tv Sandra Day O Connor - First Woman on Supreme Court CSPAN October 20, 2019 4:45pm-6:00pm EDT
been translated into true ugliness. announcer: watch tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span's q&a. announcer: in 1981, president ronald reagan nominated sandra day o'connor to be the first woman to serve on the supreme court. next on american history tv, panelists including one of o'connor's sons discuss the factors, characteristics, and qualifications that led to her appointment. this talk was part of an all-day conference commemorating the 30th anniversary of o'connor's -- 38th anniversary of o'connor's senate confirmation. the ronald reagan presidential foundation and institute hosted the event. [applause] john: good afternoon. for those i have not had a chance to meet, my name is john hi bush. i have the honor of being executive director of the ronald reagan presidential foundation
and institute. thank you all for coming out this afternoon. if you would, in honor of our men and women in uniform who defend our freedom around the world, please stand and join me for the pledge of allegiance. [in unison] i pledge allegiance to the flag of the united states of america and to the republic for which it stands one nation, under god, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. john: thank you, please be seated. in the fall of 1988 when president ronald reagan broke ground at the sight of his -- site of his future presidential library, i'm not sure he could have imagined that his foundation, the one bearing
his name, would one day also be operating a robust institute in washington, d.c., one just steps from the white house he would soon leave behind for his beloved homeland ranch in the west. however, i do know that today's celebration honoring justice sandra day o'connor is exactly the type of gathering in his name that he envisioned. history intrinsically links president reagan and justice o'connor, and it is an honor and a privilege for the reagan foundation and institute to host this forum. before we begin our celebration, i would like to express our gratitude to our friends in the room who still carry the flame of our 40th president, and those who share a deep love and admiration for our first woman on the supreme court. first, thanks to the o'connor
family for joining us on this historic day. thanks as well to our partners who share in our civic mission and who have helped us craft our agenda for this afternoon, npr, the aspen institute, arizona institute sandra day o'connor law school, the supreme court and the library of congress. [applause] institute sandra day john: the force behind today's event is a longtime member of the reagan foundation's board of trustees, a partner at gibson, dunn and crutcher, ted olson. one of our nation's premier appellate and supreme court
advocates, ted served as solicitor general of the u.s. from 2001-2004. prior to that he served as assistant attorney general and the office of legal counsel at the justice department during the reagan administration from 1981-1984, and as private counsel to president reagan during his second term. ted's commitment to the principles of equality, liberty and justice not only served president reagan, but also helped him carry his legacy into the 21st century. it is his leadership that led to today's worthy celebration of justice o'connor. ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming to the stage mr. ted olson. [applause]
ted: thank you, john. and thank everyone of you for being here. everyone that has been involved in this is very, very excited, and we are full of anticipation. it is an honor to be with you 38 years to the day after sandra day o'connor took her seat as the first woman to serve on the supreme court of the united states. our constitution was adopted on september 17, 1787. the government had created, including the supreme court, began functioning in 1789. nearly 200 years later, on this date in 1981, justice sandra day o'connor became the 102nd and
first female justice. reflect on that for a moment. it took nearly two centuries to put the first woman on the united states supreme court. i was privileged to be in court that day. president reagan was there, members of the cabinet, senators, representatives, the justices, and members of the press and public watched as a -- as the court received the commission signed by president reagan, and the oath of office was administered by the chief justice. and then justice o'connor was escorted to the bench and took her seat. it was a very special, emotional moment, and i feel emotion talking about it, but much too long in coming. justice o'connor served for 25 years on the supreme court with brilliance, a keen understanding of the constitution and of the american people, compassion,
insight, wisdom, grace and dignity. she had spent her early years on a 198,000 acre cattle ranch in arizona. she graduated at the top of her staff at stanford law school. and she was the last justice, i believe this is correct, to serve in elected office and as a state appeals court judge. as a justice, she had a sharp, incisive sense of humor, and -- an instinct for the evan of point in cases that came before her, and a passion for preparation. hers was often the first question asked during oral argument. i had the privilege of arguing a number of cases before her, and i was very careful every time to try to be ready for that first question.
