How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious RBG' In 'RBG,' filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West chronicle the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins the conversation with Sam, Betsy, and Julie. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org and tweet @NPRItsBeenAMin with feels.
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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious RBG'

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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious RBG'

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious RBG'

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. On today's show, we are talking about the documentary "RBG." It's all about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who talks to Betsy West and Julie Cohen. They're the two directors behind the film. And we also talked to NPR's very own Supreme Court correspondent Nina Totenberg because she knows a lot about the Supreme Court and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So much so that she was also in the movie. This film, it covers a lot, RBG's entire life - growing up in New York, being one of the first female students at Harvard Law School, working on women's rights cases with the ACLU back in the '70s and arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court back then six times.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RBG")

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Female citizens of Louisiana are denied equal protection by the total absence of their peers from the jury.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I thought the new theory was that there's very little difference between men and women. So why wouldn't a men jury be their peers?

GINSBURG: Well, I am not aware of that new theory.

SANDERS: The film also talks about Ruth Bader Ginsburg now, and how even at 85 years old, she is still working till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. She's still going out to late-night dinners after the opera. For me, the most poignant parts of this film are these discussions about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 50-plus-year marriage to the late Marty Ginsburg. It was this beautiful partnership that really helped Ruth thrive over her career. The filmmakers say it was a truly feminist marriage. I think you'll enjoy this chat for all of those reasons, and also because the conversation starts out with Nina Totenberg singing as she walked into our studio. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: (Singing).

JULIE COHEN: See? Everyone's singing. She's singing, too.

SANDERS: Hi, Nina.

TOTENBERG: (Singing) We're here. We're here.

SANDERS: I love it. So we have Julie Cohen and Betsy West in New York. All right, folks, introduce yourselves.

BETSY WEST: Hi. I'm Betsy West, and I am one of the directors of "RBG."

COHEN: I'm Julie Cohen, and I'm the other director of "RBG."

SANDERS: And friend of the show Nina Totenberg, in D.C.

Hello.

TOTENBERG: Hi, Sam.

SANDERS: I'm in LA. So this is probably the most geographically diverse taping in this show's history. Thanks for making that happen, guys.

COHEN: Excellent.

SANDERS: So we are here to talk about a new documentary about someone the three of you know very well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Julie, Betsy, tell me briefly about this film and how it came to be.

WEST: Well, this is a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Many people know her as the notorious RBG because of the kind of stinging dissents that she's written and her Internet fame. But this is a complete portrait that tells the story of an extraordinary woman who, through her facing personal challenges and professional challenges, really changed the world for American women with her work arguing as a lawyer before the Supreme Court in the 1970s.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: Let me just say something here 'cause these ladies won't toot their own horn.

SANDERS: OK.

TOTENBERG: My husband saw this movie with me when it was finally together, and he said it was the best documentary he'd ever seen. What is unusual about it is its completeness. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did change the way the world is for American women whether they know it or not. Because when she began her crusade, there were thousands, literally thousands, of state and federal laws that treated men and women differently. So that's the legal part. The part that is so sweet about this movie and so different about it is that they so perfectly captured her relationship with her late husband, who died in 2010, I think. And it's a love story. And they managed to find early video of the two of them when they're in their early 20s that is just heartbreakingly touching and sweet.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to ask, one, how much time did you spend with RBG, and for how long? And what surprised you most about her?

COHEN: I think we probably spent a total of about 20 hours with her between various events that she was at that we were filming, and an interview, and time at home and in the gym. I think the most surprising thing about her is her penchant for adventure and excitement, maybe not what you picture in any 85-year-old woman, but particularly a soft-spoken one such as her. Along with the riding the elephant scene which we have in the movie, she also likes to parasail and whitewater raft. And her son said he has to sort of fight with her not to go horseback riding on vacation. So it sort of plays against the image some might have of Justice Ginsburg.

SANDERS: Why this movie now? I mean, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been in the public consciousness now for decades. Why now, and what made you want to do it now?

COHEN: Well, you know, Justice Ginsburg, starting in 2013, 2014, started to take on an enormous amount of Internet fame. Betsy and I had each interviewed her previously for other documentary projects, and in early 2015, we just said, someone has to do a full-dress documentary on Justice Ginsburg telling the full-life story, and why shouldn't it be us? I mean, even some of her biggest fans, some of the millennials who are putting tattoos on themselves with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's face, don't really know everything that she accomplished for American women. And it just was a story that, you know, we wanted to tell.

