Nina Totenberg On Amy Coney Barrett, Anita Hill And Saying Goodbye To RBG

Oct 22, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 4:03 pm

NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg has spent decades covering major shifts in the Supreme Court and breaking major stories about the court. Watching Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Senate confirmation hearings, Totenberg was struck by the nominee's reticence.

"There was almost nothing she was willing to say about anything," Totenberg says. "Amy Coney Barrett takes the crown for unresponsiveness."

Now, as the Senate prepares to vote on Barrett's confirmation next week, Totenberg anticipates a fundamental shift in the Supreme Court's outlook.

"With the ascension of what is likely to be Justice Barrett, I think we're likely to see a court that is more conservative than any court since the 1930s. And it could lead to very profound consequences," she says.

Totenberg says that if Joe Biden is elected president, any progressive legislation that passes is likely to be challenged "over and over again — the way the [Affordable Care Act] has been challenged."

"I don't think [Biden is] a fan of court packing or adding justices, but [Franklin] Roosevelt wasn't a particular fan of it to begin with," Totenberg says. "It took three years of the Supreme Court striking down essential New Deal legislation at the height of the Depression for him to make his proposal to add justices to the court."


Interview Highlights

On her friendship with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Initially, it was just a professional friendship. And then when she moved to Washington, we became really close friends. She was a very interesting person, in a way difficult to peg, in the sense that a lot of people took her for being a bit austere because, in fact, she was very shy and very quiet. So when you would have her over to dinner, you sometimes really had to strain to hear her voice. And what could you discuss with her, after all, you can't discuss the court? ...

But in fact, we had just many wonderful times together, especially in the last year of her life. During lockdown she came to our house for dinner every Saturday night, almost until the time she died.

On saying goodbye to Ginsburg

She was really not feeling well. And we brought dinner to her. And that was the last time I saw her; [it] was probably about 10 days before she died. But I did talk to her and I said goodbye to her on the phone. ... At that point it was just a couple of days before she died, and she couldn't talk anymore, but [Ginsburg's] daughter said she raised her hand to wave when I [said goodbye].

On if she thinks Ginsburg regretted not retiring during the Obama administration

Ruth didn't do regrets, and she didn't do defeat. She just soldiered on. I think that she regretted that Trump was president; I think that's patently obvious from some of the impolitic things that she said and shouldn't have said, on one occasion, anyway, but that's just not the way she operated. She operated to live and to get her work done, and she did that almost until the day she died. Not quite, but I'd say, within weeks. I don't think she even acknowledged the possibility of really dying before a new president — whether it would be Trump or Biden — was sworn in. I don't think she really acknowledged that genuine possibility that she was going to die before then until maybe a couple of weeks before she died.

On covering Justice Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 and breaking the story that Anita Hill had submitted an affidavit about sexual harassment that the Senate Judiciary Committee had ignored

It's true that it was ignored, but it's also true that she really didn't want her name to be public. When I talked to her at first, she didn't want her name to be public still. And I said I was trying to get her to do an interview with me. And she said that if I could get the affidavit, that she would agree to an interview. And I think ... that she didn't really think I could get the affidavit and that therefore she would not have to come forward.

But I did get the affidavit, and she lived up to what she said. She did do an interview with me. Almost everything that she said in the hearing she said in that interview. When I broke that story, I thought that there was a 50-50 chance it would just die, because if she left her house and was unreachable and didn't talk to anybody else in the news media, it would have died, without a human face. And she didn't do that. She was very young at the time. ... What she did was very brave.

On getting her start as a journalist

Often, in the beginning, I was the only woman in the newsroom, or one of two women in the newsroom, and that's the way it was for a very long time. If you were a woman, you understood that you had to be twice as good and that that wasn't fair. - Nina Totenberg

Often, in the beginning, I was the only woman in the newsroom, or one of two women in the newsroom, and that's the way it was for a very long time. If you were a woman, you understood that you had to be twice as good and that that wasn't fair. My mother certainly was a fiery dame, but she never thought I would succeed as a journalist. ... She had been somebody's administrative assistant and sort of ran his office and that's what she figured was the best that would happen to me, and I just wasn't prepared to accept that ever.

