The person who popularized the handle “Notorious RBG,” a young lawyer named Shana Knizhnik who runs a Tumblr site of that title, says that Ruth Bader Ginsburg “embodies the larger-than-life nature of the ‘notorious’ title more and more as she gets older.”
No. No she does not. Ginsburg is a recessive, stiff, mild-mannered, halting, tight-lipped, mumbly, hunched, personality-challenged law-elf. It would be hard to think of a major public figure to whom the term “larger than life” is less applicable. She is smaller than life, and smaller than her improbable legend, which (the left seems to have forgotten) began as a running joke predicated on the absurdity of treating this graceful little lady in a lace collar as the Supreme Court’s O.G.
Still, that this image of Ginsburg enthralls the Left is proven by the box-office success this summer ($15 million, relatively huge for the form) of a routine documentary/hymn of praise called RBG. Starting Labor Day, it’s airing on CNN.
The filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West do their best to make Ginsburg seem scintillating. Bless them for trying. Ginsburg is so unforthcoming that the way her friends found out her mother had died while she was in high school was that she drily informed them her mother would be unable to participate in commencement ceremonies.
The film relies heavily on pop-culture imagery (Ginsburg’s face grafted onto Wonder Woman, Kate McKinnon doing a ridiculously extroverted Ginsburg on Saturday Night Live) to make a case for Ginsburg as icon. Far from being the Left’s version of her good friend Nino Scalia — a towering figure who wrote brilliant, witty, quotable decisions and altered the course of American jurisprudence — Ginsburg is simply one of many progressive justices who predictably ignore the voters, the law and the Constitution to implement from the bench whatever progressive policy they prefer. It’s hard to see why she’s any more interesting than John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, or David Souter.
Unintended subtext is always fascinating in a progressive film, though, and what Cohen and West don’t notice is that Ginsburg’s life is an ongoing rebuke to the style of today’s Left. She was never in anybody’s face, never angry. She didn’t waste her time on demonstrations and marches. She was more interested in poring over legal briefs at 3 a.m. In arguing before the Supreme Court, where she won five of six cases she litigated, her strategy was to smile deferentially, as she did when William Rehnquist joked that having Susan B. Anthony on the dollar should be enough to placate those who decried sex discrimination. She once compared her role to that of a kindergarten teacher, and after she blasted Donald Trump by name in 2016, she meekly apologized and noted, correctly, that it was not her place to call out political figures.
What’s more, she happily played traditionally feminine roles early in life. She met her great love, Marty, at Cornell, married him, bore their first child, followed him to Harvard Law School, then followed him again, transferring to Columbia Law School because he’d taken a job in New York City. From 4 p.m. on, she looked after their little daughter Janey, hitting the books at night. Marty later repaid her handsomely: She estimates she was “22nd or 23rd” on Bill Clinton’s list for the Supreme Court in 1993 after his preferred choice, Mario Cuomo, demurred. Marty, a major New York City tax lawyer, started calling everyone he knew to lobby for his wife, and Marty knew a lot of people.
Once Ginsburg was nominated for the Supreme Court her followers began to position her as an unsung civil-rights hero. As an ACLU lawyer in the 1970s, she pursued a prudent, modest, stepping-stone strategy to attack sex discrimination via the equal-protection clause. While she was quite successful, it would be a stretch to call any of her High Court cases landmarks; Frontiero v. Richardson, a typical one, concerned an Air Force member denied a housing allowance because she was a woman. Ginsburg’s work as a litigator was important, but it didn’t send up fireworks, because fireworks were never her style.
When the most moving moment in the film arrives, tellingly, it isn’t because Ginsburg has something notable to say. Losing Marty, her husband of so many years, in 2010 must have been the most wrenching of ordeals, but she doesn’t much reflect on it. Instead she tells us what Marty had to say about it, reading an astonishingly beautiful farewell letter he composed on his deathbed. Nor does she have anything quotable to say about Scalia. Sometimes he would whisper things in her ear (this, one supposes, when the Court was in session) that were so funny she had to pinch herself not to laugh, she says. Her favorite Scalia joke? “I know what it is but I can’t tell you.” Oh, do save it for later, then. The great man, seen in a clip during a joint interview with her before an audience, exudes more charisma in 30 seconds than she does in the entire film. “She is a very nice person. She likes opera. What’s not to like?” he says about her, and the whole room smiles.
That bond is the film’s most telling implicit rebuke to today’s progressives, who can’t imagine being friends with someone like Scalia: This supposed avatar of feisty leftism knows when to put politics aside and how not to confuse being a liberal with being a good person.