In nearly five decades at NPR, legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has become one of the most recognized voices covering the Supreme Court. She's also left a mark on NPR itself as one of the "Founding Mothers" of the network.
Recently, Totenberg reflected on her career, including her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a new memoir, “Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships.”
CapRadio Insight host Vicki Gonzalez spoke with Totenberg about the memoir, her time with Ginsburg and her thoughts on the controversies surrounding the Supreme Court.
Totenberg will be speaking Feb. 3 at the Mondavi Center at UC. Davis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re considered a founding mother of NPR. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of a term like this, which is of endearment and deep respect?
The longer it lasts, the worse it gets. So being a founding mother wasn't so bad 20 years ago, but now it's a little bit, okay, let's just move on to calling me something else.
Given that you've been writing and reporting for more than 50 years, it's safe to say it is a skill of yours. But what's different or what's even challenging about writing a memoir?
What was most challenging about writing a memoir was doing it while holding down a day job. And I have to say that in addition to nights and weekends, I did a lot of it on vacations. In fact, even this August, when I had already finished the book and it was being printed, I signed 6,000 book plates so that people would buy the book.
When did you land on the title “Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships”?
This is a book that's about more than dinners with Ruth or even my friendship with her. But in the last analysis, the publisher came up with the idea. I figured that they had paid me very well to write the book and that they should get the title of their choice. And the second part, “A Memoir on the Power of Friendships,” was my contribution.
Right. Because you do include other friendships as well.
Lots of other friendships, including not just with my NPR sisters, but with my blood sisters who I talk to every week for a long time, at least once. And sometimes we, the three of us, talk together … And of course, there were lots of justices along the way who became my professional friends and in some sense as personal friends too.
Now you're touring and speaking about your writing about meaningful memories, and you're going to be at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on February 3rd. What have these interviews and these talks in front of an audience added to your very personal experience and friendships with many people, including the late Justice Ginsburg?
I do think that friendship, whether it's friendship with your family or friendship with your quote friends or your professional friends, is the basis of living a life. And I came to sort of formulate that idea in the process of writing this book.
And in doing that, I think it crystallized how much friendship has meant to me from everybody in my life, including my husband's. And I think when you read the book, you will see in very concrete terms how in a crisis these are the folks who rush in to help you and cheer you up and make you able to keep your head above water… And I try to do that for other people now, and I'm not sure I would have known to do that without learning the lesson of friendship from my friends. Including Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
And the fact that the first time you two met was before your days at NPR, even, and well before her days in the Supreme Court. Why do you think your professional relationship evolved into such a strong friendship over nearly five decades?
You can never entirely measure these things, and certainly in the beginning I was “the apprentice” trying to learn something about law and the Supreme Court from somebody significantly older than me, more than a decade older than I am, and who had already achieved a great deal but was not really recognized yet. She was a professor at Rutgers Law School, and I called her about the first brief she filed in the Supreme Court. And so although our lives were hardly parallel, I mean, hers was really significant. Mine was perhaps occasionally journalistically significant, but nothing like hers.
But our lives increasingly came closer together after she was appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals and moved from New York to Washington and then to the Supreme Court, where I was covering her now for the first time and trying to figure out how to keep journalistic boundaries at the same time that this woman who'd become my friend could stay my friend. And we became even closer because we were able to have those boundaries.
And we had wonderful husbands who complemented each other and complimented us to boot. And it just evolved over time until the last year of her life, when by then her husband had died and her daughter Jane and her son James, would come to D.C. to help be with her in her apartment. But she wasn't even with them all the time. But she would come to dinner almost every Saturday night for that last period of her life when we were all in lockdown. And because my husband is a surgeon and had been her medical confidant for years, she knew she would be safe at our house and so did her daughter, son and her granddaughter, too.
Is covering the Supreme Court different following Justice Ginsburg's passing?
It's different than at any time in my years of covering the court because I have never covered the court when there was such a lopsided ideological balance or lack of balance on the court. I mean, there's always been a center and there is no center anymore.
With that, I would love your thoughts on one of the biggest decisions last year, and that started with a draft leak of the Dobbs decision that effectively overturned Roe versus Wade, as we all know. How do you think a leak of this magnitude was even possible?
First of all, speaking of conflicts of interest, let's just put something on the table here. The journalists survive and prosper by getting people to talk to them. So having a leak of this magnitude at the Supreme Court has such repercussions for the way the institution functions within its own parameters. I mean, I've talked to many, many people who work at the court, who've worked at the court for a very long time, who are contemplating leaving because of the atmosphere at the court after the leak …
It's a very different institution [now]. And in part, it's because of that leak, not entirely, but in part it's because of that leak. I've often said that it's the only major journalistic coup that I'm very glad was not mine, because everybody who looked at me would immediately run the other direction. I couldn't get anybody to talk to me about anything. And you do need to know more than the words on a page. You need some sense of the institution. It is the third branch of government, the judiciary, and the fact that it's so at the moment, such an unhappy place, in part because of that leak, is, I think, problematic. Let's just put it that way.
Would you go as far to say, as publishing this leak that it was irresponsible?
No, I don't think you can say that. I mean, our job is to gather the news now. It's not for me to decide what's good to know, for people to know and not know. That would be the ultimate in censorship, which is why I'm very glad that nobody offered me this story, because I would have had to have done the story.
Ending with your memoir, what do you hope readers take away about the power of friendship?
I often tell graduates when I give a commencement speech for all the things that I am telling them on this day … the most important thing to know is that at some point in your life, you will be in a crisis. And if you have been a good person, people will come and help you in that crisis and through that crisis. And the best lesson to learn from that is how you can do that for somebody else.