SANDERS: Yeah. There are these moments you have in the film, Julie and Betsy, where you're playing this archived tape of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Marty. And Ruth now is watching it, and you see such a beautiful, overwhelming smile on her face. And you see the love that she still has for this man. And it is hard to not be moved to tears by it. What made you both want to spend such a good amount of time in the film focusing not just on her legal career but on this this true romance?

WEST: Well, we knew that she'd had a long and happy marriage, but it wasn't until we began working on the film that we realized how important this marriage was to her both personally and professionally. I mean, it's an incredible model of a feminist marriage. Marty Ginsburg was an extremely talented, successful tax lawyer who happened to be married to a brilliant legal strategist - Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And when her career began to take off in the 1970s, when she was arguing cases before the Supreme Court that changed the world for American women, he began to take over more of the responsibilities in the house. And eventually when she became a federal judge, he moved to Washington for her.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WEST: And then, you know, when there was an opening on the Supreme Court, Marty Ginsburg, who was a very affable, well-connected guy, campaigned for her to be considered to go on the Supreme Court. I mean, what more could you want?

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter). You know, I found myself watching the part of the film where you outlined just how hard Ruth was working. You know, she was taking care of these kids. She was practicing law. She was caring for Marty while he was sick with cancer. She was averaging, a lot of times, like, two hours of sleep a night. You know, she was living this kind of Sheryl-Sandbergian (ph) have-it-all life before we had a name for that. Was what she was doing really out of the ordinary, or were there women always doing this and we just didn't notice?

COHEN: Yeah, that's a really interesting - I mean, she was leaning the heck in, as you say, before leaning in was a thing. I'm not going to say that there weren't some other women doing extraordinary feats, but by any measure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an extraordinary woman. During that period in her life, you know, when she herself is in Harvard Law School on the law review, her husband who's also in law school has testicular cancer, she's helping care for him, and they've got a toddler. I mean, it's - you know, it's - feels - it sounds pretty superhuman, you know? Looking back on it now, she just says she was doing what she had to do.

SANDERS: Well, there's this moment where she's talking about basically having to, like, leave school to go care for her young child. And I feel like most people would say, yeah, it tired me the hell out. She said, no, being at home with my daughter helped ground me and make me better in school. I mean...

WEST: Absolutely.

SANDERS: It's amazing.

WEST: It was a break, yeah. I don't know. Other people who've taken care of toddlers - it doesn't always seem like a break. But she saw it that way.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

TOTENBERG: To know Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to understand that she really is a woman of unbelievable steel. I mean, her mother died the day before she was to graduate from high school. And her whole life has been working unbelievably hard. She always looks for a way to do something. So she'll say, well, no, taking care of a child just made me better able to study until 4 o'clock in the morning and then get up at 7 and - et cetera, et cetera. So you have to - you get an idea of her determination and steeliness.

SANDERS: I want to ask, Nina - you know, there is a section of the film that talks about this really methodical, well-thought-out legal strategy that she exercised in the '70s to push for the equality of women. And it was a grand plan that moved step by step, case by case. Can you outline briefly what that strategy was and what Ruth was doing that was really kind of ahead of her time perhaps?

TOTENBERG: Well, as she said in the film, she sometimes felt a bit like a kindergarten teacher for the courts because they were almost all male. And on the Supreme Court, they were all male. There had never been a woman on the court at that point. And she's trying to persuade them that discrimination based on gender is discrimination against women even when it's done for a good purpose - to protect them, like, you shouldn't work after a certain time of night. Well, that means you - a whole category of jobs just closed off to you. And so she often picked - not always but often picked male plaintiffs.

And the one that Julie and Betsy talk about in the movie is a case involving a widower whose wife died in childbirth. And he's left supporting a child, and he wants to take care of the child. And he doesn't qualify for survivor's benefits under the Social Security law. And his wife had paid into Social Security. She'd been a schoolteacher. And he wasn't eligible for the money. So Ginsburg takes this case. It goes all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the end, the court, for a variety of reasons, sides with the argument that she's making that this is discrimination against the man based on his gender. It's discrimination against the woman because she's not getting the same benefits for her child and her husband after she dies and that it's discrimination against the child because the child doesn't get the benefits that he would have or she would have gotten otherwise if the two parents weren't treated equally.

