Totenberg had met Kavanaugh when he was a judge, long before the sensational Senate confirmation hearings and the allegations of sexual assault, which she covered in all of their controversial details. After he was confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court, she saw no reason to jettison a relationship of almost two decades.
Kavanaugh spent most of the party not talking to lawyers or judges but to the interns and residents. “Everybody was appropriately nice, as far as I could tell,” says Totenberg. It’s the same gathering where Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived after the crowd thinned and held what is best described as a small salon for rapt guests.
This has been Totenberg’s balancing act for the past 50 years, navigating that fine line between the professional and personal while covering the Supreme Court. Along the way, she’s become friends with judges and justices — most notably Ginsburg, the inspiration for her new book, “Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships.”
These friendships, writes Totenberg, made her a better, more generous person, teaching her about showing up when it counts. But they also, she argues, made her a better reporter: Getting to know justices as people — as well as jurists — leads to smarter, more nuanced coverage of an institution as complicated and important as the court. It is a very personal approach to journalism, an easy target for charges of favoritism and cronyism, which Totenberg — for the most part — has brushed off.
It is an old-school view of reporters and their sources, predicated on building mutual trust and respect. It’s one that has made Totenberg, 78, the best-known and most respected legal affairs reporter in America. “You’re either covering people from the inside or the outside,” she says. “I like to think I do both.”
Totenberg‘s book chronicles a relationship that began when Ginsberg was teaching law in New Jersey and ended 49 years later when the justice and feminist icon died in 2020. Along the way, the two women supported, shopped, gossiped, played and mourned together — all while reaching the pinnacle of their respective careers.
As a young reporter in Washington, Totenberg’s portfolio at a small weekly included Congress, the Justice Department and the Supreme Court. In 1971, she was reading a legal brief that she didn’t understand and called up the Rutgers law professor who wrote it: Ginsburg.
One woman was brassy and fearless (J. Edgar Hoover called Totenberg a “persistent b—-” in a note to an aide that she saw); the other soft-spoken and methodical. But they bonded over the lack of professional opportunities for women and the jobs they were denied. What started as a professional connection quickly developed into personal affection and mutual admiration. In 1975, Totenberg joined the fledgling National Public Radio (where she met colleagues and lifelong friends Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer) and focused on legal affairs. Five years later, Ginsburg was confirmed as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court and moved to the nation’s capital.
By then, Totenberg had added an unusual reporting strategy to her tool kit: an invitation to dinner at her tiny Capitol Hill home. One of her first guests was Justice Lewis Powell and his wife, Jo, along with one other couple she can’t remember.
“Oh, God, I can’t believe I did that,” she says. “I wouldn’t have thought I could do this if I hadn’t already had lunch in his chambers and he had been incredibly nice and willing to at least discuss how he did his work — not what he did but how he did it.”
She would not have, she says, invited a member of Congress to dinner, but 50 years ago justices were not considered political actors in any traditional sense. “What they do is incredibly difficult and complicated, and so it does help to know them — not just as that guy sitting up there, that woman sitting up there.” And she’d read that the way legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee got to know John F. Kennedy was at dinner parties. “So I thought I should try to do that.”
So began five decades of dinner diplomacy. Powell, then Sandra Day O’ Connor (who reprimanded her hostess for cutting the leg of lamb “against the grain”), William Brennan, Antonin Scalia and, of course, Ginsburg. Scalia and Ginsburg were polar opposites in terms of personality and ideology, but were famously close. Totenberg called them both friends.
“If there is one trade secret that I have found for making and keeping and nurturing friendships, it is the act of sitting down together for a meal,” she writes.
The relationships between reporters and the people they cover has been a subject of debate for decades. Joan Biskupic, CNN’s legal analyst and author of several acclaimed biographies of modern justices, described how she finally persuaded Scalia to sit down with her for her book on him — and it also involved a personal, out-of-office encounter.
“I ran into him at a wedding,” Biskupic told C-SPAN in 2019. “And, he was like, ‘You can talk to all my friends but you can’t talk to me at all.’ ” But something about the social event changed his mind: She shared some of her reporting about time his parents spent in Italy; Scalia confided that’s where he was conceived. “He called me the next day, and he said, ‘Come see me.’ ” Scalia eventually gave Biskupic 12 interviews for the biography.
