Why RBG Reached the Hearts of the People

Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved an unprecedented mainstream popularity for her progressive decisions and her quiet persistence in fighting for equality and women’s rights. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sits down with Walter Isaacson to talk about the extraordinary legacy of the legal and cultural icon.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, as the tributes have noted, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was making history way before she became only the second woman on the Supreme Court. Within moments of her death being announced on Friday night, hundreds came to mourn at a sit-in on the courthouse steps. Flowers were laid. Candles were lit. She achieved an unprecedented mainstream popularity for her progressive decisions, and the cases she took and won cementing equality and especially women’s rights. Our next guest is the renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize- winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Here, she is talking to our Walter Isaacson about the extraordinary legacy of the legal eagle and the cultural icon known affectionately as Notorious RBG.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And, Doris Kearns Goodwin, thanks for being with us.


ISAACSON: Your husband, the great writer Richard Goodwin, got to know Ruth Bader Ginsburg when they were in law school together back in the late 1950s at Harvard Law School. What did he take from that?

GOODWIN: Well, I had known that he had been on the law review with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But when I was going through the papers that he had saved over all these years, 300 boxes of papers, I suddenly came upon a picture of my husband, as the president of the law review, sitting in the center of a group of 25 people or so. And then off on the right is this lace — this face, this face of a woman, and it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I was so excited. I remember carrying it into his study and said, look, here she is. It somehow made the moment real. But then the incredible thing really was the realization that, while my husband and his male colleagues are being romanced by firms all over the country, they’re flown to San Francisco, they’re phone to Milwaukee, they’re flown to Arizona, to Washington, to New York, because these law firms want them, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at that same level, even working harder than them, because she had a 14-month-old child and a husband, cannot get a single job in New York. She can’t get even an interview with Justice Frankfurter, who my husband ends up working for. And, just as a woman, it just got me all mad all over again. But that’s the way it was. There was a dean at that time, Dean Griswold at Harvard Law School, who went to those women — there were only nine women in the class of 500 men — and said: You are taking the place of a man. Why are you here? And the fact that she was able to get through that and become the story that she became, and not feel bitter, but rather open doors for other women to not have to go through what she did, that’s an extraordinary thing.

ISAACSON: Sometimes, you write about tales like that of adversity helping to build character. Do you think that was important in the character that she ended up developing?

GOODWIN: I think no question, Walter, I mean, not just the adversity of having to fight the expectations that were low for women in law school at that time, but in her own personal life, she lost her sister when the sister was 6 years old. She lost her mother when she was 17 years old. When she gets to law school, she’s not only taking care of that 14-month- old daughter, but her husband gets cancer the next year, and she’s taking care of him. And yet still she kept going on. She just had an amazing work ethic and an ability somehow to persevere through all those difficult times. And many of the leaders that I have studied have had that. There’s something about resilience and getting through personal difficulties that gives you an extra dimension, I think, of strength when you find your next resilience that’s needed for the next diversity. And that certainly proved to be true for her.

ISAACSON: But also, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you have empathy, it seems, that comes from so many things that hit her early in life. And, likewise, you see, when Franklin Roosevelt goes down to Warm Springs, you write about how he gets to know the normal people there who are suffering worse than he is, that they’re all trying to fight polio. And that gives him a depth of empathy that other people in his class don’t have.

GOODWIN: Yes, empathy is, I think, one of the most important qualities in leadership. It’s the ability to see people from another point of view, and understand their point of view, to feel what they’re feeling. I mean, that’s the one way in which groups in society can get together. If you’re feeling your section, your class is separated off from everybody else’s, and you don’t understand what they’re feeling — Teddy Roosevelt began to develop empathy when he was police commissioner, when he saw the tenements late at night, or when he investigated the cigar tenements in his state legislature, when he’s a soldier in the Army. And, in fact, he said, one of the great things about public service is, it takes you out of your privileged life and let you see other people living in different ways. And when you can understand them and feel for them, you’re going to want to do things for them, you’re going to want to make a difference in their lives. But empathy becomes that human quality that can develop over time. Some people are born with it. But most people, I think, develop it through experience. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg did that in spades, having grown up in Brooklyn, having been in a poor section, having had her family difficulties that she had to overcome, and then just kept wanting to extend that to more people. That’s the key. You want more people to have the chances that you didn’t have, rather than just wallowing in the chances that you have. Wallowing, I guess, is the word.

