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Politico senior editor Michael Schaffer called NPR reporter Nina Totenberg’s new book chronicling her friendship with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other DC insiders as “embarrassing.”
In his Friday Politico Magazine review of Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on The Power of Friendships, Schaffer panned the book because it revealed that Totenberg knew how sick Ginsburg was before her death but kept it hidden.
His headline for the piece claimed, “Nina Totenberg Had a Beautiful Friendship With RBG. Her Book About It Is an Embarrassment.”
Lamenting the fact that Totenberg failed to warn the world, Schaffer wrote, “But there’s a chance that a blunt story about Ginsburg’s decline might have changed the trajectory that led to the end of Americans’ right to abortion.”
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His other major critique of the work was how it depicted her friendships with insulated and “powerful people,” and that it “pulls punches” on those elites that liberals find corrupt. For instance, Schaffer pointed out how Totenberg’s work spoke fondly of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who attended her dinner parties.
Schaffer claimed reading through such accounts became “increasingly uncomfortable.”
His review began with poking Totenberg for knowing Ginsburg was dying but keeping it private, and thus not alerting the public to the supposed political disaster that would follow her demise.
He said, “It was 2020, an election was looming, and RBG was dying. During lockdown, we learn in the book, Totenberg’s home was the one place Ginsburg went other than her own apartment. Their weekly Saturday suppers made Totenberg one of the few Americans to lay eyes on the justice during the months of isolation.”
He quoted Totenberg, who realized the end was near, writing, “But as the months rolled on, it became clear that this illness wasn’t just lung cancer. It was a return of the old pancreatic cancer.”
Schaffer asked, “What if Totenberg had gone on the air to lay out what she knew?”
And he claimed, “But there’s a chance that a blunt story about Ginsburg’s decline might have changed the trajectory that led to the end of Americans’ right to abortion. As competitors’ sensationalist stories focused on Ginsburg’s health, activists might have gotten GOP senators… on the record promising not to fill the seat until after the voters had a say in the November presidential election.”
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Schaffer then slammed Totenberg for her somewhat fond depictions of her powerful DC friends, writing, “But as the pages go by, and Totenberg and her friends become more powerful, the theme becomes increasingly uncomfortable — and increasingly revealing.”
He added, “It’s not that Totenberg pulls punches on the insiders who come to her dinners… Rather, it’s the way she seems to accept and share her insider friends’ worldviews. In this universe, it seems, we’re all on the same team.”
Schaffer noted that she was friendly with other justices on the Supreme Court, including the conservatives. He wrote, “look no further than Totenberg’s dinner table, where the likes of Nino Scalia (‘a mensch’), Stephen Breyer (he and his wife helped clean up after an I Love Lucy-style dishwasher disaster).”
He implied that Totenberg got caught up in the “veneration” that “the court is particularly susceptible to” because of its “odd priestly culture.”
Exposing his bias, Schaffer added, “I’m not saying Totenberg has to treat the justices as if they were venal, low-wattage members of the Palookaville ward-politics machine. But it’d be nice if she held open the possibility. “
Mentioning his overall critique, he said, “Yet even if you don’t think any amount of scary Ginsburg-health reporting could have deterred Mitch McConnell in 2020, it’s hard to come away from this book and not think the bonds also cost her something — and us, too.”
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He then concluded his review by doubting the benefit of Totenberg’s friendships, writing, “Dinners With Ruth left me wondering whether it would have been better if Nina Totenberg had gotten a dog.”