And I have to give some credit to my dad, who was a famous virtuoso violinist, and as a result, I did see women in music, not so many in the orchestra, but very talented musicians who were like him, performers. And he always treated them absolutely equally. And I think that that example got it in my feeble brain that I could do this job, I could do it well if I wanted to.

On how NPR had women reporters when other news outlets didn't

In the beginning, NPR was a tiny little place. There were 16 reporters in the newsroom, period. And now there are probably over 100. ... We had one overseas reporter, that was Robert Siegel in the U.K. ... We had, at some point, a totally hopeless management. ... They didn't like us because we were women. We were cheap! That's the only reason they hired us! We were cheap. You couldn't get a man to work for what we worked for in the early days. ... The salaries were really unforgivably low, and that's why we were mainly women in the newsroom.

You couldn't get a job doing what I did at a comparable news organization in those days, making the money that people in those other news organizations were making. There were very few of those people. That's the reason all of us of a certain age know each other. Lesley Stahl and I used to sit at the table in the Senate Dining Room, the press table in the Senate Dining Room all the time and talk because there were a handful of us.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Nina Totenberg, has been covering the Supreme Court since 1969 and is widely considered the dean of legal journalists. We're going to talk about the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings, how President Trump has changed the courts, Nina's friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and more. Nina became NPR's legal affairs correspondent in 1975. She's reported on major shifts in the court over the decades and has broken major stories about the court.

In 1991, during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, just a couple of days before the scheduled vote, before Anita Hill was ever mentioned in the hearings, Nina reported that she got a copy of the affidavit Hill had filed with the Judiciary Committee alleging Thomas had sexually harassed her. Nina read from the affidavit on the air. That led the vote on Thomas to be postponed so that Hill could testify publicly at the hearings.

Nina also has an important place in the history of women in journalism. Along with Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts, Nina is considered one of the founding mothers of NPR. At a time when few women were able to obtain important positions in journalism, Susan co-hosted All Things Considered, Linda covered politics, Cokie covered Congress and Nina covered the courts.

I spoke with Nina Totenberg Tuesday evening at a Zoom event that was a benefit for WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced.

Let's start with where we are right now with the Supreme Court and the big drama surrounding the court. So you watched Mitch McConnell block Obama from appointing Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, from even bringing it to the floor in any way. And you watched McConnell slow-walk Obama's nominations to the federal judiciary. And the McConnell philosophy was with Merrick Garland and the Supreme Court, like the voters in an election year, the voters should decide who picks the next nominee. And now, it is, like, weeks away from the election. McConnell decided to push forward. How is it possible for McConnell to do that, to make a change like that, to change his philosophy, to change his whole approach?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Because he can. He's got the power. The Republicans control the Senate, and Republicans within the Senate, I think it's fair to say, are falling in line both because of their constituency, because of fear of Trump and because of fear of McConnell, who controls the purse strings on a lot of campaigns and would make life very miserable for any Republican member of the Senate who defied him on this issue.

GROSS: You called Amy Coney Barrett the dream candidate for conservative Republicans and the nightmare candidate for Democrats. How do you think she might change the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, they always say that whenever a new justice joins the court, the whole chemistry of the place changes and it becomes quite different. I don't think that we're likely to see what her influence is or how her chemistry changes the court because she's a pretty buttoned-down person.

So that - the person you saw in those hearings, for example, was unbelievably unforthcoming, less even than Neil Gorsuch, who in a study done by a couple of professors at the University of Georgia was the least forthcoming other than Abe Fortas. Abe Fortas was the least forthcoming. They did a study of all the confirmation hearings where there were transcripts and they could see how nominees responded, and the least forthcoming was Abe Fortas, and the next least forthcoming was Neil Gorsuch. But I think that, probably, Amy Coney Barrett takes the crown for unresponsiveness.