SANDERS: Yeah. There was another case with a woman who had joined the Air Force and was married, but she did not qualify for a housing allowance that her male counterparts got.

COHEN: (Unintelligible) indeed, Sharron Frontiero, when she was a lieutenant in the Air Force, as you say, couldn't get the same housing benefits for a - as a married woman that a married man in the Air Force could have gotten. She thought the whole thing couldn't possibly be how it was. She just thought, oh, someone made it administrative error; I'll just get this all straightened out and was sort of horrified not only that she was denied the benefits but also, I think by the condescending attitude that she was treated with, which was kind of like, hey, you're lucky to be in the Air Force at all, lady.

And she just said, forget it; I'm going to fight this - got a lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was then working with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, took on the case. And she and the lawyer who had originally brought it together argued it before the Supreme Court and just starting off on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's path of making the case that men and women should be treated completely equally under the U.S. Constitution.

SANDERS: Yeah, and so, you know, she ends up during this time period arguing - what? - six cases in front of the Supreme Court. She wins five of those six.

TOTENBERG: It's a very - it's so interesting because she's always so calm and self-possessed. But she said she didn't eat lunch that day because she - her argument was the first one after lunch, and she was afraid she'd throw up in the courtroom if she ate lunch. Well, you know, there's one story I'm going to tell. I first met her by phone.

SANDERS: Really?

TOTENBERG: And I was a brand-new reporter assigned to cover the Supreme Court. And I am trying to learn everything I can learn about the court. And of course I know next to nothing. And there's this brief, and it's I guess - what? - 72. And it argues - it was the first sex discrimination case to go to the Supreme Court, and it argues that women are covered by the 14th Amendment, guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Now, this is a post-Civil War constitutional amendment, and so I didn't really understand why this would apply to women, why it wouldn't apply to - you know, it was enacted for the freed slaves. It...

SANDERS: It's funny to hear you say that 'cause I hear equal protection now, and to me, in my mind, it applies to everyone and everything. But it didn't during that time...

TOTENBERG: It didn't.

SANDERS: ...Is what you're saying.

TOTENBERG: It's - that's what I thought. So I go - I call her up. I - this - I look on the front of the brief. It's written by a professor at Rutgers named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I call her up, and I emerge from the phone booth, like, an hour later sort of like a goose who had been, you know, force-fed information for an hour to get me ready for - to produce my liver - in this case, my story.

And (laughter) what she said then was that the - first of all, the 14th Amendment says, all persons should be treated equally. It doesn't say all African-American and white people. It doesn't say all men and women. It doesn't - it says all persons. And there's a fair amount of legislative history, so to speak, that - about some people who were sponsors of the - of that amendment and what they intended. And she was able to present that and argue that and present it as - this is one of the reasons she's for - she believes in a living Constitution. And she didn't argue that case. She wrote the brief, but she didn't argue it.

SANDERS: Gotcha. But that argument basically that the Equal Protection Clause applies not just to black people and white people but also to women - that was the foundation for all of those cases she was bringing up during the '70s, right?

TOTENBERG: Exactly.

SANDERS: Gotcha.

COHEN: Absolutely - and a body of law that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was really the champion of.

SANDERS: All right, time for a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about the discrimination that Ruth faced before she became a lawyer - BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I want all of you to really talk about how her personal experience growing up as a young woman helped make her want to do the work that she did. You know, she from the start was a young girl that wanted to be able to do all that the boys did, like climbing garage roofs and such, she said. But also, she experienced discrimination before she was even a lawyer. There's this scene in the film where you talk about her being - what? - one of nine women in Harvard Law's class of, like, 500. And the dean has this meal for the women, and at this dinner for them, he asks them why they're taking the men's spots. Like, this is the thing that she dealt with from the start. Was that as much a part of why she did the work she did?