woe to the lawyer who was not prepared, fumbled, or responded with evasion. it did not work. she zeroed in like a laser beam, and you did not get away. about 11 months ago, justice o'connor wrote to the american people informing us of the progression of dementia, and that she had to step back from public life. it was devastating to read that this terrible disease was robbing her and robbing us of that unstoppable mind. 25 years ago, president reagan wrote to the american people in much the same way. the announced that he was beginning what he called, "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." justice o'connor is on that same, tragic, sunset journey, which is why we at the reagan institute were moved to organize
a celebration of her legacy. how we wish she were here, but how grateful we are that she was a brilliant, perfect pioneer on our highest court, and that we can celebrate her while she still enjoys the company of family back home in arizona, a place where the sunsets are among the most beautiful in the world. along with other things to celebrate, we honor her as a bridge builder, an idea she reflected on in a stanford 2004 commencement address, just days after the passing of president reagan. she told the students that one of the most important bridges that ronald reagan built was a bridge to equality, one that made it possible for a wide range of willing americans to build their own bridges as public servants. she, of course, was referring in
part to her own nomination. today we are fortunate to welcome many of the people who have crossed that bridge that justice o'connor built throughout her career, from former clerks to sitting justices of the united states supreme court, and many others. they will tell us about who this incredible woman was, how she was raised on that ranch in arizona, how she developed into the ideal jurisprudential pioneer to be the first of her gender to sit on the supreme court, what it was like for her to surmount the barriers she so gracefully overcame, so i done forshe has america, the constitution, and the american people. so i welcome you to this celebration and thank our outstanding moderators and speakers. this will be a lovely, happy day. thank you. [applause]
[applause] >> the first panel, i just want to say i covered the court. i started covering the court in 1999, so i had the joy and privilege of covering sandra day o'connor's time on the court. to my far left is evan thomas, author of 10 books including a biography of sandra day o'connor. to his immediate right, jay o'connor, on the board of the civics project justice o'connor,
transformational civics project she brought to children in this country, and to my immediate left, needing no introduction, edwin meese iii, he served as attorney general of the u.s. from 1985-1988. please join me in welcoming this extraordinary panel. [applause] dahlia: i have the absolute joy of setting the table for the rest of the day and getting a sense of what it was like through the early arc of justice o'connor's career, which brought her to the attention of president reagan, and then the world.
we are going to try to break it down for you in the coming hour, and start by talking about her outstanding biography in arizona, her time on the arizona state legislature, and we will close with a conversation about her confirmation. i just want to say as a point of personal privilege, and again because it is the theme of this particular panel, i started stanford law school in the fall of 1992, and i can say without a doubt, i would not have gone to law school but for knowing that sandra day o'connor had gone before me. and i say that i say it because my legal career is terribly interesting or important, but because i really wonder often if justice o'connor
knows how many tens and thousands of young women took steps they would not have otherwise done but for her leadership and modeling. so it's a particular honor to be so it's a particular honor to be in this conversation today. i want to start at the lazy b, at the ranch where it all started. and justice o'connor so often says she is such a creature of that upbringing at the lazy b ranch. i wonder, evan, if you could set the table for us a little bit. give us a sense of how that upbringing, we've all heard some of the stories, but that upbringing at the lazy b reflects on the person that sandra day o'connor becomes. mr. thomas: the lazy b is enormous. 160,000 acres. took a man on horseback a whole day to ride across it. a world unto itself. austere, beautiful. 2000 cows. and the day family.
mr. day. sandra day o'connor said we called it our own country. the king of this country was mr. day, who was a magnificent man. a great, more than a cowboy, he was a manager of cowboys. but a guy who could fix anything, handle anything, deal with anything and he taught self-reliance to his daughter and to anybody who was around him. and the story she liked to tell, sandra liked to tell, was when sandra day was 15, one of her jobs was to take lunch to the roundup which was way across the prairie. she got up at 5:00 a.m. and cooked and loaded up the truck. as she headed out there she had a flat tire. she is a slight girl. she had to jump on the jack to change the tire. it took an hour. she got there and her father looked at her, you are late. she said, dad, i had a flat tire. he said, next time leave earlier.
that was a story she told her clerks. the message was pretty clear, no excuses. get it done. so obviously mr. day had a huge influence on her and he was a loving, powerful father. be any was also, could intimidating guy. sandra's mother was maybe even more important because mrs. day was a elegant woman, out on this dusty ranch, wore dresses, subscribed to "vogue." and mr. day could be a little tough on her in the evening, could be a little bit of a bully. and the way she dealt with him was not by being submissive and not by rolling over but also not by getting into stupid fights. and she had a way, a graceful way of finessing things and walking away from stupid fights, of knowing when to engage and
when not to. and sandra watched her mother and father and i think that was an incredibly valuable lesson for her on how to deal with difficult situations. when people do not always get along. but when not to take the bait. that was a big thing for her. >> i wonder, jay, if you want to amplify a little bit the ways in which she was just entirely a product of that biographical setting, that she really was in some sense quintessentially, she really, right i think throughout played so deeply to this persona she had of just being utterly independent, someone for whom i think as evan said was very feminine but also extremely tough. and not apt to be intimidated by anyone. had she been born in connecticut, would she have been
a completely different person? jay: i think she would have been. she herself saw the lazy b as foundational to who she was. she loved the lazy b. she ended up as a schoolgirl, the closest town 30 miles away wasn't a great school. so, her parents decided we have got to send her away to school and she went to school in el paso, texas, with her grandmother and aunt. she stayed with them and she went to school with her cousin. and she missed the ranch terribly. would always love spending time there. and the ranch, you're so, help is 30 miles away and even in the town they probably do not have the parts you need. so problems will happen on the ranch. things break. problems happen. and so what she learned, as evan described already, is that when
problems happen, you have to deal with them in a very pragmatic way. you can't rely on some expert to save the day because that might be way too long. you can't wait for weeks for some expert. you have to resolve it with just the people at the ranch. fix things yourself. if you are out alone, you have to fix things by yourself. i think that was foundational to her persona. she had a real sense of that. the other part, she grew up in the depression years. you know, times were thin. you never never throw anything away. you appreciate everything you have. so she was definitely a product of her generation and of her environment. >> i wonder if you could take us fairly quickly through the educational piece of this, the notiont again, she was going to law school is at some level so internalized,
but it was incredibly improbable. mr. thomas: she went to stanford in 1946 with a lot of veterans. guys in bomber jackets, who were glad to be alive. she loved stanford. is said in a letter home, it utopia. because they have this wonderful course there called western civilization. i read her final exam when she was a 17-year-old freshman and it is a brilliant exegesis on madison and jefferson, and you can see her appreciation of the rule of a law as a 17-year-old. talk about foundations. she was very independent-minded. at stanford, you could go to law school after three years. if you had a b plus average, which she did, she had great grades. she was very self-reliant. the story i always remember was that she, there's a parking lot there and she went out and her dad gave her car. she went out and painted a parking space for herself.
