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 Ginsberg, 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 don’t mean raiding the HIPAA-protected files of her physician husband, whom Ginsburg had by then made part of her medical team. (Totenberg, sticking to the rough ground rules that enabled her to combine her roles as friend and reporter, kept herself out of the loop on specifics). But maybe she could have broadcast just the things that would have been clear to a dispassionate observer, albeit hard for a devoted friend to accept: that Ginsburg was a desperately sick woman, that her family and friends were engaged in what amounted to an unacknowledged death watch — a report that would have lent flesh-and-blood immediacy to the bland statements from the court’s press office.
I, for one, would have been interested to learn that the legendary Nina Totenberg woke up every morning worrying about Ginsburg.
It would, of course, have required either some persuasion or an act of betrayal. But there’s a chance that a blunt story about Ginsburg’s decline might have changed the trajectory that led to the end of Americans’ right to abortion. As competitors’ sensationalist stories focused on Ginsburg’s health, activists might have gotten GOP senators (many of them locked in tight elections) on the record promising to not fill the seat until after the voters had a say in the November presidential election. The lurid coverage would surely have undercut the element of surprise that enabled Mitch McConnell to move almost immediately to muscle through a replacement.
Ginsburg’s fateful decision not to retire during the Obama years, her death just weeks before Joe Biden’s victory and her replacement’s crucial vote to overturn Roe v. Wade have prompted all sorts of what-if scenarios among those whose overblown devotion to Ginsburg has curdled into an equally overblown posthumous anger at her. What if Obama had leaned harder on her to step down? What if the Notorious RBG meme hadn’t turned her into a pop-culture icon with a universe full of digital defenders who would push back against any pressure to call it quits?
Now, Totenberg’s book prompts a new counterfactual that boils down to this: What if she’d been a more single-minded journalist and a lousier friend?
“At different moments in life, there are choices of lasting consequence,” she writes in the book, describing her feelings as Ginsburg’s health turns. “And I had one of those before me. For the next eighteen months, I chose friendship. It was the best choice I ever made.”
Totenberg, now 78, dismisses the idea that she had much to add to the public record during the year and a half before Ginsburg’s death. There was no big news she sat on. She told me this week that she didn’t know until summer just how bad it was. “When she started coming to the house eight months before that, she was looking pretty decent in those days,” she says. Totenberg only really knew, she says, when she stopped at her sister’s house on summer vacation and saw a video of RBG at a memorial event for a recently deceased federal judge. She was wearing a shawl and holding it out to disguise the fact that she’d lost even more weight.
And once the court, in its typically dry way, acknowledged pancreatic cancer around this same time (“the tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the statement said) she says the whole press corps understood. “All of us who cover the court, everybody knew,” Totenberg says. “It was a question of how long.” Even if they’d all written over-the-top stories about it, she says, no amount of news-driven maneuvering could have dissuaded Mitch McConnell from getting a conservative replacement seated.
I don’t think Totenberg was BSing me. But it’s clear on every page of Dinners With Ruth that the reporter deeply loved the judge, a woman who had comforted her in widowhood and celebrated her new marriage and taught her much about what it means to show up for your friends. The thing about love is it can make you not want to see stuff that’s right before your eyes. That tendency is hard to square with a reporter’s job. And when you’re a powerful reporter covering things that shape the life of a country, the matter of how you do your job is a lot more important than one lovely friendship or some quasi-academic debate about a journalist’s true duties.
Which brings us back to Totenberg’s confounding book, subtitled “A memoir on the power of friendships,” but actually a remarkable tour of how the connected Washington mind works.
The tome does double duty as a sometimes rollicking account of Totenberg’s ground-breaking journalistic career and a heart-tugging chronicle of the various Washington VIPs she befriended. It has some great stories — about the grotesque sexism of media and politics during the early years of her career; about the workplace racism she uncovered in her 1970s-era reporting on mistreatment of Supreme Court janitorial staff; about how she got the story of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas — but it always comes back to friendships, starting with the story of how a twentysomething Totenberg invited Justice Lewis Powell and his wife for dinner, and continuing on through stories of how Totenberg and her work sisters Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer advocated for younger women journalists at the nascent NPR.
They’re very sweet, all these tales of fundamentally decent people who have your back amidst grief and triumph alike. But as the pages go by, and Totenberg and her friends become more powerful, the theme becomes increasingly uncomfortable — and increasingly revealing.
It’s not that Totenberg pulls punches on the insiders who come to her dinners. She has a code, and while it might not be good enough for journalism-ethics busybodies (like the NPR ombudsman who scolded her for not revealing her RBG friendship), I’m willing to believe she keeps to it. Rather, it’s the way she seems to accept and share her insider friends’ worldviews. In this universe, it seems, we’re all on the same team.