ISAACSON: It was 60 years ago that your late husband, Richard Goodwin, first met Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and you have watched her over the years. Are there any other leadership traits we should learn from her?

GOODWIN: I think there was that question of humility, that even, though she was becoming a more and more powerful person, she sensed a sort of joke about the fact that she’d become a cultural icon, rather than lording it over anybody else. There was such a sense of pleasure and joy in knowing that other people were able to laugh at the same things that she could laugh at. There was that sense of an ambition that was not necessarily for herself, but was for the court and the larger court. She also had that ability a leader has to change course when necessary. So, at the beginning, she was arguing her cases before the court even before she came on the Supreme Court. She won five out of those six cases. In the early days, the ones that she cared about, she was winning, and then she had to change course and become a dissenter. And she becomes the great dissenter, because that’s what’s needed in that place in time. So, I think you see that resilience, the empathy, humility, and the ability — I think one of the great things she had when I have heard her clerks talk about her, more than I knew before, was that, when she communicated in her opinions, she made sure that they were teaching people, they were in simple language. They weren’t in legalese language, because she wanted to educate people to know what it was that was at stake in the issue that she was writing about. And that’s the same thing FDR did. When a person would give him a draft of a speech, we want a more inclusive society, he changed it to, we want a society in which no one is left out, because he saw himself essentially as a teacher. And I have heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg say the same thing, so that her dissents are looked upon, not just as powerful arguments for the issue, but as teaching people why they have to feel the way she hopes they feel about why this is wrong and why this dissent was necessary to take place.

ISAACSON: In response to the push to confirm a successor to her, some of the Democrats are reacting by saying, if it gets pushed through by the Republicans, we should increase the size of the Supreme Court, that this is our way of getting back. The Constitution doesn’t set a set number for the Supreme Court. You have written extensively about Franklin Roosevelt trying to do that. Isn’t the lesson of Franklin Roosevelt that this is a bad idea?

GOODWIN: Well, you go back to that time with Franklin Roosevelt, and there’s two ways of looking at it. One is, he comes into that situation. He’s won the election in 1932 on the basis of the New Deal. The New Deal is under way between 1932 and 1936. One of its central parts is the Economic Recovery Act. He wins the election huge in 1936. Social Security is up at issue, minimum wage, labor protections. And the court is about to strike down all of that central part of the New Deal. It’s already stricken down the parts that were before 1936. So, he makes the decision that, in order to save the economy of the country, and to save the New Deal, he has to do something with the court. I think if he had explained straight to the court, straight to the country that they needed to add justices because, otherwise, the entire New Deal program was being broken in its place, and it was necessary for the country, he might have gotten the court packing. But it was a little too clever by far. What he said is that every time a justice turns 70, I’m going to appoint a new justice in this place. And he knew damn well that there were four conservative justices who were turning 70, so that would give him four additional justices. And then he said the court wasn’t able to do its work efficiently, because they were so old. I, of course, resent that being older than that today. Anyway, Justice Hughes was able to prove they were doing their court efficiently. So it didn’t work. It just wasn’t being straight with the American people. And then it turned out that one of the justices retired. Another one changed their mind and went along with the New Deal. So, the whole plan went kablooey in that sense. But it really does raise the questions. Once you escalate to this point — I’d love to hear your thoughts on this Walter, too — and you would start adding court — people to the court in order to make your political party have more people on the court, then what happens when the Republicans come along and have a majority in the Senate and a majority in the presidency, and then they add another three at their time, and then three more? And we could end up with a court with 30 people. And it would be a political institution, and not a court. So it’s a dangerous path to go down. But I understand why FDR felt the need to move in that direction.