her parking space. she went to the law school. one of five women in her class. law review. she applied to 40 law firms in los angeles and san francisco. she got one interview. with gibson, dunn and crutcher. and they asked her how well did you type? she said, so-so. she loved to tell that story. she was never bitter about it. she said, didn't make it in the private sector so she went to a local d.a. she said, i would like to work for you. he said, i don't have money to hire you. she said, i will do it for free. he said, i don't have a place for you. she said, i will work off your secretary's desk, and she did. she mastered that. had a brief sojourn in the private sector in phoenix a couple of years later, but, you know, she, ok, she can't make it
in the private sector. the public sector worked well for her. >> i have to turn this over to general meese, who told me something that cracked me up. what would have happened had gibson, dunn and crutcher, given her a job. mr. meese: she probably would be now a retired lawyer from gibson hercrutcher, living out retirement and never would have achieved the remarkable position she did on the supreme court. >> that was a bracing reminder to me of why that story works out in the end, because i've generally told it in a much more grumpy fashion until you corrected me. i'm going to ask evan to do one more thing, which is you are going to have to talk about the relationship between sandra day o'connor and chief justice william h. rehnquist, because that was an intriguing part of
your research. >> my wife and i had access to the o'connor family, to her parents because we were looking for love letters. john o'connor and sandra o'connor had a great marriage, a true, lifelong loving romance. were going to the papers and there are not any love letters. we went into her chambers at the supreme court and her secretary took us down to a storage closet. and there was a box marked correspondence. i asked, can we look in there? and there were the love letters between john and sandra in the book. but there were also 14 love letters from william rehnquist to sandra day. william rehnquist and sandra day were classmates. he was probably number one in the class. they went out first year.
the story they told always was , we went to the movies a few times. it was actually a little bit more than that. >> double feature. [laughter] mr. thomas: and, in bill rehquist's third year, he got a job as a supreme court clerk with justice stevens, justice jackson. and he was lonely. he started writing to sandra and remembering their romance. about letter seven, he said, sandy, will you marry me? when i pulled that letter out of the box, i gave a little yelp. they hadn't told anybody. they hadn't told their own families. i love this, justice blackmun, when he sat next to justice rehnquist when sandra came in the court, blackmun turned to justice rehnquist and said, no fooling around.
but basically nobody knew. and the sweet thing about this is they ended up having a great friendship. yes, sandra turned him down. she strung him along for a little while but she did turn him down in a gentle way. they formed a real friendship. they both married the loves of their lives. realhey had a quiet but friendship at the court. justice rehnquist quietly lobbied the reagan administration or at least the attorney general to put her on the court. >> i feel i need to give jay an opportunity to respond if he wants to respond. how was it find out that your mom had a love letter from justice rehnquist? jay: i'm sure my dad knew more a
about the relationship. that wasn't something she would have hidden from my dad, but she never disclosed it to her three sons. so evan called up and said, i found some interesting letters. so, we were definitely surprised. she had handled that very quietly. >> and jay, i think i want to stay with you. >> the think it was interesting to us is what we had seen with, uh, chief justice with her relationship with the rehnquist family is they were devoted friends for such a long time. and throughout their, before their tenure on the court, after what evan talked about happened, his family traveled with my mom's family on some trips. so they had a basis for a long-standing friendship that endured throughout the time of on the court and later on. they spent a lot of time together with one another's families in d.c. socialized together.
