“The Notorious RBG” of the U.S. Supreme Court has been lauded in many ways — if not equally across the political spectrum. When media cameras are turned her way, Ruth Bader Ginsburg can look like the ultimate, elderly nerd, with frail frame and heavy glasses and hair in a tight bun. But she is a survivor of multiple bouts with cancer who has also fought passionate legal battles for decades. Her written decisions and dissensions are parsed for their wit as well as their wisdom on social progress and individual rights. And her capacity for across-the-aisle camaraderie is an American cultural touchstone — so much so that an opera has been written about her friendship with the conservative late Justice Scalia.
So, how does one bottle up what can be learned from Justice Ginsburg? Journalist Rebecca Gibian struck upon a deceptively simple approach: If the goal in a biographical book is to impart lessons, then hold off on pure biography and instead structure around the lessons. In “The RBG Way: The Secrets of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Success,” Gibian’s dozen lessons come through via lively summarizing of in-depth research and wide-ranging interviews. The book’s three parts — “Fighting for Equality,” “The Importance of Relationships” and “How to Be Brave and Create Change” — make an easy-to-handle frame. LEO recently spoke by phone to the author, starting with a question reflecting our divisive times.
LEO: How might she handle falling out of collegiality?
Rebecca Gibian: I think what people who know her would say is that if she disagrees with somebody, she oftentimes uses it as a way to think about her own thoughts and strengthen her own ideas and come back with a firmer argument. Say she did get into a fight with Justice Scalia when he was alive. Say they got into an actual big argument about something. They would probably sleep on it, and the next day all would be fine — because they have jobs to do. The Supreme Court and their jobs are more important than whatever battles they are fighting interpersonally.
Are any of today’s presidential candidates showing the capacity to create change in what you’d consider ‘The RBG Way’?
Her way is incredibly slow and steady. Most of these candidates are talking about massive changes. Overhauls of the system. So, I’m not sure if she would go for that. She’s very much like ‘The culture and the society need to catch up to whatever the fastest overhaul is.’ That’s how she felt about reproductive rights, about Roe v. Wade. She felt like society had not caught up yet and that it would be hard to uphold later on — and she was right. So that’s her thought — that you need to make slow and steady changes that build and build, and build up this law so that it is impossible to challenge in the future because there’s so much precedent.
What’s the first thing I could do to make me be more like Ruth Bader Ginsburg but that the typical American isn’t doing today?
Write handwritten thank you notes. I think that is just the sweetest thing in the world that she does. I received one, and I’m gonna frame it. Another one is, as the 2020 election approaches and there are conversations about it, think about what is a good way to have those conversations. Is it with persuasion — or is it with anger, which RBG rarely shows? There’s not a right or wrong answer — but the way that she is able to reach across the divide with persuasion is something that I think about a lot. •
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