There was certainly no shortage of confusion following the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He was found in bed at a remote hunting resort in Texas and, according to news reports, had declined a security detail, so no U.S. marshals were present. Nor were any justices of the peace nearby. After several chaotic hours, officials finally located a county judge, who pronounced Scalia dead of natural causes over the telephone, without ever seeing the body. No autopsy was conducted.
It was the kind of mysterious scenario that seemed tailor-made for conspiracy theories, and even a month later, many unanswered questions remain. But despite the unusual circumstances of his death, there was one aspect of Scalia’s life that might be even more curious – his unlikely friendship with fellow justice and ideological opposite Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Scalia and Ginsburg first met as U.S. appeals court judges before their respective appointments to the Supreme Court in 1986 and 1993. Although their legal philosophies were diametrically opposed – he an originalist and she a proponent of a living Constitution – they somehow managed to sustain a decades-long friendship based on mutual admiration and a shared passion for the arts. According to a recent Washington Post article, Scalia and his wife regularly joined Ginsburg and her husband for dinners and vacations, and the two couples celebrated many New Year’s Eves together.
Their friendship flourished, even as Scalia and Ginsburg fervently disagreed on many of the cases that came before the Court. Issues like abortion, healthcare reform, same-sex marriage, campaign finance and affirmative action divided the country, but never caused a personal rift between the two justices. Perhaps they recognized that their devotion to the Constitution was equally strong, even though they understood it somewhat differently.
It’s a way of thinking that seems lamentably rare these days. The current election cycle is among the most contentious in recent memory, with smears outshining substance and derision undermining discourse. This week’s nomination of Scalia’s potential successor unleashed a fresh wave of partisan rancor in a Congress already hobbled by discord. One wonders: must dissent and dislike inevitably go hand in hand?
“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Often attributed to Harry Truman, this quip suggests that friendship and politics don’t mix. Nevertheless, there have been quite a few odd couples throughout history whose unexpectedly close relationships could rival even that of Scalia and Ginsburg.
Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were staunch friends despite their political differences until a falling-out in 1801 when Jefferson became president. They finally reconciled in 1811 and enjoyed 15 years of enthusiastic correspondence until their deaths on July 4, 1826.
President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill also had a strong bond, which included regular lunches in addition to tough policy negotiations. “There was a respect for each other and a respect for institutions,” said MSNBC “Hardball” host and former O’Neill aide Chris Matthews in a 2013 Politico interview. Matthews went on to chronicle the improbable relationship between the two leaders in his book “Tip and the Gipper: When Washington Worked.”
Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but forged a devoted friendship as well as a powerful legislative partnership. “We fought each other like tooth and tongue but afterwards, we’d put our arms around each other and laugh about it,” Hatch said in an interview on National Public Radio after Kennedy’s death in 2009.
Political consultants Mary Matalin and James Carville took it a step further with a high-profile romance during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Matalin was deputy campaign chief for George H.W. Bush and Carville was lead strategist for Bill Clinton. After surviving the election year crucible, they married and have been happily offering conflicting views on talk shows ever since.
There’s something uniquely inspiring about individuals who can set aside their differences for the sake of a higher goal, whether it be lifelong friendship, true love or the good of the nation. Indeed, Scalia and Ginsburg’s extraordinary rapport inspired Derrick Wang to compose an opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which premiered last summer. In Ginsburg’s published reaction to Scalia’s death, she recalled a line from a duet near the end of the production: “We are different, we are one.”
It’s an idea we would all do well to remember.