And there was almost nothing she was willing to say about anything, including even to say that she - I suppose you could say it was somewhat telling when Senator Cory Booker asked her what studies she'd read about or books she's read about systemic racism in the criminal justice system - and there are some very prominent books that have won a Pulitzer Prize - James Forman's book - and also "The New Jim Crow," and there are just a zillion studies, and you don't have to work very hard to read some of this material if you're - if you cover the courts, for example, or if you're a judge. And she said she was unfamiliar with all of that. Well, that is either incredibly unresponsive or incredibly unfamiliar with the criminal justice system that she is charged, in part, with overseeing.

GROSS: She's a member of a conservative Christian faith group called People of Praise, and they adopted Pentecostal practices like speaking in tongues and divine healing. The group's beliefs include "a strict view of human sexuality that embraces gender norms and rejects openly gay men," and I'm quoting from The New York Times here. And male mentors are called heads. And women who are wives are supposed to be headed by their husband. So, you know, the man is supposed to be like the head of the household and have some, you know, mentorship - shall we say? - over the wife.

And as a reporter covering the court and the confirmation process, what role do you think somebody's faith should play in the confirmation hearings process and in the determinative process when somebody's faith is so connected to some of the issues that will be coming before the court, perhaps, like related to abortion, gender equality? You know, Alito and Thomas have said they basically would like to overturn marriage equality.

TOTENBERG: So I think this is a very difficult question for us as a country and for reporters and members of the Senate and for judges, too.

First of all, some of the characterizations that you read from the Times piece I'm not 100% sure are accurate anymore. Certainly, if you look - I mean, maybe they were some time ago - 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. I think that Amy Coney Barrett's father was extremely active, and probably still is, in People of Praise and was one of the founders of it. But the characterization of heads of households being the man and being the sort of presiding officer of the family and somebody that the wife - I think the implication is that the wife is subservient to, that's really hard to square with Amy Coney Barrett's career. So I'm not sure that it's fair to characterize her the way some of the articles about People of Praise have. You couldn't have the career she has and raise seven children and not be a force to be reckoned with.

You know, at the same time, you know, when we talk about religion and the court, you do want diversity of perspectives on the court. And as it happens, if she's confirmed, six justices on the court will be Catholic, and all but Justice Sonia Sotomayor will have been appointed by conservative presidents and have conservative records. So this is - you know, we - when I started covering the court, there was one Jew and one Catholic, and everybody else was Protestant. And now there are no Protestants, and there are no other religious groups represented on the court either.

GROSS: What does that say to you? Does it say anything?

TOTENBERG: I think it's a function of who - which presidents have been lucky enough to appoint justices.

GROSS: Trump has been very lucky in that respect.

TOTENBERG: Very lucky.

GROSS: Trump has basically remade the courts in a lot of ways. You know, he's appointed more than 185 federal judges. Barrett, assuming she's confirmed, which seems to be the assumption, will be his third Supreme Court justice. He said he wants to run the court in part because he thinks the election might be decided in the court. So how do you think all the Trump appointees is going to change our judicial future?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, you're never 100% sure, but I have to say that predictions about conservative members of the court have been pretty accurate since the appointment of David Souter. And that was in the '80s. And I'm not even sure that was a mistake. I think it's entirely possible that George H.W. Bush was perfectly happy to appoint a sort of centrist conservative. I'm not sure that that's true. But regardless of whether it was a mistake or not a mistake, since then, Republicans have been pretty on the mark in terms of who they've appointed, including the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts, who's very conservative, but not as conservative, probably, as the five other conservatives, assuming Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed.

And the result will be that he will lose a great deal of the controlling vote he had in this past year, when he in some cases cast what I would call institutionalist votes to keep the court from going too far, or at least farther than it would've otherwise, in the direction of the Trump administration and social conservatives. So that even though he dissented in - has dissented in most of the abortion cases over the years, including the whole women's health case from Texas, this year, when an identical law to the one that was struck down just a few years ago came before the court, he cast a vote to strike down the law in Louisiana that was identical to the Texas law because he said, even though he dissented before, I - this is me interpreting here - it's an affront to say, OK, we've got a new justice on the court, a new - couple of new members, and we'll just change what we say for an identical law. I'm not going to do that because the court has ruled on this issue in this exact case, and I'm not deserting that decision for that reason.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded Tuesday evening with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent.

