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NPR's Nina Totenberg offers a window into her world in 'Dinners with Ruth'

Dinners with Ruth
Simon & Schuster

Count me among those who rely on NPR reporter Nina Totenberg's crystalline explanations for all things legal, especially Supreme Court arcana — no one is clearer and more incisive.

Now comes Totenberg with Dinners with Ruth, a memoir ostensibly about her long friendship with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"Ostensibly" because this book is not quite about dinners with Ruth; it is a memoir about Nina Totenberg, a jaunt through her captivating life and career, nose for the jugular, and forthrightness about her joys and sorrows. The book opens a window into the history of professional women in the workplace, as well as the trajectory of the Supreme Court over the last 50 years. Above all, Totenberg's book is about the abiding importance of friendship.

Totenberg, born in 1944, came of age as a journalist in the early days of NPR, and together with her radio "sisters" Linda Wertheimer, and the late Cokie Roberts, formed a formidable reporting triumvirate. They breached a man's world in a time when it was not the norm to become friends with fellow women at work. But they did; they needed each other both personally and professionally.

Without graduating college, Totenberg developed singular legal expertise through her dogged efforts to get to know the people who make law. Her lengthy in-person interviews — obtained through grit and perseverance — are core to her strategy: forming bonds with everyone in the legal workplace, including elevator operators and receptionists, who are often invaluable sources.

A foodie acquainted with great home cooks — many of them men — Totenberg attends and gives parties, lunches, and dinners with anyone who's anyone in the nation's capital. Her star-studded social life is germane to the way she transacts business, and she partakes gleefully. As she namedrops her way through the politically well-connected and influential, Totenberg brings the charm and self-deprecation to keep us turning pages.

For Totenberg, friendship is a skill she had to learn. This book shows how and from whom she learned it. True friendship, she believes, is "sustained by a certain level of humility." A detached retina she suffered as a young reporter in 1976 sobered Totenberg to the necessity of foul weather friends. As she embarks on her friendship education, Totenberg becomes more deeply engaged with those in her circle who require tending — Cokie Roberts as she fought terminal breast cancer over long years, Ruth Ginsburg whose bouts of cancer plagued her for decades until her death in 2020, and the wrenching series of health crises that embattled Totenberg's first husband, former Colo. Sen. Floyd Haskell, over the last four years of his life.

Totenberg "met" Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1971, when Ginsburg was a Rutgers law professor who had just authored the ACLU brief arguing that women were entitled to the same equal protection guarantees as men under the 14th Amendment. This winning argument, "which may seem obvious today," was anything but. Totenberg phoned to ask Ginsburg to explain her legal theory, and Ginsburg spent an hour walking Totenberg through the intricate framework of her argument. Totenberg emerged from the conversation "like a goose that had just been stuffed in preparation for foie gras."

Their relationship became closer when Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1980 and she and her husband, Marty, moved to Washington. Totenberg had recently married her first husband, former Sen. Haskell. Marty Ginsburg was a marvelous cook; Totenberg remembers what the two couples ate and where they ate it over many years. Not only was Ginsburg an engaging dinner companion, she was also a critical legal source, a wise personal counselor, and a fashion consultant. "Shopping with Ruth was a humbling experience. She was petite and beautiful and could wear almost anything."

Totenberg became a household name during the now infamous hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. She broke the story of accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed law professor Anita Hill while she was in his employ. In light of the tsunami of criticism and threats, Totenberg insisted that NPR retain the legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to ensure that she could protect her sources. For a time, Totenberg was the story, "Nothing I'd ever done in my life, good, bad, or indifferent, went unexamined."

Totenberg takes readers inside her romance and second marriage to surgeon David Reines — Justice Ginsburg officiated — and explores the impact on the justice (not much) of Ginsburg's anomalous rise to pop stardom as RBG. Although Reines was a critical medical advisor to Ginsburg's family, Totenberg says he kept related knowledge and advice confidential from his wife.

Also in the book, Justice Ginsburg goes to the opera with her ideological opponent Justice Antonin Scalia — and Totenberg dines with Supreme Court justices even as, or because, she covers them. If all of this triggers uncomfortable ethical questions, Totenberg doesn't agree; as an equal-opportunity-reporter and social animal, she'll sit down with anyone, no matter their political or ideological persuasion.

In Dinners with Ruth, readers will learn about the critical role Ginsburg played in expanding women's rights before and after she was on the bench. Totenberg's look behind Ginsburg's legendary reserve is of special interest. But let's face it, this memoir is a romp through Washington's glitterati — Republican and Democrat alike — penned by a reporter who thrives on it. What's not to enjoy about being in Totenberg's sparkling company for an entire book?

Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in September.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.