so, there was a really wonderful, initially interesting relationship that turned into a wonderful professional relationship and a close friendship over the years. >> i know this is not the panel where we will talk about doctrine, but i think this could be the panel where we talk about work ethic. just as we turn to her time in the arizona legislature, i wonder if you could just talk to the extent that you have recollections of what it was like to be raised by someone who by every account was a juggernaut, was just nonstop energizer bunny, go, go, go. i remember the first stories i heard about her was having kids in strollers running around doing legal work and doing political work. that's all true, right? jay: absolutely. she is a force of nature, no doubt. so, she was in arizona. she worked in all three branches of government. she was clearly the best known
woman in the state of arizona in the government. and started off in the attorney general's office. became the majority leader of the arizona state senate, was the first woman in the country to hold that position. and then went on to become a state court judge. but we knew her as mom. and the famous line is she would have these long work sessions at the, at the state senate and one of her colleagues said with sandra day o'connor there is no miller time. what he meant, she would go from long hours and do one thing and she was constantly in motion. she would come home from a very demanding job, and she ran the family. she was responsible for overseeing the household and getting our dinner done. and organizing our camps and our activities and her way when she got home, she did not sit down and hang out. she would go home and be productive. her way of relaxing was by going
and playing on the weekends two or three sets of tennis and then 18 holes of golf. we were exhausted. we never got rest until she went off to washington, thank god. [laughter] i am exhausted just by hearing that account. but i wonder, evan, would you amplify a little bit and then i am going to ask general needs meese the same question, but that time on the arizona legislature was absolutely formative. i wonder if you could talk a little bit about how she got herself there but help us understand what that did to help vault her into what would become the next thing. mr. thomas: there are a couple of stories about her in the legislature that are revealing. one is that she had to deal with, this is an arizona legislator in 1970. there was a lot of drinking, men
misbehaving and she had to deal with that. she was the majority leader. first woman ever to be the majority leader of a state senate. to get the budget passed, she had to deal with the house appropriations committee chairman. his name was tom goodwin. tom goodwin was a drunk, a drunk by 10:00 a.m. drunk, and was just impossible to deal with. she finally called him on his drinking. he looked at her and said if you are a man i would punch you in the nose. she said, if you were a man, you could. [laughter] i like to tell that story. it's a one off. she did not go around having confrontations, putting down men. that is a funny story, but that's pretty singular. far more often, she just learned not to be baited, not to take it the bait, not to get into stupid fights, to get to the she was point. very efficient.
had a thick skin. and she was very politically shrewd. this second story i think is very revealing. the equal rights amendment in 1972 was, for a while almost noncontroversial. it was in the republican platform and the democratic platform in 1968. mid 1970's,arly to it had become controversial. and it was making its way to the states, ratified in many states , but phyllis schlafly was running a campaign against it, a very effective campaign. and so, it comes to arizona. majority leader o'connor introduces the e.r.a. to the arizona legislature, introduces it. and then lets it die in committee. the activists were furious at her. what the hell are you doing? you are the majority leader. and she just kept quiet. what was really going on here? she realized it couldn't pass. it was not going to pass the
arizona legislator. big, emotional, moralistic virtue signaling show when something is not going to pass? instead, she use her powers to amend every single law in the state of arizona that discriminated against women. there were many of them. about owning credit cards, owning property. in 1970, the workweek, it was very discriminatory to women. she had a list. she made a list of all of the laws. one by one. some in short measures and some in full measure. she did what she could. she achieved what she could in the state and let the other thing pass on. >> i love that story, because i think it is such a quintessentially pragmatic thing to do. and i think that, for me, that was such a stunning revelation about you don't always know what
you don't know. i wonder, if you could answer a version of the same question. when we spoke on the phone to prepare for this, you noted and i noted that she was the last person to have served in a legislature. we have not had anyone subsequently who brings that skill set to the court. i wonder if you could talk a little, i know you got to know her afterwards, but could you talk about some of the skills she took away from that time, and the ways in which it became applicable in her later life? in other words, i want you to explain why it is important to have former legislators on the supreme court. mr. meese: there's two things. one was her personal relationships. we learned those, being in a governmental body, people who all have very strong egos, the most charitable way of putting
it. there is a way of getting along with those people, making progress and getting things done. i think she had that from an early stage. she certainly, in her legislative work, was able to work well with people. she had that sense of priorities that evan mentioned. she understood what was important and what wasn't important. those qualities also served her very well when she got on the appellate court in arizona and ultimately the supreme court. that experience was part of her formative years that made her such an important person and an effective person. there is one other thing that is kind of interesting. evan mentioned she had a short time in private practice. i didn't find out until much later that the person that she had the private practice partnership with, tom tobin, was the brother of my law partner.
diego, ways away in san where i was practicing law at about i guess the same time. i never had the chance to meet her then. but it was interesting. i think probably you can say that she, as implied by both speakers, that she learned a lot from every experience she had and utilized those qualities when she came and culminated in a very effective stint on the supreme court. dahlia: i want to get to the confirmation process, but i want to move back to jay. one of the things i pulled from evan's book and in this conversation, it is sometimes hard to reconcile these two people we are hearing about, one who sort of spoke the truth, was not one to hide her thoughts.
time and time again, certainly by the time she was on the court, she was pretty plain, including with oral advocates. she called it like she saw it. and yet we're hearing about somebody who was very canny and savvy and political. i'm having trouble squaring the truth-teller o'connor with the one who was a very deft reader of people and knew how not to get in fights. i think i also want you to take a run at squaring the other thing that i think evan said, she's a deeply feminine woman. she came across at her confirmation hearing. she was not in any way trying to be a man in a man's world. but yet she was incredibly effective in a man's world. that was an enormous compound question. [laughter] you can choose to ignore parts one or two. but can you flesh out some of
those contradictions? jay: on your latter question, sort of her approach as a woman, when at the time she was, you know, before being on the court, by the time she was nominated on the court, there were not as many example figures, women leaders in politics and not in the judiciary. there were none of those. it was really sort of a different time, and it was a real transition for the country where women had played very traditional roles. you fast-forward to today, and there's a very different view towards women and women's issues and so forth. in his book as a real bridge from the traditional role of the woman to the modern era. i think that was an apt description. she was very effective in her professional relationships and social relationships.