With so many conservative and in some instances ultra-conservative Trump appointees on the federal bench and the Supreme Court, do you think that's going to affect what cases are taken to the courts? You know, for instance, like civil rights, civil liberties, the rights of LGBTQ people, women's rights, racial equality - do you think that those groups will be afraid to take their cases to court 'cause even if they win in the lower court, they might fear they'd be - they'd lose an appeal in the upper courts?

TOTENBERG: Yes, I think that's partly true, but there's always a very limited amount of control over that. So, for example, Don Verrilli, who was the solicitor general during the Obama administration - in the last four years, I think, of the Obama administration - he went around the country preaching to U.S. attorneys and their - and assistant U.S. attorneys, please don't bring crazy cases because the Supreme Court will grant them when they're - when you reach some outlandish result, and then we'll have a bad precedent that covers situations that are far broader than you intended.

And he's very candid to say that he had almost no impact whatsoever, that United States attorneys bring cases sometimes - you know, like, the infamous one, I guess, was one about a woman whose husband slept with her best friend or a sister. I can't remember which. She got really mad. She went and she put some unpleasant chemical on her mail and on her mailbox and on, I think, the door to her car that caused a burn on a couple of fingers. And for that, she was indicted for - on a terrorism charge. And the Supreme Court was not buying that. It just wasn't buying that, even though in the lower court, they won a conviction. And it caused a lot of ripples for other kinds of cases. So there's a limit to how much organized groups or the government can control the cases that filter up to the court.

GROSS: You've seen a lot of changes in the court. In your many years covering the Supreme Court, what do you think has been the most consequential change that you witnessed in terms of changing the nature of the court or changing Americans' faith in the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, Americans still seem to have more faith in the Supreme Court than they do the other two branches of government or, for that matter, in the press. However, that said, I think that having three Trump appointees who were very carefully screened by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation...

GROSS: Two very conservative groups.

TOTENBERG: Two very conservative groups. And I think that is, you know, with the ascension of what is likely to be Justice Barrett, I think we're likely to see a court that is more conservative than any court since the 1930s. And it could lead to very profound consequences.

GROSS: Such as? (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: So let's imagine for a moment that, for the sake of argument, that Joe Biden is elected president and is able to pass some progressive legislation. It will go - it will undoubtedly be challenged over and over again, the way the ACA has been challenged, the Obamacare. And I would not be surprised to see this court strike down some of those measures, and that will provoke the kind of fight that actually led to the court packing plan in the 1930s.

GROSS: Where Roosevelt, FDR, tried to add justices...

TOTENBERG: Right.

GROSS: ...To change the political balance of the court.

TOTENBERG: Right.

GROSS: Are you suggesting - do you think Biden would actually do that? 'Cause he's...

TOTENBERG: I don't know that he would do that.

GROSS: Right.

TOTENBERG: I think that it's - I, you know...

GROSS: And he's not saying (laughter).

TOTENBERG: No, he's not saying. And I don't think - as he puts it, I don't think he's a fan of court packing or adding justices. But Roosevelt wasn't a particular fan of it to begin with. It took three years of the Supreme Court striking down essential New Deal legislation at the height of the Depression for him to make his proposal to add justices to the court. Unfortunately for him, his timing was rotten because just as he proposed that - and you can theorize whether it was because of that or this was going to happen anyway - the court was divided 5-4 at the time, not 6-3.

And the fifth vote, Justice Owen Roberts, switched in a lot of those cases and became the fifth vote on the liberal side and the side to uphold legislation that had been passed by Congress. And that just took the wind out of the sails of the court packing movement by the president. And he was destined to lose, and he lost a great deal because of it.

GROSS: I want to talk to you a little bit about some of the history that you've covered and how you've affected that history. So let's talk a little bit about the Clarence Thomas hearings and Anita Hill. So, you know, you had learned that she had submitted an affidavit to the Judiciary Committee and that, well, basically it was ignored. I mean, it did not become part of the public hearings.

TOTENBERG: It's true that it was ignored, but it's also true that she really didn't want her name to be public.

GROSS: Right.

