WASHINGTON (JTA) — Bryant Johnson says pressure creates diamonds, and I think I just upped the carat level.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s personal trainer did not know that his two other clients on the Supreme Court — Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — are Jewish, too. Until I told him.
“I never thought about it that way,” he says when I tell him that he’s responsible in part for the health of the court’s entire Jewish contingent. Ginsburg is 85, Breyer is 80 and Kagan is a sprightly 58.
Where Johnson takes the conversation from there is interesting — he says he’s gotten pushback from conservative radio over his clients’ politics.
“Do you train conservative judges?” Johnson says he’s been asked in interviews. (Answer: He trains whomever asks.) Ginsburg is a liberal icon, and the other two Jewish justices also are part of the court’s liberal minority.
Johnson, who met me last month in his office here at the District Court, is acutely aware of his role in maintaining the well-being of Ginsburg, whose health status is tracked obsessively by court watchers. Johnson is voluble about Ginsburg, who speaks publicly about her fitness regimen, but will not volunteer much about Kagan and Breyer.
“She says she wants to stay on the bench for another five years,” he says. Left unsaid is the likely reason that Ginsburg has made the commitment: She wants to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency if it should reach into a second term.
“Someone asked me, do I feel the pressure,” he says and laughs. “Pressure creates diamonds.”
By which Johnson means, yes he does, and has for a while.
“I help her with her quality of life,” he says. “This is not new to us.”
By “this” he means keeping Ginsburg fit, which he’s been doing since 1999 after she survived a bout of colorectal cancer.
Whatever its pressures Johnson, an Army reservist and a records specialist at the District Court in addition to running a personal training business, appears to relish his role as something of a health guru. When I arrive at his office, he is dispensing advice to a colleague who has come seeking the healthy munchies he leaves out.
Ginsburg wanted to get back in shape after her chemo treatments in 1999.
“You look like an Auschwitz survivor,” her late husband, Martin, told the justice, she has recalled.
Ginsburg asked her former colleagues on the DC District Court for a recommendation of a trainer who could accommodate a judge’s schedule. Judge Gladys Kessler (yes, also Jewish) recommended Johnson, who as a court employee had become popular among District Court judges. Johnson designed a program to build up the bone and muscle density that chemo costs a patient. In 2017, it became a book, “The RBG Workout.” (“How She Stays Strong … and You Can TOO!”)
Since then, save for a deployment to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007, Johnson has met with Ginsburg twice weekly for an hour or so.
They don’t chat much during the exercise routine — Johnson was raised in Virginia by a grandmother who was deaf and did not know sign language, so he’s become adept at nonverbal communication. During their sessions, he has acquired a taste for Ginsburg’s favorite background noises: classical music and “PBS Newshour.”
Johnson was aware of Ginsburg’s role in advancing civil liberties as a litigant before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and ’80s, and then in protecting them since her appointment in 1993. It wasn’t until recently, however, that he internalized how important they were to him personally: Johnson, who is African-American, is an equal opportunity adviser in the Army Reserves.
Ginsburg, Johnson notes, cut her teeth on a Supreme Court decision in 1973, Frontiero v. Richardson, that determined that servicewomen were entitled to housing allowances. He faces “similar challenges,” he says, in his Army Reserves work.
“I told a couple of soldiers ‘You wouldn’t have these rights,’” if it weren’t for Ginsburg, he says.
Ginsburg over the years has given Johnson a number of books about her, and a table in his office is decorated with them (although pride of place is reserved for his RBG workout).
Johnson confesses to not having read the books, saying “She didn’t pay me to be her fanboy!” (He won’t say how much he charges, but suggests that his fee for Ginsburg has not hiked much since 1999.)
Now, in this Ginsburgian moment fueled by liberal anxiety about whether Trump might have the opportunity to replace her, he is curious about the justice. He saw last year’s CNN documentary “RBG,” and the new Hollywood movie based on her 1970s breakthroughs, “On the Basis of Sex.”
“It was amazing,” he says of the documentary.
The documentary, while bordering on the hagiographic, is seeded throughout with concerns that Ginsburg is less than aware of her own mortality. (She survived another bout of cancer — pancreatic — in 2009, and last month had malignant growths removed from her lungs.) She still pulls all-nighters, and it is clear the absence of her husband, who died in 2010 and was the only person capable of talking her away from the office, has unsettled those close to her.
“Bubbe, you were asleep during the State of the Union, you can’t do that,” her granddaughter Clara Spera recalls telling her in “RBG.”
In Martin Ginsburg’s absence, Johnson appears to have become something of a rock for her.
“I am often consumed by the heavy lifting Supreme Court judging entails, reluctant to cease work until I’ve got it right,” she writes in a foreword to his book. “But when time comes to meet with Bryant, I leave off and join him at the gym for justices.”
Ginsburg asked Johnson to come with her to a swearing-in session for new citizens last month at the National Archives, and he called the session to order, temporarily establishing the archives as a court. He says his commanding voice, developed in the military, has led to him being asked to open court sessions.
In the documentary, Johnson is the man who nay-says the naysayers.
“She’s like a cyborg,” he says. “When I say cyborg, she’s like a machine.”
I get similar reassurances.
“She’s never used that four-letter word ‘can’t,’” Johnson says. “She’s tough as nails.”
But then it becomes clear that he, too, is concerned. Johnson speaks of her fall last month that led to three broken ribs (and the discovery of the growths on her lungs).
“That was a result of her being tired,” he says. “If you know the justice and her relentless work ethic — sometimes I have to protect her from herself.”
Still, she has some limits. Kagan likes to box, and Johnson once caught Ginsburg eyeing gloves that her high-court colleague had left in the gym.
“Are you into that?” Johnson asked Ginsburg.
“No,” she replied. “We’ll just leave that.”