WEST: You know, I think initially, fighting this kind of discrimination became her life's work, but at the very beginning, it was more, she loved the law. And as she says in the film, during the McCarthy era, she had a professor who explained what lawyers were doing to fight that injustice. And she thought, hey, that's a good thing to do with your life, that you could use your brain and your skills to help other people. And I think that was her motivation when she gets to Harvard Law School, and she's juggling family and a sick husband and everything else, and she's still excelling.

And then you get out of law school, and it's like, no, no, sorry, we can't hire you; you're a woman - you know, that was the beginning of - certainly of the discrimination, but it was really the women's movement at the end of the 1960s where - she credits her students with coming to her and saying, we want to know more about women in the law; can you research this? And she does the research, which she says doesn't take her very long because there just aren't that many discrimination cases. And that's when she sets on this path that, you know, ultimately addresses some of the discrimination that she experienced and, you know, helps everybody else, too.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: The other thing is the idea of law and rules really appealed to her. At one point in the movie, she says, you know, well, I don't march. I don't do that. Let me do the thing I can do. One of the areas of the law that she's a master in is civil procedure, which - let me tell you, as somebody who covers the Supreme Court - is really boring.

(LAUGHTER)

WEST: It's so boring.

COHEN: Gee, do you wonder why it's not in our film, Nina?

WEST: Yeah, yeah, exactly right. And I should also say that, you know, the very first sex-discrimination case that she handled, her husband actually brought to her attention because there was a tax case involving a guy who couldn't deduct the care of his aging mother under the tax code. But if he'd been a woman, he could have. And the two of them took that case together. He did it from the tax perspective, and she did it from the sex-discrimination perspective.

SANDERS: Yeah. You all touched on it in the film, but during the election season in the runup to November 2016, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made some uncharacteristically harsh comments about candidate - then-candidate Donald Trump. This was back in July of 2016. She told The New York Times, quote, "He is a faker. He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that." She also said, quote, "I can't imagine what this place would be. I can't imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president." She later had to apologize for those comments. And it was thought by many that she stepped out of bounds and as a Supreme Court justice should not have said those kind of things about someone that could be president. Nina, how much - how out of line was it? I remember when it happened, and I said, this feels weird. And it felt weird for her to do it.

TOTENBERG: It was out of line. And it wasn't - and she did it more than once in the space of three days. I think she did it three times.

SANDERS: Why'd she do it?

TOTENBERG: I have no idea. It is inappropriate. After the first time she did it, it didn't seem to get much attention. But once it was on the front page of The New York Times, kaboom, and she knew she'd made a mistake, and she made an apology. But of course, that prompted Donald Trump - then, I guess it was candidate Trump - to call her a loser who's lost it and all kinds of other things. But it was a mistake, and there's no way you can take back a mistake like that except to apologize.

SANDERS: Does it tarnish her legacy?

TOTENBERG: No, I don't think so. If she had kept it up, it would have, I think.

SANDERS: You know, for Julie and Betsy, how much did she talk about that moment? And what did she say was her mental calculus going into it?

COHEN: Well, she - after she did apologize, she basically said, I think it would've been best if I said nothing. And so she wasn't really going to elaborate. We did ask her about the idea that somehow this disqualifies her from, you know, sitting on cases involving the current administration. And she was very forceful in saying, if anybody thinks that who I might have voted for as president is going to affect the way I do my job in interpreting the laws, they do not understand how the - basically, how I work and how the judicial system works.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, I want to talk about the notorious RBG's place in the culture right now. You guys hit on it towards the end of the film. But this woman who has for her entire life been intellectual and quiet and focused is now, at 85, a bigger star than she's ever been. Why? And why now? And why her? She's in a very unique moment that seems surprising.

WEST: Yeah, we think that it began in 2013 with the Shelby County case. And...

SANDERS: What's that case for those that don't know?

WEST: That case is where the Supreme Court majority ruled that certain oversight of voting in states which had a history of discrimination against African-Americans could be loosened because our country has changed. And she wrote a stinging dissent in which she said taking away these protections is like getting rid of your umbrella in a rainstorm just because you're not getting wet. And a young law student started a Tumblr entitled Notorious RBG and it just - her persona just kind of took off. The idea of this small, octogenarian grandmother who's speaking truth to power - I mean, it's funny and it's inspiring at the same time, and it just kind of grew from there.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COHEN: Yeah. Basically, every time that Justice Ginsburg would do something to put herself in the news if - any legal opinion that she wrote and any dissent in particular, you know, the Internet would just go wild. It's not what you think of when you think of social media, but, like, that's how - you know, Instagram pictures of her, the merch that people started making...

