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NPR’s Nina Totenberg writes about her friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Brian Chilson
/
Arkansas Times
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left) and NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg speak at a Clinton Presidential Center event in North Little Rock on Sept. 3, 2019.

In 1971, the same year NPR went on the air, a young court reporter for the network says she didn’t understand a brief that had been filed with the Supreme Court by an attorney for the ACLU. So, Nina Totenberg called Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who spent an hour explaining her legal argument that women were entitled to the same equal protection guarantees as men under the 14th Amendment.

It would begin a friendship that lasted five decades, as Ginsburg eventually became a justice on the Supreme Court and Totenberg became one of the best-known correspondents reporting on the actions of the court. Among their experiences was coming to Arkansas in 2019 where they spoke to a capacity crowd at an arena in North Little Rock, which Totenberg said she believed was the largest audience they had ever spoken in front of.

On Tuesday, Totenberg’s book Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships was released by Simon & Schuster. It shares intimate details of their friendship, including as Ginsburg’s health declined in the years before her death on Sept. 18, 2020. Totenberg also wrote about her friendships with fellow NPR “founding mothers” Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer, along with her own life experiences.

KUAR News spoke with Totenberg about the book and the event with Ginsburg in Arkansas, which was part of the Clinton Presidential Center’s Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

You write about your friendship with Ginsberg going back more than five decades and I want to start by going back to just over three years ago, Sept. 3, 2019. That night a capacity crowd packed an arena here in Arkansas, what was then-known as Verizon Arena in North Little Rock. Former President Bill Clinton spoke about nominating her during the first year of his administration and how he liked her immediately during their first meeting. Then he introduced you two.

(SOUND OF RECORDING FROM SEPT. 3, 2019 – APPLAUSE AS TOTENBERG AND GINSBERG WALK ON STAGE AND GREET THE AUDIENCE)

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

NINA TOTENBERG: Thank you all for coming. I think Justice Ginsburg and I have never ever appeared before an audience this large before. (AUDIENCE RESPONDS WITH APPLAUSE).

What was that event like for you two? 

Well, I found it extraordinary. This was an arena that had, I think, 18,000 people in it, and it was absolutely sold out from the get-go, and they had a wait list that was equal in number. So she could have talked to, I guess, you know, 36,000 people if there were a venue in Little Rock big enough. And there we sat sort of in the center, at the bottom of this huge semi-vertical arena, this tiny little woman and me. And I would ask her questions, and you could have heard a pin drop for, I think, an hour, an hour-and-a-half. We, I hope, entertained that audience. We seem to make them laugh quite a bit, and it was very successful, I think. But I just was amazed because RBG was not a fast talker. She would pause and think before she spoke, and the audience never got restless, never made any noise at all. We were there for the length of time of, you know, a long tennis match, and nobody went for a drink even.

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Clinton Foundation
A capacity crowd filled Verizon Arena in North Little Rock to hear Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak on Sept. 3, 2019.

It was, of course, the Clinton Presidential Library that brought her here. Did you and Justice Ginsburg spend the day here seeing any sites? 

Well, she spent a fair amount of time. She met with some of the students in the Clinton Center, but we were… it was a pretty fast in and out. We came, I hope we conquered. We had dinner with the former president and the head of the Clinton library and the foundation, and the next morning she met with students at school and did a couple of other quick things, and then we both had to go back to work.

Well, it was an amazing event. Great to see such a turnout. In the book, you share very intimate details about how you first met Ginsburg some 50 years ago and developed a friendship that would last for the rest of her life. Describe that time, both of you early in your careers in Washington in the 1970s. 

Well, even then she was sort of on the outside looking in. We both had our noses a bit pressed up against the window. She had her first brief before the Supreme Court. I was just assigned to cover the court, in addition to other things, and I didn't understand that brief and called her up. That's how I first met her. She and I had a conversation about the brief for about an hour and gradually over the years we became friends, first professional friends and then personal friends; and, then at the end of her life, I think she came to dinner every Saturday for something like 23, 24 consecutive Saturdays because we were the one place where she could go and be safe. My husband was her medical confidant, he's a trauma surgeon and general surgeon. And he was not her official doctor, but he certainly conferred with her doctors, and we would wipe down the entire living room, dining room [and] kitchen with antiviral stuff before she would come.

And I should note, Justice Ginsburg is not the total focus of your book. This is largely your story. 

It's a memoir, really written in terms of the friendships I made over the years, both at NPR, on the court, elsewhere, people who helped me, became my friends. My friends from NPR, Cokie [Roberts] and Linda [Wertheimer], and my husbands, both of whom were my close friends, my sisters, and what those friendships have meant to me in my life. When I looked at the number of stories I had written for NPR it was like 9,000 just Supreme Court stories. There's no way that I could write a comprehensive memoir or that anybody would bother to read it. But I did think that my friendships tell you a lot about life. What's important and what's not?

Did your relationship with Justice Ginsburg change after she was confirmed to the Supreme Court? 

Well, only in the sense that I couldn't ask her about pending cases at all. I mean, she was then on the court. You don't talk about pending cases when you have a Supreme Court justice as a friend, and I didn't even ask her about pending cases when she was on the Court of Appeals. That's just against the rules, sort of in the world, at least of the federal judiciary, and I didn't, but that didn't mean we couldn't become better and better and better friends.

You write about Justice Ginsburg not disclosing to you that she had cancer until just before she made it public. 

She did disclose it to my husband. She disclosed it for six weeks. She had broken some ribs, and they took a CT scan of her and it showed something weird, and so they decided to do more tests. And my husband presided over the biopsy and all of that, and he didn't tell me anything about it because it would have been a HIPAA violation, and she didn't want me to know. And, it would have been inappropriate for him to tell me something that he knew as her medical confidant. So, when it was finally made public on that very day after I filed my stories, I had dinner with my husband just before I was to do a TV hit, and the phone rang, and it was Ruth and she said: Nina, I’m in the ICU, sitting up, having some soup, and I wanted you to know why I forbid David to tell you what was going on. I didn't want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligation as a journalist.

Well, I’m going to go back to the event here in Arkansas three years ago and play a clip where you ask Justice Ginsburg about her health.

(SOUND OF RECORDING FROM SEPT. 3, 2019)

NINA TOTENBERG: I'm going to pause here and ask you the question on people's minds. You've had a lot of serious threats to your health this year. You were operated on for lung cancer in December. You have just completed three weeks of radiation treatment for an additional cancer. So how are you feeling? And excuse me, I'm really thrilled that we're here, but why are we here? You finished radiation treatment at the end of August.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, August 23rd was the last session, but I had promised the Clinton Library that I would be here and I just was not going to… (APPLAUSE) Thank you! And I am pleased to say that I am feeling very good tonight.

And the date she mentions there, the last radiation treatment. That was less than two weeks before the event here, and Justice Ginsburg would die just over a year later. What did that say about her still making this trip to Arkansas? 

You know, I think she was really, already pretty sick, and it's a measure of her fortitude that she had canceled a bunch of these speeches the year before, and she had promised that she would fulfill this obligation and many others. And she fulfilled almost every one of them before the [COVID-19] lockdown happened.

Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 34-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also reporting and anchoring newscasts.
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