NINA TOTENBERG WAS UNCHARACTERISTICALLY nervous the night of Oct. 5. The savvy and controversial legal correspondent for National Public Radio was sitting on the explosive allegation by an Oklahoma law professor, Anita Hill, that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On Sunday, two days before a vote that would have confirmed Thomas, Totenberg, 47, went on the air with the biggest scoop of her career.
She got that story, she says, by tireless digging. “Other reporters had hints of it,” she says, “but they went home for the weekend.” Though New York Newsday also brought Hill’s charges to light, it was Totenberg, working the phones through Saturday, who got hold of an affidavit that Hill had faxed to the Senate Judiciary Committee and scored the first interview with her
Though Thomas won Senate confirmation on Oct. 15, both he and Hill were badly bruised by the public battle over sexual harassment. Totenberg says, “I don’t know if it was good or bad to have this story out, but I can’t have any regrets. I don’t know a reporter who, given all the facts, would have let it go.”
It was not the first time that Totenberg’s aggressive reporting has undermined a Supreme Court nomination. In 1987 she broke the news that Reagan nominee Douglas Ginsburg had smoked marijuana while a professor at Harvard. Ginsberg immediately withdrew.
Totenberg later admitted, when pressed, that she had also tried “one puff” of marijuana. But Professor Hill’s allegations had far more personal meaning for her. Totenberg recently told The Washington Post that in the early 1970s, while she was working at the now-defunct National Observer, she was sexually harassed by a superior. “Mine was a totally different kind of experience [than Hill’s],” she says. “Mine was physical, hers was not. It happened, and that’s it. I was very young. I don’t want to talk about it.” Totenberg eventually departed the Observer under a cloud. Caught plagiarizing a portion of an article from The Washington Post (“I made a mistake,” she admits), she nevertheless claims the harassment was the reason she quit.
It was not the only rough spot in her remarkable career. Though colleagues admit Totenberg is indefatigable and “knows the law better than most lawyers,” as one puts it, she has offended peers with her abrasive language and hard-charging ways. “Early on, she would stoop to anything to get a story, and she was the crassest babe I’ve ever heard,” says a former male colleague. There have also been speculations over the years about her close relationship with the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.
Totenberg calls the rumors “silly and mildly slanderous.” As for her reputation for being tough unto obnoxious, especially during her early years, she responds, “I was a young female in an all-male environment, and I was doing reporting they were not. I think there is sexism and resentment in their negative remarks.” Without admitting that she was ever out of line, she does concede, “I was pushy. But everyone gets older, wiser and nicer.”
Maybe—and maybe not. Last week Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, tangled with Totenberg in front of the ABC studio in Washington after the two had appeared on Nightline. On air, Simpson had hammered away at Totenberg for invading Anita Hill’s privacy. Afterward, he pursued her onto the street. Simpson later said, “She whirled on me and said, ‘You big s—-. You are full of s—-. You are an evil man.’ ”
“Twice a year I lose my temper,” Totenberg says of the encounter, “and I always regret it. It puts you partly in the wrong, even if the substance is right.”
“Nina has a temper and can be lethal when she gets angry,” says her mother, Melanie. The eldest daughter of Roman Totenberg, a Polish émigré and concert violinist, Nina was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., with her two sisters, Amy, now a lawyer in Atlanta, and Jill, a management consultant in New York City. Melanie remembers Nina as a verbal, fun-loving child who excelled at Scrabble and Boggle but did poorly in school. “She had a good nose for people. I would never dare hire any household help without asking Nina.”
So eager was Totenberg to get on with a career in journalism that she dropped out of Boston University before graduation to work at the Boston Record-American and later the Pea-body Times. In 1968 she moved to Washington to write for the Observer. There she brought new spice to the normally staid Supreme Court beat, ferreting out inside items and gossip about the justices. When she resigned, she landed at New Times magazine, where she continued to make political waves with an article on “The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress.” In 1975 she moved to NPR.
Since 1979, Totenberg has been married to Floyd Haskell, 75, whom she met while he was a Democratic Senator from Colorado. “We’re opposites in many ways,” she says. “He is very dignified and restrained.” Totenberg sought his counsel before she broke the Anita Mill story. “Floyd thought it was outrageous that the committee did not investigate the charges,” she says. “He was my barometer.”
SANDRA McELWAINE in Washington, D.C.