Book review of ‘Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships’

Nina Totenberg is the voice of authority on all things related to the US Supreme Court. Her 1991 NPR scoop on Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas made history, and her insightful reporting has earned her numerous awards.

She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a reporter, she writes in “Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships”: “I was much more interested in watching what went on and telling people about it than I was in fighting for any cause. ” Bored with her studies at Boston University, she dropped out after not quite three years to enter the workplace, and she was fired from an early journalism job for plagiarism after she lifted quotes for a profile about Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill without crediting the source and rookie mistake.

It was the 1970s and Totenberg was in a hurry. She didn’t want children because it was too hard for career-minded women to manage a family. She consciously transformed herself from a “nobody” – her word – into one of the most consequential Supreme Court reporters of her generation.

But that’s only part of the story, and not the most important part. “Dinners With Ruth” is about the evolution of the author, who started out “fiercely independent and doggedly focused” and became “humbled by events and challenges beyond my control.”

Totenberg met Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Ruth of the title – early on, decades before either had a public profile, and their friendship is the core of the book. It began with a phone call in 1971 when Totenberg, a fledging legal reporter not yet with public radio, called Ginsburg, a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, about a case in which she was arguing that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied not just to race but to gender as well. The case, Reed v. Reed, overturned the automatic preference for men in some court proceedings, and it was Ginsburg’s first win at the Supreme Court. After that, Totenberg writes, she called Ginsburg regularly, and she “became one of my first translators of the finer points of law.”

They finally met in person at a legal conference in New York that was “unbelievably boring,” so they ducked out and went shopping. Totenberg is a connoisseur of clothes as an extension of 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 a lot in common as striving pioneers 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. Totenberg, by now in her mid-30s, had recently married Floyd Haskell, a senator from Colorado, who had just lost his bid for reelection. He was 26 years her senior, and as a 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 .

“Where once the phone had been a professional bond between us, now it was a personal lifeline,” Totenberg writes. Ginsburg’s friendship was essential to bolstering her spirits and helping her reclaim her professional life in the five very long years when her husband needed intense care. This cannot be done alone, and Totenberg credits her female friends with coming to her rescue at what was dubbed “the fallopian jungle” at NPR – especially Cokie Roberts, whose devotion made her the “Mother Superior” of the group.

A relatively young widow at 58, Totenberg recalls sitting in the Supreme Court chamber and looking around and not seeing any man that she would want to date, much less kiss. Then a chance encounter while visiting family in Boston brought physician David Reines into her life. Her mother, a real estate agent, had sold him a house when his wife was battling cancer. He was recently widowed too.

Totenberg invited him to a concert, where he met her father, Roman Totenberg, a renowned concert violinist until his death at age 101 in 2012. Other than Anita Hill, the story that Totenberg is most known for is her recounting of the recovery after 35 years of a Stradivarius violin stolen from her father by a disgruntled student.

After a whirlwind romance in which two people in their 50s discovered that falling in love is not just for the young, Nina and David married, and RBG performed the ceremony. Totenberg learned later that the justice almost didn’t make it. She’d been in the hospital the day before. In the book, as in their lives, the scene foreshadows what’s to come, with the death first of Marty Ginsburg in 2010, and then Ruth in September 2020, and the many ways this foursome who had come to love and depend on each other sustained each other through the toughest of times.

Reines, a trauma surgeon, became RBG’s secret lifeline as she struggled to stay alive, ultimately losing her bet that the first female president would appoint her successor. Totenberg writes that she did not know, until it was reported by the New York Times after her death, that President Barack Obama had suggested in a private lunch in July 2013 that Ginsburg step down to allow him to choose her replacement. She chose not to take the cue, and the result is a 6-to-3 conservative-majority court.

For readers looking for insights into RBG’s thinking on critical topics, that’s not what this memoir is about. “I never got a scoop from her, and she never volunteered any top-secret anything,” Totenberg writes.

“Dinners With Ruth” acknowledges the conflicts of interest that can arise when journalists get too cozy with the people they cover. Totenberg’s friendship with RBG thrived in part because it predated fame and the justice knew that Totenberg wanted “no piece of her.”

The insularity associated with Washington is evident in a dinner scene in the days following the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which extended individual handgun rights for self-defense. With Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia and his wife among the guests, Totenberg’s husband, David, who treats gunshot victims, placed a plastic squirt gun in everyone’s soup bowl. That got a laugh, but there was more. Writing for the majority, Scalia had opined that among the advantages of a handgun, “it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police.” Pulling out a massive Super Soaker, David pointed it at Scalia and asked, “Should I still call 911 with the other hand?” That brought down the house.

As a reader, I found the hilarity hard to take. At the same time, it’s the job of a journalist to nurture contacts and gain access, and Totenberg knows the boundaries. In 2020, the first year of coronavirus lockdown, Totenberg’s dinner table was the only refuge for Ginsburg in the last months of her life.

The friendships Totenberg describes in her memoir are mainly with justices now gone, and she asks whether, in our current climate, a Ruth and Nino friendship, or a Nina and Nino friendship, could “ever take root and thrive? And what does the answer to that question mean for all of us? ” Readers who respect and admire Totenberg’s reporting will understand what is lost and lament what cannot be reclaimed.

Eleanor Clift is a columnist with the Daily Beast.

A Memoir on the Power of Friendships

Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $ 27.99.

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