The jurists Totenberg spent her career covering, for instance, are invariably portrayed as thoughtful stewards of the Constitution, even when they err. In the months since the end of Roe v. Wade, it’s become fashionable to think of the court as a blatantly political body. If you’re wondering why it took America so long to get to that conclusion, even as leaders of other once-admired institutions were exposed as hacks and nincompoops, look no further than Totenberg’s dinner table, where the likes of Nino Scalia (“a mensch”), Stephen Breyer (he and his wife helped clean up after an I Love Lucy-style dishwasher disaster) and William Brennan (he wrote a thoughtful note to Totenberg’s niece) were holding court.
And, of course, Ruth, as the book always calls her, the most admirable of all. One theory about Ginsburg’s decision to stay on the court was that, sharp as she was, she lived in a bubble that left her unable to appreciate how mean and extreme politics had become. If so, the convivial vibe depicted by Totenberg didn’t do much to clear things up. In fact, Totenberg became part of the RBG hype machine. As the justice became an unlikely celebrity, she and Totenberg developed a sort of stage act, conducting public interviews before ticketed audiences. Totenberg would share questions in advance. The responses were more thoughtful that way, which it seems was really what the evenings were trying to show.
With its odd, priestly culture, the court is particularly susceptible to this sort of veneration. Could you imagine a congressional reporter doing a book called Dinners With Harry Reid, tracing shopping excursions and intimate family moments with the late majority leader, who died the year after Ginsburg? I’m not saying Totenberg has to treat the justices as if they were venal, low-wattage members of the Palookaville ward-politics machine. But it’d be nice if she held open the possibility — a hard thing to do when you’re pals.
As the old journalistic adage goes, if your mother tells you she’s just a humble jurist calling balls and strikes, check it out.
In one particularly excruciating passage, the Scalias come to a dinner party shortly after the conservative justice wrote the precedent-shattering decision striking down D.C.’s gun laws. Totenberg’s husband, a surgeon who she says has operated on hundreds of gunshot victims, adorns every guest’s soup bowl with a plastic squirt gun. Everyone laughs. Hilarious!
Eventually, Totenberg even comes to rethink some of the damning conclusions she has reached about Washington’s good and great. Of “The Last Plantation,” her report on mistreatment of Supreme Court janitorial staff, she says she’d “skip the indignant tone” if she could do it again.
Likewise, Alan Simpson is rehabilitated. The Wyoming senator first appears in an ugly story describing how, during the Clarence Thomas hearings, he followed Totenberg to her car following a Nightline taping, screaming so furiously that the network’s hired driver told her she ought to get a gun. Totenberg eventually got out of the car and yelled right back at the towering pol, calling him a “fucking bully.” Not long afterward, though, she invited the bully to a Washington gala. Did he become an awesome source, making the whole hatchet-burying outing worth it? We don’t know. But she does describe him as a friend. Simpson “couldn’t have been a better date, picking me up, and even bringing me a corsage to wear for the evening.”
Totenberg’s book seems to be cast as a corrective against some national misapprehension that Washington is about nothing but bickering and partisanship. But that misunderstands why so many Americans are down on the capital. Instead, the rage stems from a conviction that the city is full of insiders who are all part of the same contented club, forever scratching one another’s backs. That’s a perception that Dinners With Ruth does absolutely nothing to dispel.
When we spoke, Totenberg waxed nostalgic about the old Washington of cross-aisle comity. “It was an incredibly different time and it was a better time,” she says. Today, “it’s better than people think it is, because there are people who are still friends even though they don’t advertise that. And there are people who still work together even though they don’t advertise that. But it’s much worse than it used to be.”
Totenberg would also not concede an inch to the critics of her friendships. Of Kelly McBride, the NPR Public Editor who wrote soon after Ginsburg’s death that Totenberg should have done more to disclose their relationship, she says, “I am not the only reporter at NPR who thinks that she has a completely unrealistic view of covering Washington.” What would a realistic view entail? “Think about Washington, D.C., itself and the professions that operate here. There are lawyers and lobbyists. There are politicians and policy people. And reporters who cover it all. And the reporters shouldn’t be divorced from all of that. We should know them.”
Hard to argue with that. But “know” is a complicated concept, one that friendship can deepen but also occlude.
If Totenberg were an architect or a history professor or an airline pilot or an actuary, the emotional blind spots would be her business. But she’s a reporter, a very influential one. Which means that those of us who have relied on her reporting but didn’t experience the heartwarming calls or the gossip-filled evenings are within our rights to apply a certain selfish cost-benefit analysis: What exactly do we get out of her friendships? Totenberg says that intimacy with justices and public officials made her a more thoughtful reporter and a better person. I’ll buy it. Yet even if you don’t think any amount of scary Ginsburg-health reporting could have deterred Mitch McConnell in 2020, it’s hard to come away from this book and not think the bonds also cost her something — and us, too.
Harry Truman famously said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. The phrase is usually meant as a cautionary tale — that humans, in a town of ambition, will eventually let you down. Totenberg’s book, with its tales of steadfastness and solidarity, disproves that line. But the phrase could also be read as advice. Maybe it means that following true north requires a distance that’s made much more difficult by genuine friendship. Which is all just to say that Dinners With Ruth left me wondering whether it would have been better if Nina Totenberg had gotten a dog.