Dinner with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships

Nina Tottenberg is the voice of authority in all matters relating to the US Supreme Court. Her 1991 NPR scoop On Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, she made history, and her insightful reporting has earned her numerous awards.

She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a reporter, and wrote in “Dinner with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships“I was much more interested in watching what happened and telling people about it than I was for any reason. Bored from her studies at Boston University, dropped out after three years not enough to enter the workplace, and fired from an early journalist job for plagiarism after she uploaded quotes from a profile about Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill without relying on the source, a junior mistake.

It was the ’70s and Tottenberg was in a hurry. She did not want children because it was very difficult for women who were interested in the job to run the family. She has consciously transformed herself from “nobody” – her word – to one of the most important Supreme Court reporters of her generation.

But this is only part of the story and not the most important part. “Dinners With Ruth” is about the development of the author, who began with “extreme independence and stubborn focus” and became “humbled by events and challenges beyond my control.”

Tottenberg met Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Ruth the title – early on, decades before either appeared, and their friendship is the core of the book. It began with a phone call in 1971 when Tottenberg, a budding legal reporter who had not yet worked on public radio, called Ginsburg, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU, about a case in which she was arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Equal Protection Clause applied not only to race but For sex too. the case, Red vs Red, overturned automatic preference for men in some court proceedings, and this was Ginsburg’s first victory in the Supreme Court. After this, Tottenberg wrote, called Ginsburg regularly, she became “one of my first translators on the finer points of the law.”

They finally met in person at a New York legal convention that was “unbelievably boring,” so they dodged and went shopping. Totenberg is a clothing connoisseur as an extension of her personality, and it turns out so was Ginsburg, whose colorful scarves and embroidered lace collars became her signature on the court.

The two women had much in common as pioneers struggling in their chosen fields, and when President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, they lived in the same city, and their friendship intensified. Tottenberg, who is in her mid-30s, recently married Floyd Haskell, a Colorado senator who had just lost his re-election bid. He was 26, and as a married couple they socialized with Ruth and her husband Marty, until one of those life-changing moments when Haskell, 15 years into their marriage, slipped on the ice in a Washington winter and suffered neurological damage. .

“At a time when the telephone was a professional bond between us, it is now a personal lifeline,” Tottenberg wrote. Ginsburg’s friendship was essential to boost her morale and help her regain her career in the very long five years when her husband needed extensive care. It can’t be done alone, and Tottenberg credits her friends for coming to her rescue in what has been dubbed NPR’s “fallopian forest” — especially Cookie Robertswhose dedication made her the “Main Chief” of the group.

Totenberg, a relatively young 58-year-old widow, remembers sitting in the Supreme Court and looking around and not seeing any men she wanted to date, let alone kissing. Then came the chance encounter during the family’s visit in Boston to the physician David Raines of her life. Her mother, a real estate agent, He sold him a house when his wife was battling cancer. I’ve also been widowed recently.

Tottenberg invited him to a concert, where he met her father, Roman Totenberg, a famous violinist until his death at the age of 101 in 2012. Other than Anita Hill, the story that Tottenberg is best known for is hers. a novel From recovering 35 years after a Stradivarius violin was stolen from her father by a disgruntled student.

After a whirlwind romance in which two people in their fifties discover that falling in love isn’t just for young men, Nina and David got married, and RBG performed the ceremony. Tottenberg later learned that justice almost didn’t work. She was in the hospital the day before. In the book, as in their lives, the scene foreshadows what will happen, with the death of first Marty Ginsburg in 2010, then Ruth in September 2020, and continuing the many ways in which this quadruple has come to love and depend on each other. Each other in the hardest times.

Reigns, a trauma surgeon, becomes RBG’s secret lifeline as she struggles to survive, eventually losing her bet that the first female president will name her successor. Totenberg wrote that she didn’t know until then mentioned by the New York Times posthumously, that President Barack Obama suggested at a private lunch in July 2013 that Ginsburg step down to allow him to choose her replacement. She chose not to make the move, and the result is a 6-3 majority court of Conservatives.

For readers looking for insights into RBG’s thinking on important topics, that’s not what this memoir is about. “I never got anything from her, and she never volunteered anything so secret,” Tottenberg wrote.

“Dinners With Ruth” acknowledges the conflicts of interest that can arise when journalists feel comfortable with the people they are covering. Totenberg’s friendship with RBG flourished in part because she predated fame and Justice knew Totenberg didn’t want “any piece of it”.

The isolationism associated with Washington is evident in the dinner scene in the days after the 2008 Supreme Court Heller Resolution, which expanded individual pistol rights for self-defense. With Judge Antonin “Nino” Scalia and his wife among the guests, Tottenberg’s husband David, who treats gunshot victims, put a plastic gun in everyone’s soup bowl. That laughed, but there was more. Writing to the majority, Scalia saw that among the advantages of the pistol, “it can be pointed at the thief with one hand while the other hand calls the police.” David pulled out a huge Super Soaker, pointed at Scalia and asked, “Am I still calling 911 with the other hand?” This led to the collapse of the house.

As a reader, I found it hard to bear the fun. At the same time, the journalist’s job is to take care of contacts and access, and Tottenberg knows the limits. In 2020, the first year of the coronavirus lockdown, the Tottenberg dinner table was Ginsburg’s only refuge in the last months of her life.

The friendships that Tuttenberg describes in her memoirs are mainly with the judges who are now gone, and she wonders whether, in our current climate, the friendship of Ruth and Nino, or that of Nina and Nino, “could take root and flourish? And what does the answer to that question mean for all of us?” readers who Respecting and admiring the Tottenberg reports, they will understand what has been lost and lament what cannot be restored.

Eleanor Clift is a columnist for The Daily Beast.

Memoirs about the power of friendships

Simon & Schuster. 320 pages $27.99.

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