Nina Totenberg small NPR Georgetown Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.JPGEver since our original request for colorful stories about the delicious Nina Totenberg, the doyenne (or maybe the dean?) of the Supreme Court press corps, we’ve experienced an avalanche of anecdotes about this larger-than-life legal journalist.
We still have a few reports in the queue. Here’s the latest contribution:

Any discussion of Totenberg must include John Hockenberry’s recountings of her diva-like attitude around the NPR newsroom. He writes about her in his well-known memoir, Moving Violations. Note that Hockenberry implies Totenberg will ruin the career of anyone who crosses her. [Ed. note: YIKES.]

Go to Amazon and search for “Totenberg” in the book, John Hockenberry, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence. Starting around page 174, you’ll read this…

If you haven’t tired of reading about Ms. Nina — we know we haven’t, but everyone’s different — check out the rest of this post, after the jump.


Excerpts from John Hockenberry’s memoir appear in block quotations below, with our commentary following each one.

Occasionally I would fill in as a host for “All Things Considered,” and things would get more interesting. There was the time I got to ask one of the stupidest questions in the history of radio. It was the day Nina Totenberg broke the story that Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg had smoked marijuana with his students at Harvard. All day long we could tell that Nina had a big story because there were piles of documents sprawled all over her couch, which only happened when something big was about to break.

Interesting. We love to hear about the work habits of highly successful people — and we’re glad to hear that we’re not the only ones with messy offices.

She had discovered the marijuana allegation while investigating Ginsburg’s background at Harvard, and she was clearly unsure about what to do with it. In the just say no years of the Reagan administration it was politically significant that one of their own nominees smoked pot, but the idea of smoking marijuana disqualifying someone for a job cut a little close to home over at NPR, the Woodstock of news…

So true. Not exactly like the Clarence Thomas situation, where all the liberal political stars were in alignment.

Nina was flying around the studio on afterburners, and … Chuck Bailey, her editor, was trying to calm her down. “Who’s doing the interview?” she asked. Art said it would be me. “Oh, great, the acid head,” she said, pointing to me. I smiled and waved. I was remembering all of the times I had asked her to file stories for the newscast and all of the times I had told her that her stories were too long.

“Oh great, the acid head.” La Totenberg is so saucy — we love her!

Nina always insisted on writing the questions and the answers in such a way that the interviewer appeared to know absolutely nothing while Nina knew everything. I said I wanted to take a look at the questions. “Just leave them as they are,” she yelled. It was two minutes until air.

The first question was very general: “What did you find out at Harvard about Judge Ginsberg [sic]?” The answer was that he hadn’t written or published much, and that his judicial philosophy was an unknown. Nina would speculate that this was just what the administration wanted after the very public Robert Bork fiasco. The next question was about Ginsberg’s position…

None of this information justified all of the hysteria I had noted all day long over in Nina’s area, so my eyes were drawn to the third question written on the paper: “Did you find anything else, Nina?”

This seemed odd. “Nina, what is this ‘anything else, Nina?’ question.” She shouted back at me. “Never mind. You’ve got to ask it that way.” Art, the producer, looked at me and said that the answer was that Nina had discovered that Ginsberg had smoked pot with his students at Harvard. “And you’re not going to put that first?” I asked. “You’re burying the lead [sic]. It will make it look like you think there’s something wrong with the story if you put it at the end.”

Oh come on, John — don’t tell Nina Totenberg how to do her job. You’re not even fit to fetch her Starbucks.

Nina insisted, “We’re going to do it this way.” The show began, and we were on the air.

The interview proceeded nicely. Listeners learned about Ginsberg’s lack of published opinions … I looked at the third question. Never in the history of radio would a question be more disingenuously asked, and I had to ask it. I thought about surprising Nina with something like, “You know, Nina, I heard the guy used to smoke pot with his students. What about that?” or “But, really, Nina how good was he at rolling joints?”

While the microphone was open Nina eyed me with her signature glare, warning me off any deviation from the script. “You’ll be ruined in this town and any other if you try to pull a fast one,” her eyes said. She was a trembling bundle of nerves. The whole Washington bureau was watching on the other side of the glass …. I asked the stupidest question….

She paused and said, “Yes, John,” and began to explain that she knew that Ginsberg smoked pot from a number of sources, but that she didn’t know what that meant as far as his fitness for the Supreme Court was concerned….

We’ve never met Nina Totenberg in person. But we’d give anything to be on the receiving end of “her signature glare.” Sigh…
Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence [Amazon]


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