in dealing with difficult issues , but doing it in her own way. and she did not consider herself a feminist. she was not strident, outspoken on women's issues. but she felt very strongly on the importance of more equal representation and rights for women and her approach was very much to overcome the obstacles and lead by example. her approach was not to complain about things. her approach was to try to take pragmatic action with respect to her own career and respect to the things she was dealing with. i think that was her real approach there. mr. thomas: one thought. yes, she could be direct. she was scary to journalists. i know journalists that were scare at of her. she had these brilliant eyes that she sort of weaponized. author who said
"she had beams of fire." she could just look and bore a hole through you. but she had great political skills. and one things that i noticed. she was not a gossip. in washington, it is not easy to be powerful, or to be part of the washington swirl. and she loved the social life. it is difficult to do that. it is even difficult to be a supreme court justice and not to gossip, and she just didn't. she could have blunt opinions, but she would not gossip. that made her much more effective. and that, it took that self-discipline she had, and when she caught her clerks gossiping, they can speak to this, but she didn't like it. they were badmouthing the justices the from other chambers and spreading wicked stories. she did not want to hear about
it. that gave her a kind of a power, that self-discipline gave her power. jay: and even at home, she made a practice of not trashing colleagues, not trashing other people with whom she interacted. she would let us know what was going on. how she felt about things. but she was very i think fair and generous to other people and -- not highly mr. thomas: scott told me. her son scott said there are three rules on the household. be home by 6 p.m. don't speak ill of others and don't hit your brother. jay: she had a little more challenge with the last one. [laughter] dahlia: so this brings us to general meese. you will have to tell us how this person we have painted comes into the national limelight. so, we know president reagan makes a campaign promise.
he's going to a tap a woman. can you help us understand what is going on behind the scenes at the white house? how is this woman, who still is maybe not the most prominent woman on a court, how she becomes the sandra day o'connor that we all know? mr. meese: well, it started because what was mentioned here. this time, by this time, of course, the korean war is over. we're in a time of relative peace, a lot of progress economically and things were going forward. there were economic problems in the country and so on, but this was time when women were actually starting to achieve things which had not really happened yet in the legal profession, as was mentioned earlier here. there was in her class, i think five women. and in my class, it was 58. and was about, i think there were six.
the most interestingly we started with 150 men and six women. we graduated 80 men and two women. not too many people made it through it all. it was very difficult for women, but women were starting to achieve positions in business and some of the other professions. and starting to, a few in law practice. thisor that reason, becomes an issue in 1980 during the campaign. it probably also was in 1976, but particularly in 1980. by that time, women had advanced considerably over that 20-year period. so the question was raised a lot of times. ronald reagan didn't actually promise to appoint a woman, but said he would certainly like to appoint a woman, and one of the reasons he had to be a little careful was that he didn't have that many women with long experience, who were in the
group you would normally select justices from. he was very interested in that. that was a consideration. john was very helpful to me, going back into the archives. there were not a lot of memos prior to the appointment of justice o'connor, but there was at least one or two from people in the white house staff, who were letting him know this would be a very good thing to do. that's why he asked bill smith, the attorney general at the time, to go and, he wanted to have a selection of people, highly qualified lawyers and judges from other benches, but he wanted to be sure that there were women among them. and so, when they came to him and the list, it was narrowed down after a lot of work was done at the department of justice. if i remember correctly, out of a group of eight or 10 in the
first major cut he made, they were i believe two women, and ultimately as he went through, he had decided sandra day o'connor was the one he wanted, had more vetting of her. i think that the things we heard today already, what he had heard about her. the fact she had been in the legislature. he particularly think thought it was important that a judge had legislative experience. and understood what it was to be a legislator, so they were not making decisions in just a vacuum. the fact that she had had that experience, in the legislature, understood what making law is, something judges are not supposed to do. but understands how the representation of the people works into the law themselves so they would have an appreciation of what their job was to do in interpreting the law.
so all of these things. but i think the history we heard today about her early life, the fact she worked on a ranch, i cannot help but think it became a major factor in ronald reagan thinking very highly of her. [laughter] dahlia: evan, i guess i want to ask you to amplify that. what was the, what was the secret sauce that she brought to, to, the selection process, and what is it that president reagan responded to? mr. thomas: i spoke to ken starr attorney general william french smith's special assistant. he wrote a memo. a contemporaneous memo that he gave me. from the point of view of the attorney general's office, they asked president reagan in october 1980 and said one of the first appointments would be a woman. in the attorney general's office , they thought that was a political promise.
