Well, here we go. Jo Becker, an investigative reporter, has written a book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, which the New York Times published a long excerpt from in Sunday's Magazine. As I write this, the article (and the book) has come under withering criticism from, among other people, Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, and Michelangelo Signorile. What began in my mind as a diary about how sausage is made on an issue like marriage equality is now going to be a diary about that and about how we write LGBT history these days (and that's why there's no link to the book).
The problem is that the stars of the article are also the stars of the book. We'll see how that plays out below the divider doodle.
I'll admit that the problems of the book weren't thoroughly apparent from the article, which starts in April 2011 and ends with the Justice Department deciding to submit an amicus curiae brief in the Proposition 8 case. There were, though, a couple of eyebrow-raising things in the article, which begins with Drew Griffin, who is identified as the person who got David Boies and Ted Olson to bring the Prop 8 suit together, at a fundraiser with the President. He recalls that he asked the president what he could do to help him evolve faster. We then hear from David Axelrod and Jim Messina, and we get a recitation of the reasons why embracing marriage equality might not have been prudent approaching the 2012 election, with the caveat that by November 2011 that seemed to be irrelevant. So who do they go to for advice on how to evolve with the least political damage? Here's where my antennae went up.
David Plouffe, a mastermind of the 2008 victory and a senior adviser to the president, reached out to Ken Mehlman for advice. - snip- He told Plouffe that voters were far more likely to be supportive once the understood that gay couples wanted to marry for the same reason straight people did: It was a matter of love and commitment. Polling indicated that voters would best respond if the issue was framed around shared American values: the country's fundamental promise of equality; voters' antipathy against government intrusion into their private lives; and the religious principle of treating others that way one would like to be treated.AND Mehlman suggested that he announce his support for marriage equality on television in an interview with a female host AND suggested language for him to use AT SOME LENGTH. I guess I was glad to read nothing happened at that point.
Some sniping of the "well before an election but months went by" nature follows. The first lady wanted him to evolve. Major companies signed on to a brief that indicted DOMA for having a negative effect on their businesses, and Republicans like Steve Schmidt and Grover Norquist supported marriage equality. So now it's April 2012 and we're with Chad Griffin again at the gathering of gay Democrats in Los Angeles Griffin was asked to gather by the Obama campaign, You will remember that gathering as the one where our Vice President went off the reservation with his full-throated support of marriage equality, support which he corroborated two weeks later on Meet the Press. The White House tried to walk this back but when Arne Duncan was asked for his position on Monday and he said he was with Biden on the issue, the White House knew that Obama had to evolve IMMEDIATELY. So they offered Robin Roberts an interview on Wednesday EVEN THOUGH North Carolina had voted a ban on same-sex marriage into its constitution recently. The language he used?
[M]any of the poll-tested points that Mehlman outlined in the memo he sent months earlier to Plouffe.What happened? NOTHING. Didn't hurt him in his key constituencies at all. Also Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State.
So that's the sausage-making story. I think that, if the article had ended here, I might not be about to explain the complaints Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage and Mike Signorile have about this enterprise. But they become evident in what Ms. Becker chooses to discuss in the last third of the piece. We find ourselves with an emotional Drew Griffin at the Inaugural Address, listening to the President say
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are threated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.I don't remember that, but Steveningen and I were probably still celebrating over "Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall" when Obama said it. But I digress.
Griffin is concerned here about the fate of Prop 8 because the recently chastened Charles Cooper had filed a brief citing Obama's interview with Robin Roberts
as saying that those who opposed same-sex marriage were not coming at it "from a mean-spirited perspective," and it used Obama's "healthy debate" language to argue that this was a matter for voters and legislatures to decide, not the courts.The rest of the article was about Griffin's successful attempt to get the Justice Department to file a brief stating that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. And this is where the critique of the article comes from. No acknowledgment at all of the fact that there was another case at issue, United States v Windsor. Anywhere in the article. That's not all, either.
Andrew Sullivan first. "Jaw-dropping distortion."