TOTENBERG: And so - and she - when I talked to her at first, she didn't want her name to be public still. And I said - I was trying to get her to do an interview with me, and she said that she - if I could get the affidavit, that she would agree to an interview. And I think having read Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson's book, that - and also from my own sort of gut - is that she didn't really think I could get the affidavit and that therefore she would not have to come forward. But I did get the affidavit, and she lived up to what she'd said. She did do an interview with me. And there's - almost everything that she said in the hearing, she said in that interview.

And I give her - you know, when I broke that story, I thought that there was a 50-50 chance it would just die because if she sort of left her house and was unreachable and didn't talk to anybody else in the news media, it would have died without a human face. And she didn't do that. She - and she was very young at the time. She was in her 20s. And she had no - you know, I thought it was incredibly - what she did was very brave.

GROSS: Can you tell us anything about how you got the affidavit?

TOTENBERG: No.

GROSS: OK, I thought...

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Even my husband doesn't know.

GROSS: Really?

My guest is Nina Totenberg, who's been NPR's legal affairs correspondent since 1975. After a break, we'll talk more about Anita Hill and Nina will tell us about her long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Nina Totenberg. She's been NPR's legal affairs correspondent since 1975. She started covering the Supreme Court in 1969. She's witnessed many changes in the court over the years and has broken major stories. We spoke at a Zoom event Tuesday evening that was a benefit for WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced. When we left off, Nina was talking about the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and how she got her hands on the affidavit Anita Hill had submitted to the Judiciary Committee. When Nina revealed what was in the affidavit, it led Anita Hill to publicly testify at the hearing.

Was Anita Hill really angry with you for finding the affidavit, reading it on the air and basically requiring her therefore to go public, since she since she didn't want to? And her life has been forever changed. But, also, you know, I hope she takes some comfort in knowing how she affected the public understanding of sexual harassment. But was she angry with you?

TOTENBERG: This is a two-part answer. So I didn't - I waited over 24 hours before I did the story. I even did an interview with her - the interview with her before we broadcast the story because I kept trying to get hold of Joe Biden for comment. And I did everything in my power to reach him, and I failed. And, finally, we just said, well, just - you know, you would never do - you would never hold that kind of a story today. It's almost inconceivable that you would hold it for over 24 hours. But we did. And it cost us a bit because somebody else got part of the story but didn't have the affidavit or - you know, and so we had to share some of the, quote, "glory" and also some of the awful repercussions from it.

But - so I did the story all as a piece. So it - I got the affidavit. I called her. We did the interview. And then we did the story. We broadcast the story, like, about 24 hours later. So - but the question is a good one. Was she angry with me? And I think she was. But I can - this is only an inference. I've written to her a couple of times, after the hearings and then again another time, and I have never received a reply. And I've - so I - and she's given plenty of interviews to other people over time. And I think to - and even to NPR. But I - but not me.

So I take it from that, that she was not happy with me. And I think that, you know, this is not - and this is a sort of human reaction to somebody who turned her life upside down and that she probably has a bunch of ideas about things I did. I remember there were a couple of things which I can't remember in Jane and Jill's book, which I - you know, were not her - which were her - clearly her perceptions and then mine were not accurate. But it's not of great import to me. I'm sorry she's angry. I have a lot of respect for her. And I think as a - her role in the #MeToo movement has been very significant.

GROSS: She's supporting Joe Biden now for president.

TOTENBERG: Yes, she is. She's - I think she's sort of grudgingly supporting Joe Biden.

GROSS: Yes, exactly, grudgingly. But still supporting him.

TOTENBERG: Yes. Why - you know, why should she be happy about Joe Biden? You know, I think there's a lot to be said for the modern Biden, the Biden of the last five or 10 years. But the Biden who conducted those hearings was - did not do a great job.

GROSS: Do you feel like you've seen him change over the years?