reagan at the time was down 10 points in illinois with women. they did not take it seriously. they thought they would get bob bork. somebody to push back. the warren court was deemed to have gone too far and one thing ronald reagan was going to do was appoint justices that will push the pendulum back a little bit. so, in the office of the attorney general the thought was great, we will get bork or somebody like that. but the attorney general came to them and said, no. the president says, i want a woman. unless you really can't find one , we are going to have a woman. the problem was that, although society was moving, the law was still very male in 1980. out of 600 federal judges, only eight were women and most of them were liberal democrats. there was maybe one other, cornelia kennedy, a court of appeals judge, who was qualified on paper but was not deemed to
be the kind of personality that would relate to ronald reagan. justice,ery quickly, judge then, arizona court of appeals judge o'connor rose to the top of the pile. even though she was a state court judge with no federal constitutional experience. she rose to the top of the pile because bill rehnquist was pushing for her. because the chief justice of the united states, berger, had met and liked her, was pushing for her through fred fielding. and there were other people, goldwater gets in the act later. some other people. so she had a backing. judgesually, only two were even interviewed. cornelia kennedy and justice o'connor. james a. baker, the president's chief of staff, said the only really serious one was o'connor.
and at the end of the interview, both ken starr and john rose went down to phoenix to your house, and 100 degree heat. she made us salmon mousse. [laughter] shaking their head. and she passed her little oral quiz with flying colors. and, you know, and then, you know, she was it. she was going to be the nominee. we will get to this, there was a little kerfuffle over her nomination, which we can talk about. but that's pretty much what happened as far as i know from the memo ken starr wrote. dahlia: first, i think i want to say something, because what you gel soing does importantly with the story that justice ginsburg always tells. i know she is speaking later. but she is always at great pains to talk about the men who supported and allied themselves and helped her.
just an important piece of this, you know, when he get on our sort of girl power soapboxes about the first justice, to really understand that without having male allies, which justice o'connor had extraordinary friendships and relationships with men who were really willing to go to bat for her. i think they are an unsung part of the story. but now i just want to ask jay. it is becoming manifest in your family that this is coming. salmon mousse notwithstanding, what was it like realizing you were just about to barrel into the biggest thing that could ever happen to anyone? jay: it went in phases. when the seat opened up, the campaign promise had been made before and the seat opens up and then the discussion starts happening. it started getting in the public, speculation happening
about who the candidates would be. arizona senators at the time, barry goldwater and dennis, who was a democrat, both suggested her and said she would be a fantastic candidate. her name was out there as a woman who might fit. at that point, the family thought the supreme court was so few seats available that come up. the odds are long. all of us, including my mom, thought the odds of being a serious candidate were low. but as things went on, there was a confluence of so many people independently suggesting her that she became a serious candidate. and the interview team came out to arizona as evan explained. my dad ended up walking amount them out of their car to see them off, and asked the question. said, let me ask you a question. you do not have to answer this. how many other people are you having conversations with like this? they said, this is the only one. so at that point they realized ok, this is serious. ,[laughter] so, they shared that with the family.
oh, my goodness. this really might happen. but it is such a long shot. and she was invited back, interviewed with the team at the white house over sort of a day and a half. and came back from that. and she finally got the call. the call came into her and she was in her chambers in state court. the president got on the line with her. and she was stunned, and excited, and just filled with emotion. she called my dad and said, john, it has happened. so, for the family we went to from thinking no, this cannot happen to, my gosh, she has been nominated. for us, it was just, you know, we were thrilled and intrigued. we didn't understand that much about, my brothers and i, about the court. i was the youngest, and had just finished my freshman year in college. my middle brother brian i think would have been a junior in college. and scott was working.
so it was very exciting for us, and we were very supportive of her going through it, but it was a whirlwind. dahlia: general meese, i know you came to be very good friends with both sandra day and john o'connor. can you tell us about initially meeting them and if you had any reservations post meeting with them, but what your first impressions were? mr. meese: my first impression was that i was very happy that ronald reagan had found a woman he thought was appropriate to be on the court because, as we all talked about, the were not that many available candidates but this was one that in any group that she might have been in, she seemed to fit all the different qualifications. we mentioned some of them with the legislative experience, the personality, the vetting that had gone on with various people at the department of justice.
all of them came back with very laudatory recommendations. bill smith, the president put a lot of confidence in bill on judgeships generally. by the time he came over to us in the white house, usually it was pretty much to the end of the trail. so i think my own feeling was that this was a very accomplished lady, person that you would like to work with. or have part of your administration. even though in the august halls of the supreme court where you do not have an awful lot of social contact, although i must say we probably had in the ensuing two years, probably more social contact with her than any other member of the court probably, because she was very active socially. and was a very easy person to know. i was extremely impressed with her. not only with her background but, it was great to have this person as the first woman to be on the supreme court. dahlia: and evan, can you flesh
out what concerns were, to the extent that there were concerns, going into confirmation hearings. what were folks worried about? mr. thomas: there was really only one issue. it turned out to be minor. but for a moment, it was that she had as an arizona legislator, she had voted in committee to decriminalize abortion before roe v. wade. and the right to life folks got onto this and stirred the pot in congress. this was in 1980. the "moral majority" was coming on strong and jesse helms was a power in congress. and there was a concern that helms and thurmond and some others, their staff was saying, what is this about her abortion record? there was a moment when we thought, whoa, they were demonstrators chanting "vote no on o." there was a little flap but
several things happened. maybe general meese could speak to this. the white house was never really bothered by this. they wanted this to go away. they sent their people up to the hill. she was a great advocate in her own cause. madeent up, play tennis, friends with strom thurmond's wife and charmed jesse helms. was a great representative of her own cause. the facts were squishier than had been initially suggested and there is one more interesting piece of this. i'm very grateful that jay gave me justice o'connor's diary. she kept a diary of her early years on the court. this is her version of the meeting with ronald reagan.
