First: Sandra Day O’Connor
by Evan Thomas
Published: March 2019
“First: Sandra Day O’Connor” by Evan Thomas was published in 2019, thirteen years after O’Connor retired as a member of the Supreme Court. Thomas has taught at Harvard and Princeton, and was a writer and editor for more than three decades at Newsweek and Time Magazine. He is the author of ten books, two of which I’ve read: “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World” and “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
Sandra Day O’Connor (1930- ) is best-known as the first female associate justice of the Supreme Court. Almost as notable: she was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the US Senate, which seems unfathomable given today’s political climate. Less well known is that in her early professional career she was a politician, serving as a member of the Arizona state senate and becoming the first woman in the US to serve as a state’s Majority Leader.
This entertaining biography’s 405-page narrative proceeds in an organized, evenly-paced and almost entirely chronological fashion. Thomas’s writing style is unpretentious and easy to digest, he provides enough detail without weighing down the story and he mixes observations from diaries and interviews with historical context in a way that is both seamless and revealing.
Research for this book included interviews with several current and former Supreme Court justices, interviews with nearly all of O’Connor’s 108 law clerks and consultation with her – and her husband’s – diaries and memoirs. And although the book is largely complimentary of O’Connor, Thomas does expose her personality quirks including her need for control and occasional social insensitivity.
Individual moments of particular interest or excellence are too plentiful to exhaustively document but include the history of O’Connor’s selection as a Supreme Court nominee, various “behind the scenes” anecdotes and stories involving members of the court, and the exploration of weighty, ongoing issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
But the unexpected highlight for me is the attention this author gives to most of Sandra Day O’Connor’s fellow Supreme Court justices. His profiles of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are – not surprisingly – quite interesting. But his observations relating to David Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer (among many others) adds a sense of vibrancy (and insight) to the narrative which most readers will find innervating.
This biography of Sandra Day O’Connor possesses few conspicuous flaws or shortcomings. Some readers may conclude it feels too much like popular, not weighty, history. And it can be so easy to read that it can almost exude a casual or breezy aura. But while it may not seem as consistently serious or profound as, say, a biography of Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt, it is difficult to imagine a better biography of O’Connor.
Overall, Evan Thomas’s biography of Sandra Day O’Connor proves consistently entertaining, revealing and enlightening. This book is likely to appeal to a wide variety of readers including almost anyone with an interest in national politics, the Supreme Court, women of exceptional achievement or readers who simply enjoy an illuminating, well-written biography. And in the end it’s hard to imagine a more compelling biography of this extraordinary woman.
Overall rating: 4½ stars