Totenberg writes that she never got a scoop from Ginsburg, never discussed cases or juicy tidbits about the other justices. She never called her “Ruth” in public. The two women sat down for interviews more times than they can count and only once clashed: After Ginsburg publicly criticized then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016, she apologized and asked Totenberg not to bring it up during an interview two days later. “That’s my job,” Totenberg answered. “I’m going to ask you about it as I would anyone else. And if you want to get mad at me right there, that’s fine.”
Then again, Totenberg already had an extensive network throughout the legal world and a few massive scoops. In 1987, she reported that Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg (no relation to Ruth) smoked marijuana with his students at Harvard Law School — a revelation so scandalous at the time that he withdrew his name from consideration. Four years later, she landed the first broadcast interview with Anita Hill where the law professor publicly accused nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by Bill Clinton to the highest court. The question is unavoidable: Would Totenberg have shared a damning piece of information about her dear friend?
“If I felt that I couldn’t report it for some reason, I would have given it to somebody else at NPR,” she says. “But my guess is that I would have reported it.”
Totenberg writes that she switched to her professional mode as soon as the nomination was announced: “In fact, I actually distanced myself from my old friend. I had no role to play except as a reporter. It would be inappropriate to celebrate the moment with her or to advise her in any way. Even to spend time with her. Our roles were obvious to each of us and they were entirely separate.”
Objectivity should never be confused with fairness, she argues. “Nobody is purely objective. It is not possible. … What all of us are capable of is fairness.”
The friendship of the two women was well known inside Washington, less so outside the Beltway — until after Ginsburg’s death, when Totenberg released a touching on-air tribute.
Though both maintained that the relationship never crossed professional lines, critics saw a conflict of interest or, at the very least, the appearance of bias. Some believe any reporter with a close personal relationship must recuse themselves from covering that person; that would have effectively prevented Totenberg from ever reporting on the court.
A less extreme solution, says NPR’s public editor, Kelly McBride, is that Totenberg and her editors should have been more transparent about the friendship over the years. “It’s clear that everything that Nina brings to the beat is of value,” McBride says. The problem: “Most listeners didn’t know and it caused a lot of people to question how you remain fair — and I think you can.”
What should have happened, says McBride, was more frequent public disclosure and an explanation from NPR on how Totenberg and her editors make decisions about covering the justices. “Look at the declining trust in media — why wouldn’t you be as transparent as possible?”
Now it’s all in Totenberg’s memoir: How the two enjoyed dinner parties (cooked by their husbands), trips to the opera and concerts, and the occasional escape to shop. Their friendship deepened during the long illness of Totenberg’s first husband, former senator Floyd Haskell, and the death of Ginsburg’s beloved husband, Marty. Ginsburg officiated at Totenberg’s 2000 wedding to her second husband, surgeon David Reines, who became a trusted confidant to Ginsburg as she faced her own health challenges over the past two decades. In the last year of her life, Ginsberg had dinner at Totenberg’s home almost every Saturday.
Totenberg is still furious that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow Ginsburg’s casket to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in 2020. McConnell had voted to confirm her; now he denied that tribute to her service and did not pay his respects when the Democratic-controlled House decided to place her casket in its Statuary Hall, she writes. (“The protocol is for a Supreme Court justice to lie in repose at the Court,” not the U.S. Capitol, said a spokesman for McConnell’s office.)
Totenberg ends the book wondering how the Supreme Court will change going forward: “Today’s Court is very different from the one she sat on.” The veneer of civility required of the nine justices to work together has been eroded, she writes; Ginsburg would been appalled by the leak of the draft opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion case and then “white faced with fury” about how Justice Samuel Alito used her writing from three decades earlier out of context to justify the decision: “Its visceral tone, plus the needless legal landmines planted for exploitation later, undermines not just the image of the Court, but the reality.”
But it’s still fascinating to her — whether the court is still, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist used to say, the “crown jewel” of our system of government, or something different now.
“I’d had friends say to me, ‘How can you do this at all dispassionately?’ ” Totenberg says. “These are friends who disagree with what the court is doing. And I say, ‘Because it’s a great story.’ We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.”