Thomas crafts portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor

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Book Reviewer

Sunday, May 26, 2019

In the prologue to this insightful and well-researched biography of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor, Evan Thomas wrote: “Nearly sixteen years before Madeleine Albright became secretary of state, a dozen years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined O’Connor on the bench, two years before Sallie Ride flew in space, Sandra O’Connor entered the proverbial “room where it happens.” No woman had ever sat in one of the nine chairs at the mahogany table in the oak-paneled room where the justices of the United States Supreme Court meet to rule on the law of the land.”

Thomas, a great story teller, has found the perfect subject for his latest work, “First” (Random House; $32.) the captivating biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, the trailblazing woman who many times cracked the glass ceiling.

Growing up on the family ranch she honed her sense of duty, responsibility, pragmatism and sense of humor. After the age of six, Sandra was away from her parents from September to June each school year, except for holidays and vacations. She grew up with the determination to study law at Stanford. In 1952, graduating near the top of her class, she tried to find a job at a law firm, but none were hiring women.

John, her husband, became a partner in a large firm as a commercial litigator and became interested in politics, and he and Sandra were volunteers in the Barry Goldwater campaign and later the Maricopa County G.O.P. Hanging her shingle in a strip mall, she was one of a handful of women practicing law, and Thomas tells us how she earned her way up to be Arizona state senator majority leader, and a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

On a cattle ranch, the test of a cowhand is the roundup. On the Lazy B, a spread of more than 250 square miles, there was the twice-a-year roundup when the cowhands branded the new calves and culled the yearlings for sale. Sandra never rode a full month roundup but she did ride for several days when she was home from school. O’Connor frequently told this story as a message to her law clerks: no excuses; accept responsibility, get the job done.

The summer before her senior year in high school she was home helping with a mini-roundup. Her father had taken a crew out to find some missing calves. Sandra’s job that day was to bring the 10-man crew their meal by 9:30, but she had a flat tire an hour out into her journey. When she tried to get the lug nuts loose she had to jump up and down on the lug wrench and finally, one by one, pried the nuts loose, jacked the truck up, and changed the tire — all of which took over an hour. It was after 1:30 when Sandra reached her father and the hands, built a fire to heat the beef and coffee for the tired and hungry crew. She explained about the flat, but her father’s response was “You should have started earlier.”

The book is a long, thoughtful read (450 pages) that tells the story of each phase of her life in 16 chapters, each starting with a photograph and an appropriate quote. Each section is set chronologically and takes her from childhood to Stanford law degree to Arizona politics, to years on the Arizona bench and her years on the Supreme Court, which she left after 25 years to care for her husband with Alzheimer’s disease, to her bout with cancer at age 58.

With extraordinary access to myriad sources including John O’Connor’s unpublished memoir, Thomas draws a word portrait of O’Connor and her world. Thomas had open license to oral histories; journal of her early years; personal, often intimate, correspondence with family and friends; diaries; social life; and relationship with 94 of her law clerks. Thomas also used O’Connor’s papers, some in the Library of Congress but closed to the public. Diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago, at her request, Thomas has spoken with Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

This work contains black-and-white and a large collection of color photographs, a prologue, acknowledgements, bibliography, credits and index. Evan Thomas is the author of nine New York Times bestsellers. He has taught writing and journalism at Harvard and Princeton, where he was from 2007 to 2014 Ferris Professor of Journalism. For 33 years, he was editor at Time and Newsweek


An Excerpt

Sandra Day O’Connor was an athletic Arizona ranch girl. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a tiny, almost birdlike creature raised in Brooklyn. At a judicial conference in Mumbai, India, in the early nineties, O’Connor was down in the lobby meeting and greeting early every morning, while Ginsburg ran about a half hour late and had trouble looking anyone in the eye. “We had a rather exhausting schedule,” Ginsburg recalled. “Sandra moved very fast and would make the most gracious remarks to our hosts.”

When President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to replace the retiring Byron White in 1993, making her the second female Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor was grateful and relieved and not just because the Court finally installed a women’s bathroom behind the bench. “I was so glad to have company,” O’Connor said to ABC correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg, who had become friendly with the justice. “Immediately, the media started treating us as fungible justices, not so much focused on a single woman. It made an immediate big difference.”

Ginsburg would become a pop-culture feminist icon, but when she first came to the Court, she was known as an incrementalist, more of an activist than O’Connor to be sure, but, like O’Connor cautious and deliberate in her jurisprudence. The two women were not natural pals; their relationship was not cozy. Over the next twelve years together on the Supreme Court, O’Connor never visited Ginsburg’s chambers to talk over a case, Justice Ginsburg recalled. Ginsburg did not attend O’Connor’s morning aerobics class.

Then there was the matter of Ginsburg’s driving. Sandra began driving tractors at the age of ten; Ginsburg did not learn to drive a car until she moved to Washington in middle age. They were assigned adjacent parking spaces in the Supreme Court garage. “Sandra was furious because Ruth would come in late and hit her car,” recalled Patricia White, an O’Connor friend who was dean of Arizona State University College of Law. “Multiple times. Sandra bribed the parking attendant to take Ruth’s car and park it.” Romeo Cruz, O’Connor’s chambers “messenger” and occasional driver, recalled. “In the Court parking lot, she was rear-ended twice by Justice Ginsburg. Asking by the author if she had hit Justice O’Connor’s car, Justice Ginsberg threw up her hands and responded, “Oh dear!” She explained. “My parking space was between Sandra’s and Scalia’s. I was so anxious not to scrape Scalia’s that I scraped hers. I came upstairs and told her I had done something bad.” Fender benders aside, when it really mattered, the two women helped each other.