SANDERS: The shirts and stuff. Yeah.

COHEN: ...The phenomenon of tattoos, the - you know, there just - there was just something about the juxtaposition of a soft-spoken great legal mind, and, you know - and, of course, with the great comparison being made to the notorious BIG, a joke that Justice Ginsburg herself seems to enjoy and amplifies by making the point that the two had so much in common because they were both born and bred in Brooklyn. You know, it's, like, kooky, and it's funny, but there is, like, a kernel of real substance to it because people are seeing, like, this little fierce intellect is speaking up, and there's hunger for that.

TOTENBERG: The seed for it, I think, actually, was planted in 2008 when she wrote a dissent and voiced it from the bench in a major sex discrimination case that she lost five to four in the Supreme Court.

SANDERS: Which case?

TOTENBERG: It was called - it was brought by a woman named Lilly Ledbetter, who worked in a tire factory in Alabama and realized years after being there - somebody sent her the statistics - that she was being paid, like, more than half less than the men who were doing exactly the same thing. And so she sued and won a judgment by a jury, and the Supreme Court struck it down because they said she didn't sue quickly enough. She didn't - and Ginsburg wrote the dissent saying, you know, a lot of times you don't even know you're being discriminated against. You don't have the data to prove it, and when you - and that's not what Congress intended when it enacted the Civil Rights law, and it was a fiery dissent that ended by saying, this is now - the ball is now in Congress's court - to fix this. Well, that was an election year, and it became a big campaign issue. Barack Obama used it, crusaded on it, and it was the first bill that he signed when he was president - was elected president - was the Lilly Ledbetter Act.

(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: First of all, it is fitting that the very first bill that I sign, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act...

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ...That it is upholding one of this nation's founding principles - that we are all created equal.

TOTENBERG: And so I think, in some ways, that - at that point, she was the only woman on the court. Justice O'Connor had retired, and she, for several years, was the lone woman on the court and was dissenting more and more frequently and especially on sex discrimination cases but also on other cases. And I think that that slow burn, so to speak, is why the Internet slowly, slowly but more and more got to explode, and then, of course, she was even a figure on "Saturday Night Live," which the - which - she'd never really seen it. They showed it to her.

SANDERS: All right. So for our audience here's a clip of Kate McKinnon playing RBG on SNL. Quite funny. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

COLIN JOST: You have no plans to leave the Supreme Court?

KATE MCKINNON: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) Colin, the bench is now my porch. I'm going to sit on it all day and scream, no, get out of my yard.

(LAUGHTER)

JOST: Come on. Realistically, how long do you think you can hold on?

MCKINNON: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) Oh, forever, Colin.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKINNON: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) I'm eating an apple a day to keep Ben Carson away.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: In the movie, you see her watching it - her watching herself. It was the best scene - her watching Kate McKinnon...

WEST: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Play her on SNL. She seemed to enjoy it.

WEST: Yes, she did.

COHEN: She totally did.

WEST: Both her children had said to us - you know, we said, what does she think of it? They said, oh, we don't think she's ever seen it so - because she doesn't watch television.

COHEN: You know, people think of her as a super - she would say, as a sober judge, you'd picture her in her robes. She is soft spoken. She's serious, but, like, has a great sense of humor. She loves to laugh and particularly, seems to enjoy a laughing at herself and that image of the kind of enthusiastic, raucous and raunchy dancing that Kate McKinnon does when she's doing very loose impersonation of her - she was - she really seemed to be enjoying it. And the raunchier the dancing got, the harder she laughed.

SANDERS: RBG gets down. I love it. I love it. So, you know, y'all mentioned earlier that, you know, people now share portions of her opinions and dissents through social media. That's got to be because the writing's really good. Nina, what kind of legal thinker and legal writer is RBG.

TOTENBERG: Well, you know she - she does work till 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning most times, and what she's doing, I think, in addition to thinking about things and trying to get to five when she possibly can is to strip down the language as much as possible to make it as clear as possible. In a way, what she does is very journalistic in the sense that she is trying to communicate - her first audience, I guess we'd have to say, is the lower courts - and to make it clear what the Supreme Court is saying and to make it not fuzzy if you can avoid it so that they can't get out of doing what you want them to do, what's in this opinion.