she said, she was anxious. he said to me there has been a lot of debate about when life begins. and i think we should give the benefit of the doubt to life beginning at conception. she thinks he's warming up to a question on abortion. but he left it at that. he never asked the question. she was on the record that she found abortion personally aborrent. but she had not said where she was on roe v. wade, or what she would do about the court. she would finesse that in her confirmation hearings but when the president himself brought the subject up, he did not ask the question. she gave a sigh of relief and didn't answer and they started talking about horses. now, i think that is because the president, and maybe general meese has a better sense of this, really did not want to know, in a way. did not want to have a fight over this. and truthfully, i do not think at that moment she knew exactly where she was on roe v. wade. jay: she'd never faced the issue
as a legal matter. mr. thomas: it is a hard thing. she spent many years on the court working her position. she became, her position became the law of the land on abortion, but it took a number of years for her to get there. dahlia: that's the question i was going to ask you. because you said when we had our preparatory call you said the same thing. this was not an issue for the white house. they didn't want to get in a fight about this. mr. meese: ronald reagan always felt that he should not exact a promise from a judge on how they would rule on cases they had not seen yet. and she felt the same way. and that was actually the way in which she got through. she had a lot of questions and in the committee hearings. a lot of questions when she went around to meet the different senators. she always took the position that i cannot tell you or make a decision on a case that i have not yet seen on the facts. that was true, because later on there were some abortion cases in which she ruled one way. and others in which she ruled
differently, because the issues in some cases were substantially different. but both she and the president had the same idea of not having a quid pro quo. in other words, making a litmus test, you might say on any issue, particularly when you did not know what the facts would be in a future case. so i think it was a matter of just the basic ethical feelings on both parts, that this is a subject she was not going to answer a question like that. dahlia: and speaking of things we couldn't contemplate ever happening again, she then sailed through her confirmation hearing with a 99-1. 99-0 was the vote. mr. meese: in the senate. i think there were maybe a couple of negative votes in the committee. substantial -- mr. thomas: senator denton gave
her a hard time. mr. meese: i'm not. mr. thomas: i don't think so. mr. meese: there had been some. there had been some strong questioning by some of them. mr. thomas: senator denton questioned her closely. dahlia: but that does lead me to -- mr. meese: by the way. not only was it 99-0, but the person who was absent that day sent her a book with an apology had not been there to vote for her. >> max baucus. dahlia: but i do think we have to talk for a minute about the confirmation hearings themselves. they are televised. mr. meese: this was the first time confirmation hearings had been televised. and you know, up until that time they were not usually very contentious. as a matter of fact when william o. douglas in the 1930's, probably the most liberal justice ever recommended by franklin roosevelt, he sat
outside the hearing room and after he sat outside about one hour, somebody came outside and said, mr. douglas, you can go home. we do not have any questions. [laughter] quite a difference from today. they were not contentious at that time. and i suspect there were a lot of members of the senate who did not want to be in the position of voting against are either her, either, because she had made such a good appearance and also this was the first woman. dahlia: and that leads me to, and i know we're going to talk about this as the day progresses, but this is the media event that turns her into a rock star. this is the thing. she still i think is the most recognized justice. everybody, stacks of mail being sent to chambers. and she really, at the risk of overstating it, kind of was the kardashian of the court. she was the person who everybody knew who she was. and young girls would stand in line.
i guess i'm so ambivalent about that, because i think now we are in a moment where celebrity justices have become a thing. it wasn't something she sought out, but it certainly happened. i guess, jay, i would love for you to reflect on being in the eye of this media rockstar hurricane. jay: it was both the first televised hearing and because it was the first woman. it really was an iconic moment i think for so many women and professional women. and throughout the rest of her life, so many women would come up to her and tell about remembering exactly where they were when they learned she was the first woman to be appointed to the court. and it was a real game changer. she really, it's a well-known figure. at that time, most americans
couldn't name one other justice on the court. they were not, people in d.c. who paid attention to these things and lawyers would know differently but, if you asked, a common person, name people on the supreme court. most people could name zero. and then you asked, they could name her. she was well-recognized around d.c. and going around town. and i think she, for her, i think she felt an extrovert, about how she would -- extra burden as the first woman and as a recognized figure about how she would perform on the court. she said many times, it is a good thing to be the first on the court, but you do not want to be the last. she knew all eyes would be on her and she had to do her best. dahlia: evan, go ahead. mr. thomas: to follow up on that, in her diary, she knew everybody was watching.
