding friendship: “There are some life moments that you absorb in a friendship, moments of deep vulnerability that you bundle and carry, because no one, no matter how stoic, can walk with every burden alone.”