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May 24, 2018

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‘Notorius RBG’: Ginsburg as irrepressible as ever

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently cleared up a very pressing matter about .. her nickname.

Ginsburg often has been quizzed regarding her comfort (or discomfort) level with the moniker bestowed upon her, the Notorious RBG, which is a spin-off of the Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, a controversial East Coast rapper who was murdered in a hail of bullets in an ugly, gangster-like scene in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997.

Ginsburg, known for her straight-up wit and candor, offered this response in her inimitable style, “I say why should I feel uncomfortable. We have a lot in common. We are both from Brooklyn.”

That quip garnered an endorsement of laughter and applause from a jam-packed audience at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. In an event sponsored by the Newseum Institute, Ginsburg appeared for a conversation to promote her recently released book, “My Own Words.” She was accompanied on the dais by moderator Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs and Supreme Court correspondent, and Ginsburg’s co-authors — Georgetown University law professors Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

Ginsburg has developed sort of a cult following among her liberal admirers. A Supreme version of “Girl Power.”

How popular is the Notorious RBG? Well, her event originally was scheduled to be at the 500-seat Annenberg Theater at the Newseum building. But, as Newseum president and CEO Jeffrey Herbst explained during the introduction of the panel, after the museum posted the announcement of the Ginsburg event, the Newseum was overwhelmed by 1,600 RSVPs by the next morning.

That’s why we all received multiple messages and reminders that the Ginsburg panel would relocate to the much larger Lisner Auditorium. Those RSVPs for a 24-hour period are believed to be the highest ever for a panel discussion or speech at the Newseum since it opened April 11, 2008.

Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. She since has gained a Teflon-tough reputation for being a tireless champion for women’s rights and disenfranchised or marginalized minorities, much to the delight of her millions of followers. Add her pop-culture status to the mix, plus the rarity of Supreme Court justices speaking to general audiences, then we see why an elfin woman — who is “a little under five feet and a little under 100 pounds,” co-author Wendy W. Williams said — can sell out a hall in the nation’s capital.

Remember when prominent leaders of the Democratic Party urged Ginsburg — the eldest member of the Supremes — to retire early on in President Barack Obama’s second term to ensure that a liberal/moderate type would replace her. Well, she steadfastly resisted and, by all indications, still does.

With that, during her book panel, the feisty Ginsburg showed no signs of changing her tune, saying, “I have said many times that I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam. And when I can’t, I will step down.”

The still remarkably active Ginsburg, who turned 84 on March 15, went para-sailing for the first time at age 69; she still loves horseback riding; she likes jaunts to tropical climates, such as Hawaii; she still attends the opera; she’s still committed to her 10 to 20 push-ups during her workouts at least twice a week; she’s survived two bouts with cancer; and she once rode an elephant in India with her “odd-couple, best buddy” Supreme Court colleague, the late Antonin Scalia, in 1994.

In the hot Supreme Court news circuit, Neil Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the seat left vacant after the death of Scalia. A conservative replacing a conservative.

When Totenberg asked Ginsburg for her observations of Gorsuch, Ginsburg paused ... and paused some more. Yes, it was an intentional timeout.

Finally, amid chuckles by a very clued-in audience, Ginsburg simply replied, “He’s very easy to get along with, and he writes very well.”

What’s that time-tested saying that goes something like: If you can’t say something nice about someone, then ...

Well, that was that.

Interestingly enough, Ginsburg, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, appeared to make veiled references to Trump without ever mentioning him by name. Such as:

“The United States is not experiencing the best of times right now. We are not as mindful of what makes America great.”

And …

“The words matter on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”

Ginsburg was anointed with the “Notorious” nickname in 2013 by Shana Knizhnik, then a New York University law student who idolized her to the point of creating a special meme-oriented blog on social media’s Tumblr that’s devoted to the feminist pioneer whose toughness belies her diminutive stature. In a spin-off of that, “RBG” T-shirts are on the market, too.

Ginsburg’s “My Own Words” book focuses on her writings and speeches since junior high school. Yes, she got an early start in writing opinions.

Well, that’s the irrepressible Notorious RBG.

Gregory Clay is a Washington columnist and a former editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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