“When Life Is Hard, Friendships Make Us Stronger”: NPR Correspondent Nina Totenberg on Her Best Friend—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and What Each of Us Can Do To Deepen Our Relationships
Four years before Nina Totenberg was hired at NPR and nearly 22 years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court, Nina called Ruth. Then a reporter for The National Observer, Nina was curious about Ruth’s legal brief asking the Supreme Court to declare a law that discriminated “on the basis of sex” to be unconstitutional.
It was a time when women were fired for becoming pregnant, couldn’t apply for credit cards, and weren’t able to get a mortgage in their own names. Ruth’s argument wowed Nina—and that call launched a remarkable, nearly 50-year friendship.
In her new memoir, Dinners with Ruth, Nina writes about her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice—as well as a number of other incredible women and men in her life, including her cherished NPR colleagues Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer; her beloved husbands; her friendships with other Supreme Court Justices (including Lewis Powell, William Brennan, and Antonin Scalia), and her sisters, whom she refers to as her best friends.
This week, The Sunday Paper sat down with Nina to talk about what Ruth would’ve thought when Roe v. Wade was overturned, the power of friendship to sustain and enrich our lives, and what all of us can do to nurture our friendships.
A Conversation with Nina Totenberg
I love the opening in your epilogue, where you write: “The Supreme Court’s authority is derived, in large part, from the strong voices of its justices. But Ruth’s voice, on and off the Court was unique and uniquely powerful, especially for women.” How did Ruth inspire you to use your voice?
I would say my book, Dinners with Ruth, is about more than Ruth and me. It’s about me and all my major friends—Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, my sisters, my male friends, including my two husbands—and I think they all influenced my view that I had a significant place as a journalist in the world. Ruth paved the way legally, in many ways. But so many people had a real influence on me.
The news of Roe v. Wade being overturned devastated so many of us—and many of us wondered, “What would RBG think?” What do you imagine she would’ve said? What do you imagine she’d want those of us who vehemently disagree with this ruling to do?
Well, I know that whatever she thought or said she would’ve put in print. It would’ve been in her dissent.
I don’t want to speak for Ruth. I think her views are in her writing about women’s rights, and when she testified before the Senate when she was up for her confirmation in 1993 she said it clearly: In her view, a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body was a well-established right.
Your memoir is about the power of friendship to sustain and enrich our lives. How have your friendships done this for you?
When we’re young, we don’t fully understand the blessings of life and the challenges. And the challenges are enormous as you grow older, and sometimes they’re really heart-wrenching.
I think the ultimate moment of my realization of the importance of friendship and family is when my late husband fell and sustained a head injury. He lived another five years somewhat diminished, and I had to take care of him. I could not have done that without my friends and family, who sustained me throughout that. Cokie went to doctor appointments with me, and she’d take notes. While Floyd was in the ICU for months, I was in such a state, wondering how I’d handle everything, and my sister Jill stayed with me every weekend just to sleep with me and give me comfort.
Everybody has moments like these, when you need your friends. I’ve had some; many people have many more. But that really taught me the power of friendships and the importance of duty. Floyd’s long illness and how my family and friends really showing up for me taught me that when you come to a crisis, do your duty. You’ll be paid back in kind a million times over.
What is one thing all of us can do to nurture our friendships?
I would say this: Go back to work! All of my friends, in some form or another, stem from work. I read a letter to the editor once by a woman in her 50s who came to realize that all of her sustenance—other than her immediate family—came from work. So that’s my message these days: Go back to work, even if it’s not every day. That’s where mentorships, friendships, and all things flourish.
I think it’s more difficult to make new friends as we get older. I continue to make new friends, but it’s not the same as those friends I’ve had for 30, 40, 50 years. I have friends on the Supreme Court, but it’s not the same as Ruth.
Life these days can feel heavy, and news headlines can be discouraging. How do you both stay informed and, as Maria often says, “above the noise?”
There are days, many days, when I read the front page and skip immediately to sports and style section. The best writing is always in the sports section! And style section is, you know, style. There are days when that’s what I do and I glean headlines from work. Given what’s going on in the world today, and in this country, it’s easy to get extremely depressed. You have to give yourself a break.
That, and lean on your friends. Sometimes with my friends, I’ll say, “No more political talk! If you don’t have some new gossip or new information to add, let’s talk about something else!”
What do you hope most people will take away from this book?
I hope they understand the power of friendships. I hope they learn a little history, too. And I hope they know at the end that friendships make you a stronger, better person.
Nina Totenberg is NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent. She appears on NPR’s critically acclaimed news magazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, and on NPR podcasts, including The NPR Politics Podcast and its series, The Docket. Totenberg’s Supreme Court and legal coverage has won her every major journalism award in broadcasting. A frequent TV contributor, she writes for major newspapers, magazines, and law reviews. Her book, Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships, came out on September 13, 2022.