What the cult of Ruth Bader Ginsburg got wrong

Ginsburg’s turn as an unlikely pop culture heroine has been facilitated by social media, but it could never have happened were cameras allowed in the Supreme Court. If you pay attention to Ginsburg’s public appearances, it’s pretty clear many are carefully stage managed; video of her is tactfully edited. She’s usually shown sitting graciously in a chair, or linking arms with someone as she walks, as though from affection and not from need. But in the courtroom, away from the cameras, she projects a very different image—the one that probably inspired all those liberal lawyers to her call for her timely retirement seven years ago.

About a week before her latest fall, I sat through a pair of tedious Supreme Court arguments about arbitration, so I got to see the Ginsburg most Americans do not. She was engaged in the arguments, but her speech is increasingly difficult to understand. As has long been the case, people strained to listen when she asked a question—a hot bench went quiet.

When a Supreme Court session adjourns, the public isn’t allowed to depart until all the justices have left the bench. After the arbitration arguments were gaveled to a close, I got up to leave with the rest of the onlookers. But then everyone stopped. All of the justices had left except for Ginsburg, who was having trouble getting out of her chair. There was an embarrassed silence as members of the press, the bar, and the public tried not to gape as Ginsburg mustered the courage to descend a single step off the bench and finally disappeared behind the red curtain. The contrast between the real-world Ginsburg and the comic-book superheroine of social media was striking.