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A notorious friendship

As the question of when to fill the seat of the late Supreme Court justice and liberal lion Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows just how divided the country is, it should be remembered one of her best friends was Justice Antonin Scalia, the most conservative member of the court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, bottom left, are seen in a photo of Supreme Court justices in 2003. Also pictured are John Paul Stevens, seated, and David H. Souter.Mark Wilson

It would be nice but undoubtedly naive to think the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who did so much to establish and protect the civil rights of so many, would give the nation pause, to honor her legacy by remembering there is much more that unites us than divides us.

But we aren’t at that moment in time, nor do we seem to have elected leaders capable of bridging those divides. And so within hours of her death, after a few platitudes were mouthed, it was back to business as usual where the usual business is hyperpartisanship.


Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell apparently doesn’t recall that in 2016 he refused to even grant a hearing much less a vote to Merrick Garland after Garland was nominated by President Obama to fill the seat left vacant by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. McConnell was adamant that no vacancy should be filled during any president’s last year in office.

Within hours of Scalia’s death, McConnell interrupted his vacation to say, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

It would be blatantly ageist to suggest that, at 78, McConnell simply forgets what he said four years ago. So let’s be charitable and just call it what it is: rank hypocrisy.

That it was somehow undemocratic in 2016 to fill a Supreme Court vacancy nine months before a presidential election makes the prospect of rushing to fill Ginsburg’s seat only six weeks before a presidential election utterly ridiculous.

But what better words to describe the current state of American politics: utterly ridiculous.

It is ironic and not a little poignant that the Senate, and the nation, finds itself in the same place it did four years ago after Ginsburg’s best friend on the court died.


Ginsburg, a liberal lion, and Scalia, a staunch conservative, couldn’t have been farther apart ideologically. They rarely agreed with each other. And yet they had an agreeable relationship, able to set aside their differences to enjoy each other’s intellect and company. Their differences of gender, faith, and outlook mattered little when they decided they respected and liked each other.

Ginsburg was Scalia’s work wife, Scalia her work husband. They made each other better in their chosen profession. But what cemented their friendship was what happened outside of work. They shared a love of opera and travel. They had supportive spouses who were very much a part of their friendship.

That shared love of opera led to the creation of a comic opera called “Scalia/Ginsburg” in which the performers — a soprano voicing the role of Ginsburg and a tenor that of Scalia — sing, “We are different, we are one.”

They and their families spent New Year’s Eve together, a tradition dating back to the 1980s, when both sat on the US Court of Appeals in Washington.

Writing in the Washington Post, Scalia’s son, Eugene, the US secretary of labor, said he believed the most important lesson of their friendship was “how to welcome debate and differences.”

While they had differing opinions on the most contentious issues of the day, from abortion to same-sex marriage, “not for a moment did one think the other should be condemned or ostracized,” he said.


“More than that,” he continued, “they believed that what they were doing — arriving at their own opinions thoughtfully and advancing them vigorously — was essential to the national good. With less debate, their friendship would have been diminished, and so, they believed, would our democracy."

Nino and the Notorious RBG. That they could see the world so differently yet manage to appreciate, even love, each other is a parable for our times. A reminder, if ever one was needed, that you can disagree with someone — on just about everything, in fact — and still be friends.

Will America’s poisoned politics ever, again, see the wisdom of that simple truth?

Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at