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First: Sandra Day O'Connor Paperback – May 5, 2020
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“An unvarnished and psychologically intuitive look at the nation's first female Supreme Court justice . . . Thomas breaks new ground with First . . . unlike every other volume written about O'Connor.”—NPR
“A great storyteller has found his greatest subject in trailblazer Sandra Day O’Connor. Evan Thomas has written one of the most insightful and thoroughly captivating biographies I have ever read: A clear and compelling illumination of Sandra Day O’Connor’s unique voice and place in American history is told through her remarkable life’s journey from a rancher’s daughter to the first woman appointed to the highest court in the land.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Leadership: In Turbulent Times
“A vivid, humane, and inspiring portrait of an extraordinary woman and how she both reflected and shaped an era.”—Drew Faust, president emerita, Harvard University
“Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there was Sandra Day O’Connor, and O’Connor’s story has everything. In Evan Thomas’s brilliant and compelling book, we are given an intimate and gripping account of a pioneering American woman successfully seeking to thrive in an all-male world. Noble and flawed, selfless and ambitious, Justice O’Connor sought a more perfect union amid imperfect choices. Written with fluidity and grace, Thomas’s book is required reading for anyone interested in the role of women in America, the course of justice, and the nature of our politics. This is a landmark achievement about an American original that’s also, blessedly, a delight to read.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Soul of America
“This highly readable biography shows the underlying factors motivating O’Connor both on and off the Court. It will have considerable popular appeal to both political scientists and historians, as well as general readers interested in how America’s government interacts with the public in resolving political issues related to the law.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“By thoroughly mining O’Connor’s archives and interviewing the trail-blazing justice's family, friends, and former clerks, the award-winning Thomas creates a fully realized portrait of this heroic, stalwart, and pioneering lawyer and Supreme Court justice, whose contributions to American jurisprudence are legendary and enduring.”—Booklist
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Still, I came away thinking that if you had to choose between the two books, you might do better to read Biskupic's than Thomas's. For instance, Biskupic showed how O'Connor had been political well before her rise through the court system -- she had even lobbied Nixon to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court (she endorsed a colleague, but it's easy to believe she thought she herself might also be a good candidate) and had been active in Republican politics since serving on Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Biskupic was also more descriptive about William Rehnquist's views on race, leaving the reader with little doubt that he had racist views, while Evan Thomas glosses over the subject with a footnote mentioning rumors of racist behavior. This was relevant to a book about O'Connor because Rehnquist and O'Connor were very close (even romantically close at one point in their college years) and decided almost identically during O'Connor's first years on the Supreme Court, although as time went on, she broke with the conservative bloc more often. The Bush v Gore decision comes across as a shockingly poor judicial decision in both books.
Both books are full of interesting inside the court information as well as fascinating analysis of court cases and how they were decided.
Evan Thomas's biography is addictively readable! I started reading at about 9:30 at night and kept telling myself, "Just one more page!" Well, 405 pages later, I was closing the book, fully read. I didn't look at the clock! Mr. Thomas has interviewed not only Justice O'Connor, but seemingly everyone in her life, from childhood through her senior years. What emerges is a fully rounded portrait of a child, a student, a career woman, a wife, mother, employer, friend and neighbor, as well as a groundbreaker on the Supreme Court. Justice O'Connor is a multi-faceted person who exuded the dignity and fastidiousness of the bench, but also reveled in her personal life, charming everyone with her undivided attention, her wit... and her dancing skills! This fascinating woman, raised on a hardscrabble ranch in Arizona, seemingly felt at home anywhere she and her beloved husband, John, lived, even in the political rat's nest of Washington, D.C.
In this book, not only do you get a full picture of Justice O'Connor, but the author weaves into her story everything you need to know about how the Supreme Court works, what goes on in the so-called "Marble Palace," and the issues Justice O'Connor faced in her tenure -- abortion, affirmative action, sexual harassment, states rights. We get an education about law clerks and what they do. The law clerks who worked for Justice O'Connor are candid about her, suggesting both the good and the bad of working for a person as intense as Sandra Day O'Connor. You want to get on her good side? Show up for her 8 a.m. aerobics class!
Having access to John O'Connor's unpublished diary, and interviews with Justice O'Connor herself, allows the author a keen insight into John and Sandra O'Connor's marriage and into the mighty struggle with Alzheimer's that eventually claimed John's life and descended on hers. It is truly heartbreaking to walk that sad journey with them. Even the brightest stars are no match for this horrible disease.
Mr. Thomas sums up Justice O'Connor, with all her contradictions, this way: "She could be charming or brusque. She could be disarmingly straightforward; she could also be roundabout and sly," he writes. "It is difficult to reconcile the 'bossy' O'Connor, who would tell passengers exactly where to sit in a car, with the modest O'Connor, who practiced judicial 'minimalism,' preferring to stick to the facts and let the law slowly evolve rather than making broad pronouncements." In Mr. Thomas's book, all of these sides to Sandra Day O'Connor are fully explored. You'll want to stay up late reading, too!
The book is well written and meticulously researched. Thomas interviewed almost all of O’Connor’s law clerks and staff as well as friends and colleagues. I found the information about how each of the male Justices had to adapt (or not) to a female Justice interesting. I found the lunch meeting between O’Connor and Ginsburg most interesting. This meeting took place just after O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court and long before Ginsburg was appointed to the Court. Thomas provided a number of insights as well as material not covered in prior books. This book is well worth the read. I noted how far women attorneys have come since the day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School and found out that firms would not hire women.
I read this as an e-book on my Kindle app for my iPad. There were lots of photographs. I wished I had the photograph with all the women Justices together. The book was 455 pages and published by Random House.
Top international reviews
This isn’t to say the book isn’t about a strong, independent, self-reliant, Republican, woman. It is. It’s just it reads more chattily than I’d like. I read a lot of biographies, and my biggest grumble is often “I don’t bring my subject to life, but feel the scholarship.”
This book goes to the other extreme. It’s more conversational than profoundly researched, drawing more on interviews, rather than book learning. This can be a good think, if you don’t take it too far. Sadly I think it does go too far here. It’s a good read, it’s just it feels too light and conversational for such an important woman.