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Our complacent insiders

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Ben Bradlee (far left) and his close personal friend Jack Kennedy (far right)

Because John Roberts ultimately decided that he had higher priorities than fully overruling Roe v. Wade, this outcome was evitable even given the same unfortunate election outcomes. Nina Totenberg’s new Inside Baseball Without Shame memoir is an inadvertent illustration of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg come to think of herself as Too Personally Indispensable to resign when she should have in 2013, and the complacency of a critical element of the liberal legal world in general:

Nina Totenberg, the longtime NPR legal affairs correspondent, has a defiant message for her haters in her new book Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships. Despite persistent criticisms of her decades-long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg—including an assessment from NPR’s public editor in September 2020, shortly after Ginsburg’s death, that NPR should have disclosed the friendship early and often—Totenberg chose to write a turgid memoir centering that friendship. It’s a “don’t even bother coming for me” response, emphasizing her choice to spend decades flouting basic ethical standards. Get in, losers: We’re going self-aggrandizing.

There are two main problems with Dinners with Ruth, a book written in the cadence of your airplane row mate who won’t stop broadcasting their meandering life story. First, Totenberg blithely casts her relationship with Ginsburg as something to be celebrated rather than criticized. Second, by depicting the justices—her pals—as foibled geniuses, she ignores the power they wield as unaccountable super-legislators eager to take your civil rights away and transfer them to a corporation in need. 

Dinners With Ruth works through an identity crisis in real time: Is it a biography, a memoir, or yet another spine on the shelf of Supreme Court “behind the curtain” books? Totenberg herself doesn’t know, as the book caroms among biographical sketches, under-detailed anecdotes, and surface-level Supreme Court case summaries. Don’t read this if you want expert legal analysis, let alone a mea culpa for the years Totenberg spent reporting on people she was also inviting to dinner parties. Do remember to bring an insulin shot for the treacle.

Totenberg does acknowledge a couple ethical violations early in her career: plagiarizing quotes for a piece in the 1970s, and later writing an op-ed in support of Ginsburg’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit while she was reporting on the judiciary. But those moments of candor pale in comparison to the rosy, uncomplicated stories of her friendships with multiple justices. 

Antonin Scalia, whom she “loved,” figures in one of the book’s most disturbing episodes. Just days after D.C. v. Heller, the 2008 case that ungrammatically discovered an individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, Totenberg and her husband hosted a dinner party with the Scalias in attendance. Totenberg’s husband placed plastic squirt guns in each soup bowl and later aimed a Super Soaker at Scalia. This, Totenberg recalls, “brought down the house” with laughter.

Comedy gold!

Totenberg’s belief that her friendship was more important than the public’s interest in transparency about the Court continued until the end of her good friend’s life:

Did Nina Totenberg know a secret that could have changed history?

The question hovers over Dinners With Ruth, Totenberg’s new memoir of her four-decade friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, complicating the chronicle of the pair’s triumphs and sorrows, lingering in the air like the fishy aroma of the bouillabaisse Totenberg used to bring to the ailing justice.

It’s a question whose implications — for women’s rights, the Constitution, the future of the republic — are more important than the by now familiar debate over whether a National Public Radio reporter’s controversial ties to a powerful jurist she covered violated journalism-school best practices.

It was 2020, an election was looming, and RBG was dying. During lockdown, we learn in the book, Totenberg’s home was the one place Ginsburg went other than her own apartment. Their weekly Saturday suppers made Totenberg one of the few Americans to lay eyes on the justice during the months of isolation. By July, Ginsburg could not climb the six steps into the house without a bodyguard holding her around the waist. At her apartment, she fell asleep midmeal, a fork still in her hand. She wore clothes meant to disguise how much weight she’d lost. Her gloves — which had become a fashion statement — were actually there to cover the IV wounds on her hands.

After a hospital stay, she confessed, for the first time, that she had thought she was going to die there.

Anyone who has watched a loved one fade understands how you can just know, even before you admit it to yourself. “I kept thinking, ‘C’mon, Ruth, you can do it, you can do it,’” Totenberg writes, referencing a scare right before Covid struck. “But I was enough of a realist that I would also wake every morning worrying about her.” As 2020 progressed, the reality became clearer still. “In the beginning, I had conned myself into thinking that there was every reason to believe Ruth would survive this. But as the months rolled on, it became clear that this illness wasn’t just lung cancer. It was a return of the old pancreatic cancer,” one of the deadliest forms of the disease.

What if Totenberg had gone on the air to lay out what she knew?

I disagree with the reviewer’s specific implication that more honest reporting about how dire RBG’s health was in 2019 and 2020 could have stopped Amy Coney Barrett from being confirmed — that die was cast when Ginsburg declined to resign before the 2014 midterms — but that’s still no excuse. The tendency of certain elite legal liberals to venerate the institution because of their relationships with the people involved and communicate this to the public has been a major part of the problem.

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