ISAACSON: Well, I think that we have gotten into this cycle, and it starts with Robert Bork, where it gets worse and worse, and then we get rid of the filibuster for some judges, then finally the filibuster for the Supreme Court. And now it could get escalated even further. My question is, how do the de-escalation? How do you stop this process?

GOODWIN: Well, the de-escalation could start right now, if there were enough Republicans to decide that this is not right to go forward at this time and to bring in a Republican nomination so close to the election. Or even if they are saying possibly, if Trump would lose the election, they might still do that at that time, that will be yet another step in this escalating process. And then the Democrats are already saying, everything’s on the table, then, if that happens, if you don’t keep your word from what you said last time. One of the things that’s — that makes me sad about this whole question of the hypocrisy is that keeping one’s word, keeping one’s bond is such an important part in our whole political history. When Lincoln finally promised in September of 1862 that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and there was a huge blowback to it, and a lot of people thought, he won’t do it, he just won’t do it now, there’s been so much opposition. But Frederick Douglass said, we know one thing about Abraham Lincoln. When he says his word, he keeps his word. And even the last day of his life, he didn’t want to go to the theater. He was having so much fun being in the White House celebrating the fact that the war was coming to an end. And he said: “I’d rather stay, but I must go, I must go because I gave my word this morning in the newspapers that I would be at the theater, and my word is bond.” And we talk about it as hypocrisy or lying, but we’re losing something deeper than that. When a politician or any human being, when we give our word, and then that word means nothing, then the power of truth means nothing, and we have lost that sense of integrity that has to bind us as a nation together.

ISAACSON: There’s some very specific examples, especially, say, Lindsey Graham, who over and over said you can get count it as hypocrisy, don’t worry, I will not vote for a nominee at the end of a president’s term. Do you think, as a historian, those things will come back and blemish their historical legacy?

GOODWIN: I do think that, later on, what historians will look at is, what duty does a person have in a moment like this? Is it duty to party, or is it duty to the institution of the Senate, or is it duty to the country and duty to the Constitution? And it’s hard to see how that would be rendered by history as a duty to the country. It seems very much a duty to party and a duty to Mitch McConnell. When my husband left the Johnson administration, and then joined the anti- war activism, he was considered a traitor by his fellow people who’d been in the White House with him. They said, you’re biting the hand who feeds you. You’re giving aid and help to North Vietnam and to Hanoi. And he wrote a long as say, even at that time, about the duty of loyalty and exactly what I was saying, that, in the end, you have to bargain with yourself, is, where does that duty lay? And I think, too often, in our modern decades, we have seen the duty to party or the duty to section out do that duty to the — where do they — don’t they remember when they take the oath of office it’s to the Constitution and it’s to the country? And I think that sense of a larger identity with your institution — when, finally, Dirksen was able to come around and bring Republican members to break the filibuster, so the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could get passed, he was putting his duty to the Senate — he wanted the Senate to be able to not break over this issue. And he thought he could help that do — it’s that larger sense of ambition for something bigger than just your party. Your party is not supposed to be your whole identity. When you get into the Senate, you have got fellow colleagues. You’re working with them. And you’re trying to come to some sort of compromise agreement, so that there had to be some way for this to not happen in this way that it’s happened. And we just feel sometimes we’re just caught in it and we have no control over it anymore. But people do have a control. And they’re the people to — they have a control to reward or to punish the actions that may be about to take place on both sides.

ISAACSON: You talk about how party before country has now become the way it is in the Senate. Are you worried that we now have a partisan Supreme Court, or is it more partisan than it has been in the past?

