BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondentJanuary 14, 2021
How/where are you celebrating your birthday and with whom? “I am celebrating my birthday with my husband, probably alone because there’s no place to go to celebrate it, not safely. He’s actually been vaccinated, because he’s a surgeon, but I have not. Therefore, I think the safest thing to do is just have a nice dinner at home, and he’ll cook it for me — he’s a better cook than I am and cooks almost all the time for me.”
How did you get your start in journalism? “It was really hard, because it was in an era where people either blanket told you, ‘we don’t hire women,’ or ‘we don’t hire women for the night desk.’ So getting my first job on the women’s page for the old Record American in Boston was very hard, and I just worked an extra shift to do real work. Because in those days it wasn’t a style section, it was a women’s page. That meant fashion — not fashion the way it’s covered in the Washington Post — boring fashion, press release fashion rewritten, or recipes. And so I would work an extra shift at night covering everything from police, fire, all kinds of events like that, or as a leg man covering the school committee, which at the time was a very interesting place to cover because it was in the middle of a huge fight over bussing. So that was my first job. Then I went to work for the Peabody Times in Peabody, Mass., and I covered absolutely everything. It was probably the best training, because there were just two reporters and it came out twice a week. There was one day I remember after an election and it was a Wednesday or a Thursday, and every byline on the front page was mine.”
What’s an interesting book/article you’re reading during coronavirus social distancing? And why? “Well I read the Obama memoir, autobiography, and I thought it was very interesting because you could see his thinking process, and sometimes overthinking process. Most presidential biographies, or autobiographies or memoirs, don’t really do that. This one is different in that way, and because he’s a really good writer. The other Obama book that I read this year was [Michelle’s ‘Becoming’]. I listened to it, and it was probably the best-read autobiography or memoir that I’ve ever read, or listened to. It was wonderful in the recounting of her early life and her early marriage, her pre-White House days.
The White House days part is interesting, but it’s not nearly as interesting as her very frank account of what life was like for her. Maybe some of it is with rose-colored glasses, I could feel like I was in the room with the teenage Michelle Obama. It was incredibly evocative of her young self, and in that way it was truly extraordinary. I mean, if she had never been the wife of the president of the United States, if she had never been involved in politics, if that book had ended at the point where she meets and her husband courts her, if it had ended there it would have been a wonderful book without the rest. It probably wouldn’t have been a bestseller, because who would have known about it, right? But it’s one of those books that might have had a word-of-mouth huge following eventually, just because it is so evocative of a girl to womanhood to adulthood story.”
What’s a trend going on in the U.S. or abroad that doesn’t get enough attention? “I read The New York Times and Washington Post every day, and sometimes the Wall Street Journal, plus a bunch of legal publications, so it’s hard to say what’s overlooked. I know a fair amount about India because my husband is on the board of one of the major medical schools in India, so I am aware more through him and I read more about India as a result. But I think what I know about India is that it has succeeded wildly in vaccinating people. Not for coronavirus, because it’s just starting that, but it has gotten its people to buy in to vaccinations in a very big way. I think that example is something that we probably should learn more from, because it’s wiped out whole diseases in India that otherwise would not have been wiped out. ”
What are you watching for in the Biden presidency? “Mitch McConnell is able to block a lot of things, and I do not see, even with a majority Democratic Senate that President-elect Joe Biden will have the votes to wipe out the filibuster. So will he be able to get judgeships through? It is true that McConnell has muscled through something like a third of the seats on the federal courts of appeal, but there are still plenty of older federal appeals courts judges who may step down in the next year or so. And there still are lots and lots of federal district court judgeships that will likely come open. The question is, can he get them filled? Or is McConnell going to be an obstructionist, even though he has basically won conservative control of the courts, and certainly the Supreme Court.
The other thing I’m going to look at as a journalist and wife of a doctor, is whether they really have plans to ramp up not just delivery, but actual vaccinations. Because you can’t do this at CVS. If you go into any CVS to pick up your prescription and you know that it’s going to take you at least five minutes to pick it up, and there’s two seats there if you want to get a flu vaccine. My husband, David, is vaccinating people in the Inova system, which is all concentrated into one huge hall that they’ve converted into a vaccination area, and they are vaccinating something like 1,000 people a day. But it’s a very complicated system, and it has a lot of people involved in it and it has paperwork and a room afterward where you stay for a little while to make sure they don’t have an adverse reaction. So I know how complicated this is and when I look at the statistics, even given the idea that these will double, I cannot imagine that unless they set up essentially what is like a field hospital but without all that equipment to vaccinate people, they’re going to be able to do what Biden has promised to do. The question is can he do that in the first 30 days, so that in the next 70, he can deliver on, if not 100 million vaccinations, something not insanely off that number.
And the other part of that equation that I’m looking at is, there's now an EOC opinion that you can mandate vaccinations, but whether employers will do that. There are exceptions for religious objections and for medical problems, like people who have had anaphylactic response to flu shots, for example. But if we don’t get a humongous number of people vaccinated relatively quickly, in the next six to eight months, we're going to have a real problem both medically and economically.”
What’s a fun fact that people in Washington might not know about you? “Maybe that my husband is neither a lawyer nor a journalist. He’s a trauma surgeon, but he actually knows a lot about the Supreme Court after being married to me for 20 years. I’m a very family person, so every weekend I get on the phone with both of my sisters, usually together but sometimes we have to do it separately. And even though we’re in three different cities, and basically haven’t seen each other in almost a year, we are together all the time.
Oh, and my 35-year-old niece, who is a journalist in Mexico City, managed to win the Pulitzer Prize this year — and I’ve never even qualified for a Pulitzer. There were two reporters who did pieces for ‘This American Life’ on immigration, and hers was one of those pieces, which make me very proud and very jealous.”