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Nina Totenberg looks back on her decades-long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak during at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Totenberg and Ginsburg met in the 1970s and remained friends until Ginsburg's death in 2020.
Robin Marchant
Getty Images
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak during at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Totenberg and Ginsburg met in the 1970s and remained friends until Ginsburg's death in 2020.

Decades before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an iconic Supreme Court justice — and well before Nina Totenberg was an award-winning NPR Legal affairs correspondent — the two women became friends. They met in the early '70s, when Totenberg interviewed Ginsburg, then a law professor at Rutgers, for a story about a Supreme Court decision pertaining to women's rights.

Over the years, Totenberg and Ginsburg supported each other through crises, including the illnesses and deaths of Ginsburg's husband in 2010 and Totenberg's first husband in 1998.

"I have always thought that the best way to cover a person who's significant in the beat you cover is to try to get to know them and to have some sense of who they are and what makes them tick," Totenberg says. "And if they're nice people — and most of them are — they become a friend after a while."

As friends, they tried to avoid subjects that crossed over into their professional relationship, but maintaining that boundary was sometimes tricky. There was one scheduled interview, after Ginsburg had criticized then candidate Donald Trump, in which the justice didn't want Totenberg to ask her about the comments. But Totenberg knew she couldn't pull punches.

"I just said, 'I'm sorry, Ruth, I can't do that. That's my job,'" Totenberg remembers. "I said, 'You can ream me out in the interview if you want.' And she did. She reamed me out. So that's the price of admission."

During the COVID-19 lockdown, when Ginsburg was in poor health, Totenberg would invite the justice over for dinner. Ginsburg died Sept. 18, 2020, leaving a vacancy on the Court that was later filled by Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett. Now Totenberg has written a book about their friendship called Dinners with Ruth. It's also a memoir about Totenberg's life, and about her friendships with NPR's Cokie Roberts, who reported on Congress, and Linda Wertheimer who covered politics.

Interview highlights

On the test case that Ginsburg thought was sturdier than Roe v. Wade for protecting the right to abortion

She represented a woman named Susan Struck, who was a captain in the Air Force and who got pregnant. And under the rules in the military, as they then existed, she either had to have an abortion or be discharged, and she wanted to stay in the military, and she arranged to have the child adopted by people she knew. This is sort of the flip side of the coin. Justice Ginsburg's view was that women have a right to their own personal autonomy to what happens to their body, and that includes childbearing. And so she appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Court agreed to hear the case the same year as Roe. But the government, the solicitor general, realized it was likely going to lose this case, and it caved. It changed the rule. And therefore there really was no case and controversy left, as they say, which I wouldn't say broke her heart, but she thought it was a much better case and that it illustrated the dilemma of interfering with personal autonomy much better than Roe. ...

She often represented people who illustrated the flip side: Men who wanted the same rights that women did. ... [There was] a law that discriminated in one case, for example, against a man who wanted a tax deduction because he took care of his elderly mother. And if he'd been a single woman, he would have been allowed the deduction. But because he was a man, he wasn't. So it's a very classic "Ruthian," as I call it, approach.

On Ginsburg living with shingles in the last few years of her life

Oddly enough, one of the things that was the most painful is that a couple of years before she died, she got shingles. And in typical Ruth fashion, she just ignored it. She thought it was some little rash, and she should just tough her way through it. And after about two weeks, she went to the doctor at the Capitol who said, "You've got shingles," and prescribed whatever you prescribe for shingles. But my husband [surgeon David Reines] was in a state about it because he worried that because it had gone on so long and because she had other challenges, that she would never get rid of it entirely. And that's what happened. The blisters went away, but the pain did not. And my husband and her doctor tried everything they could think of to relieve the pain. And the only thing that worked was a lidocaine patch, which you can't have on for more than 12 hours a day. So she had to pick which 12 hours: Did she want to sleep or did she want to be comfortable on the bench? And the answer was she wanted to sleep.

On the possibility of the Supreme Court making contraceptive illegal

The greatest threat to contraception for women in this country is probably accessibility — that all kinds of things can be done to make it less accessible and to make certain methods of contraception, which are easier to deal with, certain IUDs, less accessible, and particularly for people in rural areas where there isn't a giant CVS on the corner, definitely more difficult to obtain. ...

The Court has ruled that if you're a pharmacist or providing a public service, you can't discriminate against people based on what they want to have that's legal, but I'm not sure that that will endure with this Court. I don't know whether it's likely, but it's possible — or it's possible that individuals will simply refuse to fill prescriptions and make it inaccessible that way. The array of possibilities in the clash between church and state as it currently exists is pretty remarkable to behold.

On the challenges of being 26 years younger than her first husband, Sen. Floyd Haskell

Well, the challenge really is that he was from a different era. He wanted me home regularly at night. He was very proud of me. And he was very supportive of my professional career. On the other hand, he really would have liked me to be home at 7:00 at night, and I couldn't do that all the time. And it would make him angry, not furious, but it was a constant irritant. And then this has had nothing to do with his age, but oddly enough, he didn't like big parties full of interesting people. He liked small dinners. So if we went to a big party and I was in heaven because I could find out all kinds of interesting things, and he wanted to leave. And so he famously said, "I leave without saying goodbye. She says goodbye without leaving."

On Sen. Mitch McConnell's refusal to let Ginsburg's casket lie in state in the Capitol rotunda

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi authorized the casket to lie in state in Statuary Hall instead, and that's the domain of the House of Representatives. So there still was this ceremony. It just was an indication to me of how far we've come in the partisanship of our country at the moment. I mean, McConnell didn't come to the ceremony. No top Republican from either House came. And I just thought it was — what my mother would have said — bad manners.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.