Once upon a time in American public life, there were figures who achieved universal admiration. It was even possible to earn the trust of those with whom one disagreed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who joined the Supreme Court as the first woman Justice in 1981 and retired in 2006,
may be the last such public person—an icon able to transcend partisan polarization. Look around and try to spot another one. This problem extends beyond the familiar, rancorous spaces occupied by the branches of government. Journalists and nightly news anchors no longer serve as shared sources of information.
Entertainers and professional athletes often feel compelled to “choose sides.”
Even the U.S. women’s national soccer team angered some vocal groups in the United States last year while they triumphed in the World Cup competition.
Everyone always seems mad at someone.
In her day, however, O’Connor touched a chord that resonated with a wide and varied audience. When she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981, 100 million Americans watched on television,
about the same number of people that tuned in for Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020.
She was confirmed by the full Senate 99-0 and emerged from the proceedings as the first celebrity Supreme Court Justice.
Flashbulbs fired when she entered any event in Washington, and she received 60,000 letters in the first year after her confirmation.
Over the next twenty-five years, she cast the decisive votes to resolve the most emotional debates that came before the Court, including a series of abortion and affirmative action cases.
And across more than 300 majority opinions,
O’Connor both achieved consensus among her colleagues and retained the public’s high regard.
Fast forward to the present Court. In the October 2019 Term, the Justices faced contentious questions about reproductive rights, discrimination, immigration, and executive power.
The realignment since O’Connor’s departure has left a void in the pragmatic middle spaces on many issues,
yet the Court still maintains civil exchanges relative to the woeful state of the discourse in the political branches of the government and throughout our public life.
Even in a time of bitter political division, Chief Justice Roberts has crafted compromises and defied expectations in what seems to be an effort to demonstrate that the Court itself will not fracture hopelessly along partisan lines.
Among themselves, the Justices also tend to avoid personal vitriol, and they owe that norm in part to O’Connor’s collegial influence on the institution during her years on the Court.
Although she has fallen largely out of sight, O’Connor provides a reassuring reference point during a time of dispiriting public affairs. She recently circulated an open letter sharing news of her failing health and complete withdrawal from public life.
Shortly after this announcement, historian and journalist Evan Thomas published an intimate new biography of O’Connor. A bestselling author of ten nonfiction works—including biographies of Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon—Thomas has a particular interest in American political culture, the legacies of noted and notorious figures, and the essence of leadership.
With this project, Thomas portrays a woman leader for the first time and writes his first judicial biography. In collaboration with his spouse Oscie Thomas, he conducted more than 300 interviews of O’Connor’s family, friends, colleagues, and clerks; drew upon unprecedented access to O’Connor’s private papers (including twenty years of her husband John O’Connor’s journals); reviewed internal Supreme Court documents; and met with O’Connor and seven other Supreme Court Justices.
While O’Connor no longer participates directly in the national conversation, First speaks for her and reintroduces her voice at a critical moment. It reveals both why O’Connor has been so admired and what she can still teach the country she loves. As this Book Review explains, First does so by chronicling a legacy in three parts: a lived example of how to thrive in the face of challenges, a lesson about the courage that lies beneath compromises, and a theory about the long game of American democracy. Part I of the Review describes O’Connor’s exceptional personal strengths and suggests that Thomas’s account of her trajectory could double as a guide to individual and professional development. Part II explores the connection between O’Connor’s character and her moderate—but also brave and consequential—jurisprudence. Part III discusses O’Connor’s dedication to civility and continuing democratic discourse. The Review concludes that First sounds wistful notes about what seems a bygone era yet contains hopeful lessons about repairing American civic life.