TOTENBERG: Well, I think he's probably more aware. I think he's less the college student, president type who want - just wants to be loved and that's all that matters to him. I don't - I think he's - that's not all that matters to him now. But, you know, all you can do is judge how people behave. And the way he conducted those hearings was not great and was fearful of being - of a real fight. And the way he served as vice president was really very different. But I don't know any reason that Anita Hill should really be enthusiastic about Joe Biden. I mean, you know, he wasn't really lovely to me either back then. And I - you know, but I don't care whether politicians love me or not. It's not my job.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be the reporter who broke the story, of having the affidavit and being actually able to read it, quote from it? It was - like, the Anita Hill hearings were so controversial, and she was so smeared. And, of course, she was angry with you, and I'm sure a lot of people were angry with you, a lot of...

TOTENBERG: Everybody was angry with me.

GROSS: There's probably a lot of people...

TOTENBERG: The Democrats...

GROSS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: ...Were angry with me. Biden was angry with me. The majority leader, Senator Mitchell, was angry with me because I'd - you know, they were really fearful about a sexually charged allegation - and remember, this is 1991 - against a Black nominee. This was like - this was a powder keg. And to this day, when I watch any video of that hearing and you watch either of these two people, Clarence Thomas or Anita Hill, you couldn't believe either one. I don't think you can believe both. There's not a way to do that.

GROSS: Oh, you mean you had to believe one or the other.

TOTENBERG: You have to believe one or the other. And so the Democrats were not pleased. I'd really made life very difficult for them. They were caught between what - you know, they're - the faxes were basically vaporizing from women who were coming out of the woodwork and were enraged by the fact that the Judiciary Committee hadn't investigated this, and they knew that women voters were their constituency. At the same time, so were Black voters their constituency. This was a no-win proposition in their view.

And then, meanwhile, the Republicans are wanting to kill me. And, I mean, I remember interviewing (laughter) live on - 'cause we did the - we covered the hearings, both the first hearings and the second hearings, live jointly - NPR and PBS. And I remember Senator Jack Danforth sitting next to me as I'm interviewing him with Paul Duke. And I swear - what went through my mind was he would like to eat me up for breakfast. He would like to just chomp me, spit me out and make me go away forever. And, you know, I had a kind of an infamous contretemps with Senator Alan Simpson the night I was on "Nightline" after I broke the story. We ultimately became friends because I - it is not in my interest to have members of the United States Senate, especially the Judiciary Committee, which I cover and covered, furious with me for the rest of their lives because it interferes with my ability to do my job.

GROSS: So did you approach him to change the relationship?

TOTENBERG: Well, eventually, I did. I invited him to go to the radio and TV correspondents dinner with me. He then - his press guy then leaked it, but he arrived to pick me up for that dinner. He even brought me a corsage. He was in a - you know, he took - we were definitely the stars of that evening.

GROSS: I remember. I remember. So what kind of body armor did you develop when you were under attack and everybody on all sides, you say, was hating you?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, I tell this story about the - because it's true and because it's funny and because it sort of captures everything. So the night after I broke the story - I broke the story on a Sunday morning and on Monday night, I did "Nightline" and Simpson was on and the late Paul Simon, the senator from - then-senator from Illinois, was on. And I was on. And, you know, I've thanked God many times that I was not a 20-something at the time because if I had been, I would have been really, I think, unable to maintain my - the demeanor I had to maintain. So that night at the end of the show, Alan Simpson was saying that I was a completely unethical journalist and I had broken all kinds of ethical codes and et cetera, et cetera. And so I waited and I waited till about 50 seconds before the end of the show. And I got the floor and I said, look, if I hadn't reported this story, it never would have come out. And if the Senate Judiciary Committee had done its job and investigated these charges, I never would have had this story.

So I head out. They had sent a car for me. I head out, I get in the car. Al Simpson, who's about 6'8", comes dashing out after me, holds the door open and is yelling at me and I finally - after about three or four minutes of this and I couldn't close the door, I got out. I stood up to my full then 5'4 1/2" and I said, Senator, you are a blankety blank bully. And you can figure out what the blankety blanks were. I got back in the car. We drove off. I said to the guy, the driver, I said, go. I pulled the door shut. We go out, turns around the corner - there's more to this story - and he says to me - he pulls over. He says, lady, you better get a gun. I go home. My husband, who is a former United States senator, the late, wonderful Floyd Haskell, had not been watching this because it was a Monday Night Football night. So he just went to bed. And some husbandly instinct - I walk in the house and he comes down the stairs and he's standing at the top of the stairs in his PJs. And he said to me, what's wrong? And I said, Alan Simpson yelled at me and I told him - I used a bad word and (unintelligible). I just completely - I totally lost it. I mean, I just cried and cried and cried.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded Tuesday evening with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY'S "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. Our interview was recorded Tuesday evening as part of a Zoom event that was a benefit for WHYY where FRESH AIR is produced.