The revolution began, it appears, in 2008. And its Rosa Parks was a man you would be forgiven for knowing nothing about, Chad Griffinand
For Becker, until the still-obscure Griffin came on the scene, the movement for marriage equality was a cause “that for years had largely languished in obscurity.” I really don’t know how to address that statement, because it is so wrong, so myopic and so ignorant it beggars belief that a respectable journalist could actually put it in print. Obscurity? Is Becker even aware of the history of this struggle at all?That's just the BEGINNING. Where's Evan Wolfson? He's damned as an obstructionist. Why is Ken Mehlman allowed to make the conservative case for marriage equality when Sullivan himself wrote Virtually Normal in 1995? Then there's this, on the effects of access-journalism:
Sure, Griffin (because of his ability to raise money) had access to Biden and asked the right question. Good for him. But Biden could easily have ducked it and Obama had long since decided to come out for equality before the election anyway, so the only proximate effect of this insider access was to accelerate the process. Other influences on the president – a beloved high school teacher, his kids, his reading, for example – are disregarded in order to cast Griffin as the key figure. The creaking of the narrative machinery to present this turn of events is so grating and breathless it all but discredits itself. And a remarkable coda to this hagiography is the fact that Griffin and Boies and Olson are actually sponsoring the author’s book party! And why would they not? A book that is essentially a stenography of their self-regard is something they should celebrate. Whether the NYT feels the same way about one of their reporters having her sources throw her a party is another matter.I usually don't have much patience for Andrew Sullivan, but when he's right, he's FUN.
Dan Savage doesn't have quite Sullivan's ax to grind, but he's plenty annoyed himself, enough to use the word "Bullshitwashing" in the title of his blogpost. He links to the Sullivan post I discuss above, and then to a SECOND Sullivan post in which Sullivan takes off from this
When your premise is that the marriage equality revolution began in 2008, that the movement was only then re-branded around the themes of family values and toleration, that the subject had been languishing in obscurity before the gay “Rosa Parks” came on the scene, there are a few things that will necessarily not compute.in detail. Savage advises us to read both Sullivan posts, because
Sullivan and Wolfson and [Mary] Bonauto [in Massachusetts] were fighting for marriage equality long before it was cool—long before it was "marriage equality"—and long before it was safe (and lucrative) for "political consultants" like Griffin to jump in. (Both Sullivan and Wolfson were routinely and viciously attacked as traitors and assimilationists for supporting marriage equality in the 1990s!)And then there's Signorile.
Writing an introduction, and giving historical context here and there throughout the book, likely would have spared Becker the attacks. That she didn't do so betrays the fact that Becker got all her information from the insiders to whom she had access, blinded by that access and their star power.Erroneously. No credit to (and only one mention of) the local groups in the four states where marriage equality was on the ballot in 2012, no mention of Joe Sudbay at AmericaBlog who got Obama to say "evolving," and a MAJOR distortion of Roberta Kaplan's work on behalf of Edie Windsor
And that brings us to the more egregious problem with Forcing the Spring, which no introduction would have solved. Becker offensively and consistently undercuts other people's work, distorting the truth in an attempt to give her insiders credit for... everything.
She wrongly portrays Kaplan as having argued a very narrow case, one not based on the dignity and civil rights of gay people, when in fact that is how Kaplan has always portrayed the case against DOMA, in the media and before the courts, right up to the high court. As Noah Feldman, the highly esteemed Harvard professor of constitutional law,wrote in The New Republic in his critique of the book, in their arguments before the Supreme Court, "Boies and Olson's own legal arguments in the Prop 8 case were weak" and didn't focus on "gay equality" but instead relied on "privacy," while Kaplan's brief put gay equality "front and center."That's just wrong. And WOW! FELDMAN is plenty angry himself:
Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that something more pernicious is at work in Becker’s book. Why, after all, should anyone want to read about a failed effort by two middle-aged straight white men to convince the Supreme Court of something others have been advocating for more than 20 years? Emphasizing the roles of Boies and Olson looks suspiciously like an effort to tell a story that might appeal to straight readers, and not coincidentally might be sold to Hollywood as a tale of conversion and salvation.Not to mention the fact (and this is really damning for Feldman) that, while all the work previous to Boies and Olson had been pro bono, the two star lawyers were paid $6,400,000 for their not completely successful work (a terrific 9th Circuit opinion was vacated in the process of eliminating Prop 8).
Then there is the problem of future legal damage. Since Windsor, Boies and Olson have been trolling for clients to get back to the Supreme Court, where they have yet to win, and take credit for making the court extend Windsor to a general marriage right. Their race back to the court has put them at odds with the people they are claiming to help. In Virginia, Lambda and the ACLU filed a class action on behalf of all gay couples seeking to marry, and the district court certified the class. Boies and Olson found their own client, refused to join the class, and are trying to beat the class by expediting briefing and skipping a trial that would build a legal record for the Supreme Court.
So it's about power, influence and reputation, and how journalists can allow the people to whom they have access to dictate the structure and outcomes of a story that's more complicated than the one Ms. Becker is telling. Just wrong. Do some research next time. I'm not going to say that this is a story that should be told and a history that should be written ONLY by a historian or a journalist who specializes in LGBT issues, but it's really, really tempting.
My schedule for the next few days (classes, haircut, online grading, in-person grading, LA Kossacks meetup) means that there is NO good time for me to publish this, so here goes. I'll be here for a couple of hours now.