in her first oral argument, she, all eyes are on her, waiting for the first question and she starts to ask the first question. and the idiot lawyer arguing in front of her talks over her. she wrote in her diary, i felt put down. that's a very unusual emotion for her. and it didn't last very long. but think about this for a second. she had been a legislator, state court judge. she had not dealt with the u.s. constitution and she had to learn that summer. she had to learn all the supreme court jurisprudence and the u.s. constitution that summer. she lost ten pounds. the person preparing her was a young justice department aide named john roberts, the current chief justice. and we laugh about this a little bit, because she was not satisfied with his pace.
he couldn't get the stuff. he could not get it xeroxed fast enough to get to her. she was impatient about it. think of that for a homework assignment. she knew that they were going to be watching her at the supreme court. and they are going to pick this up in the next panel, those early days were not easy. it's a cold place. it is marble. she would go into those courtyards, interior courtyards and turn her face up to the sun. because she missed the arizona sun. her first lunch at the court , only four justices showed up. remember the brethren of woodward and armstrong? the justices were suspicious of each other. who was the leaker? it was not that easy for her. justice powell was gracious. got her a secretary. wasice rehnquist, her pal,
oddly standoffish in these early years. justice rehnquist had a terrible back condition, and i think that was a factor for him. but she was a little lonely. she knew, as jay said, it is good to be first but you do not want to be last. she knew they were watching her. she did very well. i know from a letter that justice powell wrote his family, one month in, he said she's , brilliant. she made her mark right away but it is an intimidating thing to walk into that. one other story about this. they have a wonderful tradition at the supreme court hands before they go to conference. every justice shakes hands of every other justice. justice bryon white, the all-pro half pack from the detroit lions, shook her hand so hard he crushed it. she went in, the first woman went into her first conference crying. she said that there were tears squirting out of her eyes, because he had crushed her hand. and the other justices, justice
stevens told us there was a tradition, the junior justice takes notes and gets coffee. justice stevens said he talked about this. we were going to ask her to get coffee, but they didn't. dahlia: and this brings me to kind of the mystery that animates my thinking about justice o'connor. i will ask each of you to try to respond to it. we have talked so much about how we think about her being the first. i'm always more curious about how she thought about being the first. and i say it in part because i know she spent her whole career saying it didn't matter. a wise old man and a wise old woman would come to the same conclusion. there is no such thing as female jurisprudence. we're the same. she was very meticulous about saying that her gender did not matter, except to her that it mattered.
and i always mindful of that, because when john roberts was tagged to replace her, she famously said, he's a very good and excellent choice. apparently he was now fast enough to pass the xerox test. when he was tapped, her first comment, i think she was flyfishing at the time, and their first comment was, he's a very good choice, but it should have been a woman. and i guess that to me encapsulates this ambivalence that it mattered terribly to her that she was the first woman on the court but she also really wanted to make the claim that it did not matter. so i am asking you an escher -staircase question, but i wonder, maybe we can start with you jay, what did it mean to , her? jay: she felt both of those statements were true. from a legal principle she did
feel that it is sexist to say that a woman is going to vote differently than a man on a legal issue. i think she felt strongly and that is what she would always say, but i think that she felt that it mattered societally, and she thought that it helped the court to have a variety of perspectives. and so, she, i think she really believed both of those things at the same time. it seemed to conflict with one another, but i think they were both true former. mr. thomas: she was a non-feminist feminist. she certainly advanced the cause of women's rights as much as anybody ever, but she never explicitly referred to herself as a feminist she saw, jay said that i framed the book. that was her frame. she had a poem about a pilgrim who built a bridge. >> she used it in her speeches. mr. thomas: a pilgrim who builds the bridge so that others may cross. and then the pilgrim doesn't
cross himself. so others may cross. and i think she saw herself in that transitional role. and who better, who better than sandra day, how lucky we were that she was the first. dahlia: >> i think general slightlywould ask different but the same question. i remembered her always telling the story about how justice scalia would tweak her, you only got this gig because president reagan made this pledge. having heard that, that's kind of why she got the job. she was nobody's bork. she was taken on as a woman. and yet she always said it did not bother her at all when scalia would tease her. she would laugh it off. mr. meese: scalia was quite a humorist.
he was not trying to put her down. it was kind of a jovial thing that he had with other members of the court, particularly her. had spentt think, she her entire life doing things that were mostly jobs held by men. this was not particularly unusual, in that sense. but she also, as everybody said, longer not a woman. , and yet she was able to carry this out in excellent fashion. to me, it was even more than being the first woman on the court. i think one thing she did, she put a human face on the court. up until then, i don't think anyone thought of justices as human beings. this is something she added to it, because of the personality she had as well as the way in which she treated other people. that was a real plus not only for the court but for women and for the country. dahlia: you are going to hear a lot about chili, cherry
blossoms, all the ways she really did become kind of the cruise director on the supreme court. just really mindful of how to treat people with this capacious big heart and infinite patience. i want to thank evan thomas , whose book "first" is really extraordinary piece of work. i want to thank jay o'connor. and i want to thank general edwin meese iii, 75th attorney general of the united states. on behalf of all of us, it has been just a joy and a pleasure starting your day hearing about the truly extraordinary sandra day o'connor. thank you. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2019] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org]
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