So let's talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a very close friend of yours. And, you know, she dictated a letter to her granddaughter when she was dying, when she knew she was dying, saying that, you know, her - basically that her final wish was that, you know, nobody appoint her replacement until after the inauguration.

TOTENBERG: Right.

GROSS: And of course, that was, you know, ignored by President Trump. But did she have serious regrets? Can you say if she had serious regrets about not having retired early in - you know, earlier in the Obama presidency, earlier than the final year of his presidency, when his Merrick Garland appointment was blocked?

TOTENBERG: You know, Ruth didn't do regrets and she didn't do defeat. She just soldiered on. And I don't think that - I think that she regretted that Trump was president. I think that's patently obvious from some of the impolitic things that she said and shouldn't have said on one occasion anyway. But I - she - that's just not the way she operated. She operated to live and to get her work done, and she did that almost until the day she died - not quite, but I'd say within weeks. I don't think she even acknowledged the possibility of really dying before a new president, whether it would be Trump or Biden, was sworn in. I don't think she really acknowledged that genuine possibility that she was going to die before then until maybe a couple of weeks before she died.

GROSS: You became friends with her in 1971 when she was writing the famous brief that got, like, women's - got women included in the equal protection clause of the Constitution. So you befriended her - first, she was, like, a source for you. And I think she was still a professor then.

TOTENBERG: Right. She was a professor at Rutgers then.

GROSS: Yeah. And so you bonded with her over this incredibly consequential women's rights decision.

TOTENBERG: I called her up because I didn't - I was brand-new covering the court. I was in my early 20s. I didn't really understand this brief. So I did what I always do. I'm just - I ask questions like you do. And so I called her up. I flipped the front of the brief. The author was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The telephone number was on the cover of the brief. I called the telephone number. She picked up the phone, and she gave me an hour-long lecture. And it was (laughter) the beginning of what would ultimately be a very long friendship. Initially, it was just a professional friendship. And then when she moved to Washington, it really became - we became really close friends. And she - you know, she was a very interesting person in a way difficult to peg in the sense that she - a lot of people took her for a bit - being a bit austere because, in fact, she was very shy and very quiet. So when you would have her over to dinner, you sometimes really had to strain to hear her voice. And what could you discuss with her? After all, you can't discuss the court, what's going on at the court. But in fact, we had just many wonderful times together, and especially in the last year of her life when she - during lockdown, she came to our house for dinner on Saturday nights every Saturday night, almost until the time she died. We went away on vacation. We came back. She was really not feeling well. And we brought dinner to her. And that was the last time I saw her was probably about 10 days before she died. But I did talk to her - I said goodbye to her on the phone.

GROSS: How did you find the words of how to say it, especially somebody who never wanted to acknowledge that she might be near death?

TOTENBERG: Well, at that point, she was - it was just a couple of days before she died, and she couldn't talk anymore, but her daughter said she raised her hand to wave sort of when I - after I - you know, she - if you - the amazing thing about Ruth was - and I keep finding this out from - you think you're special because she's done so many very specially kind things not having to do with my profession at all for me. So when my late husband - when he was - you know, he had a very serious head injury. He fell and hit his head. And for almost five years - well, first, for almost the better part of a year, he was in the ICU.

And I - and she gave me the best advice anybody's - life advice anybody ever gave me. She said - you know, she said you can't stay at the hospital all the time. There's no point in doing that. You go to work. You visit him for an hour a day or something like that. You know, he was on a respirator. He had a tube in his - so she said, you do what you - and then you go to work. She said it won't be your best work, but it will be good work anyway. And when he comes home, you will be prepared to take care of him the way you'll have to take care of him when he comes home because you will still be you. You won't be lost in the - to the bowels, essentially, of hospital life. You will be your own self, and you'll be able to take care of him.

