Thursday, December 9, 2021

Book 313: First


"She had an intuitive, almost uncanny sense of just how far to go—in almost any realm of human endeavor. Her deftness was useful in navigating the politics of the Junior League, but it was obvious to everyone, including the Junior Leaguers, that larger stages beckoned. She did not appear to chafe at the limited opportunities available to a young Phoenix society matron in 1965; rather, she made the most of them. But her ambition was palpable, if not articulated or yet fully formed."

Dates read: April 30- May 7, 2019

Rating: 7/10

When I was a little girl, my mom got me a set of encyclopedias for kids. I was (and am) a big weirdo, so I read those things cover to cover, and that's the first place I remember reading about Sandra Day O'Connor. I was fascinated with the story of the little ranch girl who grew up to be the first female Supreme Court Justice. I decided that I wanted to be one of those, and got all the way to being a lawyer and actually practicing before I figured out that maybe that might not be my destiny. But even after I left the legal profession, O'Connor's dignity and pragmatism meant that she remained one of my role models.

When I took Constitutional Law in law school, I found myself both often agreeing with but then frustrated by Justice O'Connor's jurisprudence. I felt that she usually reached a correct (or at least defensible) result, but the balancing tests she created often could be argued to support a decision that went either way. The law loves a bright line, but Justice O'Connor loved a compromise. The life that led her to be that kind of thinker is detailed in Evan Thomas's First, for which he was granted access to many family sources, as well as the expected interviews of friends and colleagues. What emerges is a portrait of a woman whose early years gave her a toughness, whose intelligence was innate and considerable, who had her ability to know when to charm and when to push honed by the political arena, and who never let go of her conviction that an attractive middle ground could be found on almost every issue.

Most people who are fans enough of O'Connor to pick up a book like this know at least the rough outlines of her life: childhood on the Lazy B ranch in Arizona, excellence at both Stanford undergraduate studies and law school being unrewarded with job offers suiting her skills after graduation, marriage to dynamic fellow attorney John O'Connor, motherhood, service in the Arizona Legislature, then moving up the judicial ladder to the Supreme Court, where she became the first female Supreme Court Justice. After decades on the bench, she left to spend more time with her husband, but his dementia was too far advanced to give them much time together before he needed more intense care than she was able to give. She championed the cause of civic engagement in her post-Court life until announcing her own Alzheimer's diagnosis and taking a step back to live as a truly private citizen for the first time since she was a young woman.

I wanted this book to be more than it was, and perhaps my disappointment is my own fault for having expectations that it was never written to match. I was hoping for more psychological insight, more historical context...less a recitation of life details than a work that sought to explain her as a person and as a figure in the public imagination. To call First a mere catalogue of personal facts would be unfair. It's clearly intensely researched, and the people Thomas spoke to and accessed records from would be the ones who would be able to provide a look into the human behind the dignified portrait we all know. But either they were unwilling to divulge information that might paint a fuller picture, or she was truly so private that few people knew her well enough to give it. What this makes for is a book heavy on the who, what, and when, but light on the why.

I'll admit part of my opinion was shaped by my perception that Thomas has an ideological bent to his work. Obviously, O'Connor was a Republican, and Thomas seems to also have a conservative outlook. But when he announces early in the work that he believes her to be the kind of woman who would (this is a paraphrase) roll her eyes at the feminists of today and their objectives, it rankles. There is certainly a conversation to be had about the various waves of feminism and how their goals and methods have differed from/been in conflict with others, and O'Connor may or may not have even thought of herself as a feminist, but these and several other little editorial comments certainly irritated me while reading and made me wonder how well-rounded of a biography he was really seeking to create. In the end, if you want a thorough biography of the quietly trailblazing first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, you'll find a lot here. If you want a more nuanced or complex look at the person she was though, I'd skip it. 

One year ago, I was reading: Brideshead Revisited

Two years ago, I was reading: The Woodcutter

Three years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Four years ago, I was reading: The Games

Five years ago, I was reading: The Wonder

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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