But, you know, it is - it's - she doesn't write copiously long opinions - not super short, but they're very easy to digest. When she announces her opinions from the bench - and she was the first to do this - she then sends down to the pressroom a printed copy - and that they, you know, make lots of copies of - so that we can see what she has said from the bench. We've got her summary right there - what she thinks is important.

SANDERS: One more break here - when we come back, got to ask, would Ruth Bader Ginsburg have gotten approved to the Supreme Court today? You'll find out after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: You know, there are some parts of this film that I think some people - it might be new to some people, like she's a big opera fan. She also was really, really good friends with Justice Scalia, who was probably just about as far to the other side of the legal spectrum as one could be. You know, I knew that they were friends, and I watched the movie and saw their friendship, but I still was like, huh, how did that work?

TOTENBERG: I'm going to take that one first...

SANDERS: OK.

TOTENBERG: ...Because I know her and I knew him as long - almost as long as I knew her.

SANDERS: OK.

TOTENBERG: And I really think that the best interview I ever did in my life was an interview of the two of them onstage just about a year before he died. And they were hilarious, but they fought about issues that they cared about and they - and their views of the Constitution - Scalia's, which was basically - it's dead; I mean, it's - you know, we're stuck with what they - the founding - the framers meant at the time; and hers that, no, they meant it to be a Constitution that would live and would it - it's words would change somewhat with the times, that their meaning would change with the times. And as she pointed out then and often points out, the people who wrote the Constitution, they were white male property owners. They were not like most of us. They were not women. They were not people of color. And so it was a very - it was a wonderful interview. And you could see - and, by the way, they both loved civil procedure.

SANDERS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: So it's a great moment in the film helping to illustrate what some think of as an unlikely friendship but in fact makes total sense. When you know Justice Ginsburg, you know that she did appreciate Justice Scalia's love of opera, his sense of humor. And it was a meeting of the intellectual minds. You know, they liked to spar. They - and they both had, underneath it all, an abiding appreciation for and respect for the rule of law.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. So Ruth is 85. She's still working. How long should we expect to see her on the court still? And as she - is she working at the same pace she was before, you know, pulling close to all-nighters all the time?

WEST: Well, you know, maybe Nina, you can comment on that. Certainly, from what we experienced, she keeps a very vigorous schedule. She's doing her work on the court. She also travels and speaks to legal organizations and also pursues her love of the arts and opera. She seems to have a tremendous amount of energy, wants to go out for dinner after an opera. When we went in to the gym with her trainer, Bryant Johnson, and he gave her the orders and she did all the pushups and the weightlifting and the planks and the side planks, I mean, it's pretty extraordinary. I think it's a testament to how determined she is to keep herself in shape for the job that she loves.

TOTENBERG: Well, I think candidly here...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: If Hillary Clinton had won, I think she would be probably retiring right now. But Hillary Clinton didn't win. And through some probably inappropriate comments that she made about Donald Trump, we know how she feels about him, so I don't think she wants to retire until at least there's another president.

SANDERS: Will she - I mean, that's a few years from now, maybe.

TOTENBERG: It certainly is. And I'm not - you know, you can never be sure that somebody who's 85 - you know, their health can go south in a heartbeat. She has twice had serious cancer. Once it was pancreatic cancer. The first time, it was colorectal cancer. In neither case did she miss even a day on the bench. And after the colorectal cancer, she had chemo and radiation. That's pretty enervating.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: And she just was not going to be defeated by it. That doesn't mean that she doesn't collapse. And as you'll learn from the movie, she does sleep in on the weekends. You don't call the Ginsburg household until after 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

SANDERS: OK. I like that.

TOTENBERG: But that's - she recovers. But she perseveres. And that's her life. And since Marty's death, I think her work has been even more important to her.

SANDERS: Why didn't she retire when Obama was president?

TOTENBERG: I think she didn't feel that anybody else could bring to the - she said this - could bring to the court what she did at that moment.

SANDERS: Is that a bit of hubris, though?

