Opinion | My Unlikely Friendship With Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Our improbable friendship began in 2002 at a Georgetown dinner party, and it began with music. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Jewish urbanite who had just turned 70 and had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by a Democratic president. I was a 30-year-old African-American from the rural South who had recently arrived in Washington to serve as a special assistant to George W. Bush.

Aware of my status as the new kid on the block, I soon was put at ease at the dinner by the friendly man seated next to me, Marty Ginsburg. I’ll always remember our conversation.

So what do you do when you’re not working at the White House? he asked. I replied that listening to music and reading were my chief interests.

He turned and said, my wife and I love music; what are you listening to now?

When he learned that I was researching different renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, he asked for my favorite. Without hesitation, I replied, “Glenn Gould, 1955.” Addressing his wife on the other side of the table, he said, “Ruth, you have to meet Eric.”

We continued to discuss music and many other interests for the next 17 years. She sent me CDs and articles and sometimes over dinner would explain complicated legal cases. When I began writing a memoir of growing up in a poor community in Alabama founded by former slaves, including my great-grandfather, she asked to read the manuscript, and her keen insight resulted in several suggestions.

She also shared her own recollections that helped me understand the roots of her lifelong passion for equal opportunity for every person. Once we talked about people who had made lasting impressions on us when we were young. She recalled being mesmerized by the conductor of a children’s concert she attended in Brooklyn in 1944, when she was 11 years old. She was both sad and incredulous to learn I had not heard of the African-American conductor, Dean Dixon, and his inability to land a conductor’s job at a major symphony orchestra simply because of his race.

“Sit down,” she said, as I recall. “We cannot end the evening until you know his story. Can you imagine someone with so much skill and genius, conducting all over the world, and yet unable to find a job in his own country just because of the color of his skin?”

While many of the topics we discussed touched on the political, we never spoke of politics in a partisan fashion; rather, we spoke of ideas that underlie political theories and ways of thinking. We never reduced the complexity of ideas to partisan labels. We always discussed issues, even potentially divisive ones, from a cultural and historical perspective, more nuanced than the Democratic versus Republican dichotomy allows. As it so often turned out, our views on those ideas were not as far apart as our nominal party affiliations might have suggested.

I would often sit quietly like a student at the feet of a master teacher when she would suddenly say in her quiet way, Eric, what are you thinking? We are friends, and I hope you know that you can say whatever you want.

She was a friend in all seasons, and I would forget who she was, because she would remind me that friendship mattered most. When she first met my fiancée, after knowing me as a single person for 15 years, she looked at me and said, “It’s about time!”

When the pandemic forced a postponement of the wedding where she was to be a reader, she offered to marry us quietly in her apartment so that we could get on with our lives and celebrate later. She even shared with us a draft of how she planned to personalize the civil service of union. After we had quarantined ourselves for a month, the quiet ceremony was scheduled for last Friday. But two days earlier we had learned that she needed to reschedule.

We clung to the hope that someday soon Justice Ginsburg would be able to unite us in matrimony. Needless to say, the news of her death, on the very day of the planned ceremony, devastated us. To have a Supreme Court justice marry you is one thing, but to lose a friend is everything. Later that night, I made reference in my diary to what Wordsworth refers to as “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

People often asked both of us how we became friends. Last December, at dinner one evening she succinctly replied: “A common love for ideas, for music. It was really the Goldberg Variations that brought us together.”

When I listen to Bach’s marvelous, deeply stirring music, I am reminded that in all of these variations — all this flux of life, especially in the inner ups and downs — there is an exquisite order I can actually experience, which is so beautiful that it must be real. In that one piece of music, so beautiful and complex, both she and I discovered that these Variations had become a fixture in our lives.

On the night of her death, like thousands of others, my fiancée, Hannah, and I visited the Supreme Court. We climbed those marbled steps of majesty, and at the great bronze doors we left a single white rose. As I held Hannah’s hand, I remembered the love of Marty and Ruth and imagined my new beginning with Hannah. Then we came home and put on the Goldberg Variations.

Eric L. Motley is the executive vice president of the Aspen Institute.

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