Nina Totenberg is a total boss

nina totenberg

As a big fan of NPR, I was pretty pumped when I heard that Nina Totenberg would be speaking at Brown. All my fellow radioheads recognize that she is a big deal, up there with Ira Glass (Class of 1982, by the way), Terri Gross, and Sarah Koenig. Totenberg specializes in the Supreme Court, and with decades of experience, she is a regular contributor to NPR’s newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition. Her know-how is hard to match; she has been covering supreme court justices longer than any of the current nine have been sitting on the bench! Needless to say, there was a huge turnout when she came to Brown this past Tuesday; all kinds of people were there–undergraduates, professors, grad students, and even Providence locals.

Totenberg’s most striking feature is her voice, which is so unmistakably her own. She speaks like someone who understands their own importance, with crisp sentences and penetrating looks. Despite her intimidating demeanor, she opened with a joke about how she could not have gotten into Brown as an undergraduate. Her mother went here, though, and she explained how she always had a special spot for Brown in her heart.

Totenberg had no time for customary throat clearing, so she immediately got to the point of her speech; she understood why people had come and wanted to cut right to the meat of the lecture. First, she claimed that the folklore behind certain justices were simply myths. “They are just real people,” she said, explaining how in today’s world they’re “more accessible than ever.” (Just take a look at the Notorious RBG.) The way she spoke about each justice was riveting. Instead of being fixated on their conservative or liberal tilt, she showed listeners who they are as people. 

Totenberg then spoke about her long history with the Supreme Court, explaining how much the Supreme Court has changed in her tenure as a journalist. When she began in 1968, the issues that the institution faced were very different than they are today. Although gender discrimination and Civil Rights cases still dominate the docket, she gave a timeline of the progress our country has made, citing the rise of interracial marriage and women in the workforce. However, she was sure to mention certain issues still pertinent to our generation, like the mess of voter ID laws plaguing certain states and the debate over abortion.

Although she never directly stated her political affiliation, I couldn’t help but notice the consistent snubs at conservative lawmakers. She argued that “those who used to lose are winning and those who used to win are losing” because of conservative interest groups. She warned that affirmative action will be hanging “by a thread” in this next session, and she predicted that a conservative majority would prevail. Despite the liberal decisions made this term, she foresees tighter restrictions on abortion and possibly an end to public employee unions. Touching upon the erosion of Roe v. Wade, Totenberg then explained that because of new laws in Texas, getting an abortion would require some women to drive over 300 miles. Apparently, “only 950,000 women” would be affected, and the state was choosing to look at “legislative findings over empirical evidence.” Alarming, right?

Because 2016 is an election year, we should also expect challenges to voting laws. She doesn’t think there will be any retirements among the justices this year, but the next President is likely to have powerful influence on the court for generations to come. He/she could potentially elect four justices over the course of their presidency, according to Totenberg. If a vacancy arises, she advised her audience to “expect a bumpy ride.”

Most of all, I was impressed by Totenberg’s ability to weave in anecdotes from her own experience with policy. A self proclaimed “lover of gossip,” she catches our attention and holds it. Not all of us have the time (or the attention span) to listen to oral arguments or watch CSPAN, so her succinct and powerful five- or six-minute long pieces offer scope, comprehension, and the feeling that we are, as she says, “getting it.”

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