TOTENBERG: It may be hubris, but it may have also been true. The court was at that point very divided. And she's not an unrealistic person. After the 2012 election, I think she thought maybe in 20 - if she'd been planning to retire in 2013 or, let's say, 2014, I think she thought that Obama would have a very hard time getting somebody through who she would've approved as a replacement.

SANDERS: Would she have gotten approved - I mean, like, would she have gotten confirmed, being who she was back then, today? The climate's different, no?

TOTENBERG: Mmm hmm.

COHEN: Absolutely.

TOTENBERG: Mmm hmm. And I think it would very much depend who was in the Senate. But as you'll see in the movie, one of her big defenders was Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: ...Who thought she was a terrific judge and understood that she was going to be a more liberal presence on the court, but that she was - that was in the days of greater - less partisanship. And so it's - you know, she was approved - ladies, I think there were three dissenting votes.

WEST: Right - 96-3.

COHEN: Right. Hard to picture today someone who not only a card-carrying member but a longtime staffer at the ACLU and also speaking up forcefully for abortion rights during her confirmation hearings - almost impossible, really, to picture someone like that being approved 96-3 by the Senate.

TOTENBERG: Or the other way. If you mention somebody who worked at a pro-life organization being...

COHEN: Fair enough. Absolutely.

TOTENBERG: Right.

SANDERS: So then does that mean in some ways that there might not ever be another, quote, unquote, "notorious RBG"? The climate has changed such that the type of justices we'll see on the bench, on the Supreme Court now, won't be allowed to be what she was?

WEST: You know, we're at a moment in time. It's hard to predict the future, I think. And so I wouldn't - you know, as I said, it's interesting to be around Justice Ginsburg. She takes a long view - look at where we've come from. And who knows? I'm sure she hopes that maybe some of her dissents will ring true in the future. It's just hard to know.

COHEN: She likes to talk a lot about the pendulum swinging. And the pendulum swings in one direction, and then perhaps it will swing back. So we like to follow her pattern of cautious optimism throughout her career. So I don't think there's any way to look at this moment and see how that - you know, what that says for the long term.

SANDERS: Yeah. For all three of you, to close it out, what is the big lesson for younger people - any people - from RBG's life and her work? I mean, for me, the themes that I saw in the film were pretty evident, but what do you all want the biggest lesson to be?

WEST: You know, I think that when bad things happen to you, when you're facing challenges and adversity to, you know, stop and think carefully, OK, how can I approach this? What can I do that's going to get me to where I want to go? And I think she's done that throughout her life with great success. I'm sure she's been angry in her life. I'm sure bad things have happened to her that have made her angry. But somehow, she's managed to think ahead and to figure out, all right, how am I going to deal with this in a way that's going to be effective?

COHEN: I'll say you can have a very long, meaningful journey moving one small step at a time. I feel like that's what the sweep of her career shows.

SANDERS: Nina, what's the biggest takeaway for you from her life and work?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, in the current times, I think not wasting your emotions and trying to build bridges to other people and other ideas. But in a personal sense, I'm going to end by telling you a personal story. When my late husband was terribly ill, he was in the hospital for over a year. And she gave me a piece of advice. And she said, I'll tell you what you - do not spend your days at the hospital, you know, shaking in your boots. It's not good for him. It's not good for you. Do your work. It may not be your best work, but it will be good work. And it will get you through this, and you'll be a better wife when he comes home. And she was right on every single count.

SANDERS: I like that. Do your work.

TOTENBERG: Do your work.

SANDERS: Words to live by - do your work. Well, I so appreciate this conversation. I enjoyed the film. Julie, Betsy, thank you. Nina, always great to talk with you, friend.

TOTENBERG: It's always great to talk with you, Sam.

COHEN: Thank you so much, Sam.

WEST: Thanks, Sam.

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SANDERS: Many thanks to Betsy West and Julie Cohen. And forever thanks to our friend of the show, Nina Totenberg. The documentary film "RBG" is out right now. OK, a reminder before we leave - if you want to talk to me for our Long Distance segment in our Friday show, hit me up anytime. Email samsanders@npr.org and just tell me if there's a thing going on where you live that you find interesting. Again, it's samsanders@npr.org. That is a wrap for now. We're back with our Weekly Wrap on Friday. Until then, thanks for listening. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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