A recent PBS program asked listeners to call in and describe any trouble they had experienced this election year getting along with family and friends that hold opposing political views. Some callers complained bitterly about being banished from family discussions and events because of their support for Trump. Others discussed openly hostile relationships that have taken hold with close friends and family based on political disagreements. Some listeners described how they have simply agreed to not discuss politics at all with some of their more passionate family members. An election year layered with disagreements about the government’s handling of COVID-19 has created an openly hostile environment that is palpable. There are a few famous examples that show us it is possible, however, for political odd couples to develop deep friendships based on mutual respect, regardless of their pollical persuasions. The recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought one such relationship to light – the friendship between late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Baden Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Both worked at the highest levels of government, holding opposing opinions on nearly every consequential question before the highest court in the land. With so much at stake in Supreme Court decisions, and holding such starkly opposing views, it is truly remarkable that these late Justices were able to build and foster such a deep friendship.
In her memoirs published after late Justice Scalia’s death, Justice Ginsburg wrote: “how blessed I was to have a working colleague and dear friend of such captivating brilliance, high spirits and quick wit.” Ginsburg, a petite liberal with a stern demeanor and Scalia, a robust conservative with a knack for intertwining jokes into his dissenting opinions, appeared opposite in every way, but held some commonalities. Scalia served on the DC Court of appeals from ’82-‘86 and Ginsburg served there from ’80-’93 where according to a tribute written by Ginsburg the two became “best buddies”. Both were fellow New Yorkers – Scalia from Queens and Ginsburg from Brooklyn. Both had relatively non-traditional backgrounds for their careers – Scalia as an Italian Catholic and Ginsburg as a Jewish woman. Both were academics, Ginsburg holding teaching posts at Rutgers and Colombia and Scalia teaching at Chicago school of Law. Both loved and attended to opera together.
Their time on the Supreme Court brought this political odd couple even closer together. Scalia eventually also became friends with Ginsburg’s husband, a tax attorney who would cook to perfection Justice Scalia’s latest kills from his hunting trips. Their families traveled together and often got together at Scalia’s Watergate apartment. Both have talked publicly about never letter their opposing political or judicial philosophies get in the way of letting their friendship blossom. During a joint appearance at the National Press Club in 2014, Scalia characteristically joked of Ginsburg: “What’s not to like? Except her views on the law.” It is worth remembering that in the not too distant past, scorched earth politics were not the norm and more Americans viewed political differences as honest disagreements rather than unforgivable permanent defects.
The partisan nature of today’s politics has also led to both parties backing more tightly into their partisan corners. Fast forward to the soon to come confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett where the Senate will likely vote on a party line basis to confirm her. The Kavanaugh hearings showed the worst of what the divided swamp of Washington has to offer. Judge Coney Barrett was given a fairer treatment than Kavanaugh, but still faces bigoted criticism about her strongly held religious beliefs. If Congress were to harken back to the days when a Supreme Court nominee was evaluated based on qualifications alone, Judge Barret’s upcoming Senate confirmation vote would likely be unanimous. On a bipartisan basis, Justice Ginsburg was confirmed in 1993 by a 96-3 Senate vote and Justice Scalia was confirmed in 1986 by a 98-0 Senate vote. Republican Senators crossing over to vote for Ginsburg included current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, future Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole, and Strom Thurmond who once ran for President as a Dixiecrat in support of segregation. Joe Biden voted for Justice Scalia as did Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, all of which would eventually went on to become the Democratic party’s nominee for President.
Let’s hope that after this election, our country can begin healing and Congress can begin working together on a bipartisan basis for the American people again. If the late Justices Ginsburg and Scalia can bridge their highly tuned political differences to become great friends, then to start we can surely refrain from tossing cranberry sauce at our liberal uncle during Thanksgiving dinner this year.