And it was the - she was so spot on. It was such an amazing piece of advice. And, you know, he came home. He did get better, but he was incredibly frail for the remainder of his life. And there were a bunch of, you know, emergencies frequently. And she would just - she knew - every time he was in the hospital or something happened, she would just scoop me up and take me somewhere with Marty, you know, for a dinner or to have dinner at their apartment with somebody interesting or to the opera just to take my mind off of things.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded Tuesday evening with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent.

I want to ask you another question about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and your friendship with her. How did you manage to maintain the friendship and report on her at the same time? What kind of guidelines did you set for each other about where the boundaries would be so that you could continue to be friends without jeopardizing, you know, your reporting?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, I - we never had a per se discussion about it, but it was absolutely clear. I couldn't ask her about things going on behind the scenes at the court. She wouldn't have told me, and she probably would have considered it really untoward. By the same token, I couldn't trim my sails when I was interviewing her. So after she made those unfortunate comments about Trump, I'd had an interview scheduled with her. And over time, I learned that the best practice with Ruth was to tell her what you were going to ask her that was new and different than things you'd asked her before when you were doing a big interview with her because if you just asked her, she would clam up, whereas if you told her in advance, she would think about it.

So in that case, I said, look; I'm going to ask you about what you said about Trump. And she said, oh, please don't do that. I said, Ruth, I can't do that. You have your job; I have mine. And she said, OK. And then she reamed me out in the interview (laughter).

GROSS: Wait, wait. I don't remember. What did she say?

TOTENBERG: She said, I have said I've apologized, and I've issued a statement. And I shouldn't have said it. And I said, but what did you mean? I did a follow-up question. And she said, I've told you what I have said and that I have apologized, and I am not going to discuss it further.

GROSS: You've been central in women's rights issues, both through, like, being so close with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was such a champion of women's rights; your role in the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Anita Hill testimony, which we talked about; your role as a founding mother of NPR; your role as, like, you know, a role model for other women journalists, like in the '70s when there were so few women in important positions in journalism. How did you discover, like, women's rights and women's equality? - 'cause that was probably not a given when you were coming of age.

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, all of those things that you mentioned involved my being, you know, a young woman, then a middle-aged woman and now not-so-middle-aged woman - but - at a time when women were coming to prominence. And often, in the beginning, I was either the only woman in the newsroom or one of two women in the newsroom. And, you know, that's the way it was for a very long time. So you - if you were a woman, you understood that you had to be twice as good and that that wasn't fair - and that if you did something wrong or you didn't do something right, it would be disaster. And the only thing I can - my mother certainly was a fiery dame, but she never thought I would succeed as a journalist. I mean, it was just beyond her ken to - the idea - she had been somebody's administrative assistant and sort of ran his office and was, you know. And that's what she figured was the best that would happen to me. And I just wasn't prepared to accept that ever.

And I have to give some credit to my dad, who was a - you know, a famous virtuoso violinist. And as a result, I did see women in music - not so many in the orchestra, but very talented musicians. And he always treated them absolutely equally. And I think that that example got it in my feeble brain that I could do this job. I could do it well if I wanted to and if I worked hard enough at it - and that I could succeed. You know, I didn't actually think I could become Walter Cronkite. Today you could become Walter Cronkite if you're a woman. There are women who are Walter Cronkite (laughter), who have those - you know, Norah O'Donnell is - has the job that Walter Cronkite had. But I thought I could succeed, and I was very determined to (ph).

GROSS: Thank you, Nina. I want to say again how generous it's been of you to spend some time with us. And, you know, I just want to give you my personal thanks for being such an important woman in journalism who, you know, has had an effect on other journalists like me, other women journalists. So thank you for that, too.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Nina Totenberg is NPR's legal affairs correspondent. Our interview was recorded Tuesday evening at a Zoom event that was a benefit for WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced. Our thanks to Nina as well as WHYY's Christine Holbert and Kyra McGrath and NPR's Michael Cullen.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH'S "A RIDDLE SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.