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‘She really didn’t give up’: Remembering the life and career of RBG

Nina Totenberg, NPR’s correspondent for legal affairs, first met Justice Ruth Bader Ginberg over the phone nearly 50 years ago, beginning a professional relationship, which eventually morphed into a close friendship. In a conversation with Hari Sreenivasan, Totenberg shares anecdotes about their bond and what she learned about life, law and even death from Justice Ginsburg.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg's career on the Supreme Court spanned decades and one of the people who knew her best and covered many of her landmark opinions is National Public Radio Correspondent Nina Totenberg.

    They also had a deep and long lasting friendship. I spoke with her this morning from Washington D.C.

    Nina Totenberg, you have covered the Supreme Court and courts for decades but today, I think, I just want to speak to you as someone who was a close friend of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg. Tell us a little bit about what she was like.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    She was amazing. You know. My late husband was very, very sick for about 5 years. And during that time, she used to just call up, scoop me up, take me out with Marty to the opera, to dinner at their house with somebody interesting. Anything to sort of get my mind off of what things were like, a birthday party for her. I have a picture of the two of us wearing little crowns.

    And at the same time, she was this very serious person who could have a really deep conversation about the law with. Now, maybe it wasn't deep for her, when I discussed the law with her, but it was deep for me. She taught me an enormous amount about the law. And she taught me an enormous amount about how to live. And I have to say, she taught me an enormous amount about how to die this week.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How so?

  • Nina Totenberg:

    She had hoped to retire in 2017 after she thought that the first woman president would be elected. Well, fate dealt her a different deck of cards and she soldiered on, I can't tell you, how bravely through radiation and chemotherapy and shingles and broken ribs. She could have taught an NFL halfback a lot about playing hurt.

    She did it all the time and she did it not just in the final years of her life. She did it when she had colon cancer in '99. She did it again 10 years later when she had pancreatic cancer. She did it when she had lung cancer. And then when the pancreatic cancer returned, she did it over and over and over again. And as she said, she didn't do depression.

    You know, when her beloved husband, Marty, who she'd known for 60 years, they'd been married, I think, 56 years, but they'd been together for 60 years. when he died, and it was a crushing thing for her to lose him.

    The next day, she was on the bench announcing an opinion that she had written for the court. And she said she did it because Marty would have wanted her to.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do you think drove her to work this hard? I mean, you write about how not only was she dedicated to the law, but she was also for a long time, the sole caregiver for her husband.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    I think she had an enormous sense of personal responsibility, drive, devotion to the law and to family. Those were the two things that she cared about most.

    I mean, in a lot of ways she was a contradiction, you know. She was intellectually quite radical in some ways for her time when she began her crusade for women's rights to equalize the law as it applied to women and men. And at the same time, she was this dogged architect of the fight, she was an incredibly restrained and decorous and dignified and almost conservative and shy person.

    So they were two different things, and you didn't always know what was going on in Ruth's head, especially when there were those long pauses between sentences. She never said 'um' ever. Ever. It was not a comma for her, it was not a word. She was not about to utter it. She thought and then she spoke. And so in that way, she was not only remarkable, she was especially special. She was different than any other person I've ever known.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, you sent out a tweet that I want to draw our viewers' attention to about a Jewish teaching and the fact that she passed at Rosh Hashana.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    So her daughter, Jane, called my attention to this because she died, of course, on Rosh Hoashana. A Jewish teaching, I looked this up, says that those who die just before the Jewish New Year are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were needed the very most and they were the most righteous. And so it was with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I said in my tweet, who died as the sun was setting last night, marking the beginning of Rosh Hashana.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nina Totenberg, thanks so much.

  • Nina Totenberg:

    Thank you.

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