GOODWIN: Well, somehow, we always do see moments on the Supreme Court when it seems so partisan, and yet somebody like John Roberts is willing to put the institution perhaps above what his thoughts might have been, and make a balancing wheel on that. And people do surprise you when that happens. But, right now, I think there’s not a question that people are seeing it more partisan. All the hearings that we have had for the court justices have become much more contentious over time. I mean, even 20 years ago, there would be an overwhelming majority that would vote for a Steve Breyer or vote for one of these people, even 10 years ago. And it gets into this pattern right now that’s going to be hard to break. And if the court just becomes another political institution, then we don’t have that separated powers that — because we need the court. We need the court. It’s there for a reason. And if it loses its own respect as an institution, then we have lost something really important. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why, when the Brown v. Board decision was being decided in 1954, the Supreme Court justice wanted it to be a anonymous decision, such a critical decision. They knew what kind of controversy it would raise. But if the court came together as a whole, then it would seem less political. So, there’s got to be those strands working within the court now for people who do have camaraderie with one — we have been hearing that, not only Scalia and Ginsburg, but more of them are camaraderie with each other than we think from the outside. They have got to fight somehow to keep that apolitical look for the court, so that we can value the court as its own institution.

ISAACSON: We lost two moral giants in the past couple of months, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis, people who fought for things larger than themselves. And there was a great outpouring of mourning that reminds me a bit of what you write about with Franklin Roosevelt, when he died, the notion that “he knew me”-type feeling about Roosevelt. What did in your mind, Lewis, Congressman Lewis, Justice Ginsburg have in common that caused that outpouring of mourning and what they have in common with Roosevelt?

GOODWIN: I think what we saw is that people saw in John Lewis and in Ruth Bader Ginsburg a person whose entire life had been devoted to public service, a person who had fought for other people, and who had given a sense of themselves to make things better, to make a difference, and that somehow they had come, by a power of example, to promise us that, even though we have been through very hard difficulties, John Lewis even more in some ways than RBG — RBG herself said that. He possibly could have suffered death. And he certainly suffered injury in the early days of the civil rights movement. But she had to overcome barriers to get where she was. And then, when people saw that they still remained optimistic, that they still believed, and they both said, we have made much progress, we cannot forget that, we still have a long way to go, it gives you hope for the future. And then somehow people felt an emotional connection to them. They brought — they brought things to the Pettus Bridge, as they brought things to the Supreme Court. And there was a sense they had become mentors and friends. And what they said about FDR when he died is that people were gathering all over the place. They just had to be together, because they needed to express to themselves, we have lost our friend, which is a great thing to say about a public servant. And, in fact, one critic said, isn’t it amazing? Millions of people in this country there are, and yet one people has now — one person has just now died. One person has just now died, Franklin Roosevelt, out of the 130 million in the country, and all the rest of us feel lonely because of that death. I think that’s why people felt lonely that they needed to go to the Supreme Court, they needed to go to the bridge, because they had lost a mentor, they had lost a friend. When a public servant reaches out to that level, into the hearts of the people, that’s really something special, and it’s something to be valued. And in the midst of all this chaos right now, to know that that’s what you can do as a public servant, it really should give young people as they look at what they’re going to do with their lives a thought that maybe there’s something special about public service. When you go in it, you’re seeing all sorts of parts of the country, you’re meeting all sorts of people, you’re possibly making a difference in people’s lives. And you may end up with a story like RBG or John Lewis or Franklin Roosevelt, where people will value that and feel a connection to you for the rest of their lives. Your legacy will live on for a long time to come. And that’s a great, comforting feeling as one faces the ending of their lives.

ISAACSON: Doris Kearns Goodwin, as always, thank you for joining us.

GOODWIN: I’m so glad to be with you, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with Stacey Abrams about Ruth Bader Ginsburg most famous dissent–against the decision to roll back major parts of the Voting Rights Act. She also speaks with Jeremy Farrar about the new coronavirus surge that has been steadily mounting in Europe. Walter Isaacson speaks with Doris Kearns Goodwin about the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.