Other Voices, Other Points, On Becker

I’m done venting. Promise. For a sane and reality-based short history of the marriage equality movement, check out this Buzzfeed piece from a year ago by Chris Geidner, the best reporter on gay politics online. For a more objective take on Becker, here’s a very solid, informed critique by Adam Teicholz. He helps you see better why Becker’s disparagement of the key men and women who made marriage equality is so offensive. Money quote:

It will be tempting for those on the outside to dismiss Sullivan’s critique (and those, to come, of the slighted activists who will surely line up to take potshots) as the infighting and backbiting of sore losers. They are not. I have no skin in the fight between factions; to the extent I have personal connections, they are on both sides. I know Evan and others at Freedom to Marry, and Ken Mehlman, whom Becker features prominently, is a friend. I believe that marriage would not have come to New York State in 2011 if it weren’t for Melhman’s savvy, and obstinacy. But there is simply no plausible case to be made that he, Griffin, Black, Olson, and Boies—as hardworking and smart as they are—are the protagonists of the gay-rights revolution.

He’s particularly sharp on how Becker/Griffin disses one of the most gifted political strategists of the movement, Tim Gill. Hank Plante notes how Becker’s attack on everyone in the movement apart from Griffin is just an extension of Griffin’s own contempt for the two decades of staggering progress that made his unseemly credit-grabbing possible:

Griffin’s group sued to keep [all the other gay groups] from intervening in the Prop. 8 case, with Griffin writing to them, “You have unrelentingly and unequivocally acted to undermine this case even before it was filed.  In light of this it is inconceivable that you would zealously and effectively litigate this case if you were successful in intervening.”

Now you can better see where Becker’s contempt for and ignorance of the marriage equality movement comes from. The staggering thing is that the man who sowed this division, who engineered this book, and who will continue to grab exclusive credit for marriage equality in the forthcoming HBO movie on the subject … is now the head of the biggest gay rights group in the country. How can he lead a movement he has now publicly announced his contempt for?

Meanwhile, I guess I should respond to this ad hominem by HRC’s former head, Elizabeth Birch. So some corrections: I’ve long noted that marriage equality predates Evan and me by decades in the US and by centuries across the world. An anthology I edited on the subject makes that quite clear. The graphic in the post she lambastes starts in 1970, for goodness’ sake. I only cited one book of mine in that post, the first best-seller in the world on marriage equality, translated into seven languages, and prompting a global debate on the question. I cited one article, which the Nation – and not as a compliment – touted as “the most influential essay of the decade in the gay rights movement.”

Birch substantively agrees with me that it was the Hawaii lawsuit that truly began the revolution in 1993 – not, as Becker’s book has it, Chad Griffin in 2008 –  but then repeats what she said at the time: there was no point in fighting for such an impossible goal, we should hope it goes away, the whole thing is a terrible distraction, we’ll get “slaughtered” if we go ahead, etc. So she effectively conveys what the internal fight was about at the time. Evan and I were eager to seize on any lawsuit to leverage it into headlines, to build the case. We knew there would be failures at first, and backlash soon after.

But Evan and I, unlike Elizabeth, believed that we would eventually win because our arguments were so strong, and that the issue had the potential to galvanize and recast the entire movement. I understand why this put her in a tough spot at the time, wanting us to be right, believing we were wrong, and therefore unwilling to put HRC behind a huge effort when the groundwork hadn’t been done. But for us, that was a Catch-22. If we didn’t grasp the issue, the groundwork would never be done. So why don’t we just get on with it, instead of remaining in a Clintonian defensive crouch? HRC’s subsequent deep unease with the issue was, of course, deeply frustrating to those of us who believed it was the key issue for our political and moral advance.

My most vivid memory of Elizabeth was when she, Evan and I testified in 1996 in Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act. We all knew we were going down in flames, but Evan and I were just amazed we had gotten the first Congressional hearing ever on marriage equality. You have to remember the very idea was regarded as completely absurd at the time. Our goal was to make this a national conversation – because it was a conversation in which we had unassailable arguments on our side – even if it meant an early bloodbath. Elizabeth was bristling with frustration that we were having a hearing at all. It was, she remarked, “Hell Week” for gay rights. She understandably did not want to preside over bloodbaths while head of the biggest gay rights organizations. It took many years before HRC even used the word “marriage” in its own literature.

My other vivid memory of Elizabeth was when, in a rare moment of outreach, she invited me to give a speech at HRC a couple years later, and I used the occasion to give my stump speech on marriage equality. Afterward, she came up to me and said she had changed her mind. “If we aim for the stars,” she said to me, “we could maybe reach the moon.” And that’s what indeed we did, and Griffin and Boies and Olson deserve kudos for sustaining the momentum of that journey. But it serves no one to pretend they started this thing or were in any way indispensable to it. And the embarrassment of HRC’s own awful record on the issue is not, I’d argue, irrelevant to this book. It would not exactly be the first time when local or independent actors make change possible, only to have HRC swoop in at the last minute and claim all the credit. That’s always been their mojo. And it’s why so many are so pissed off at them once again.

Other Voices, Other Points, On Becker, Ctd

On “Meet The Press Yesterday,” David Gregory didn’t ask Jo Becker to defend her claim that the marriage equality revolution “began” in 2008  and was the triumph of Ted Olson and Chad Griffin over the countless Meet the Press - Season 67activists who had allowed the issue to “languish in obscurity” for years. No surprise there – but a clue as to why Gregory has led MTP to epic lows in viewership.

Becker – amazingly – has stuck to a p.r. strategy that doesn’t even mention the controversy over her book – check out her Twitter feed here, where she simply won’t address it at all. You’d think that an author who wrote such a controversial book would engage the criticism – or link to it and respond forthrightly. But Becker just pretends that the controversy doesn’t exist! Or says she wrote a book that is utterly different than the one I’ve read. What does that tell you? In my view, it tells you that she has no defense, has no grasp on gay history, and cannot defend her own thesis. The book is as much a hagiography of a handful of late-comers to the cause as it is a brutal denigration of all those who came before. Why won’t she defend this argument in public?

Meanwhile, the man who relentlessly spun Bill Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, Richard Socarides, was interviewed for the book and covers for its distortions of history here. And Noah Feldman has a critical must-read on the ludicrous legal claims of the book. Money quote:

In order to take credit for results they didn’t achieve, based on the accomplishments of a movement to which they did not and do not belong, Boies and Olson and their media proxies need to marginalize and circumvent the real activists. But even that is not all. Their aim for credit has real-world consequences. Boies and Olson are seeking out new clients and actively trying to beat the gay-marriage movement’s own legal eagles to the courthouse in a mad rush to get credit for what they have already failed to achieve. In the course of doing so, they are engaging in high-risk legal behavior that could backfire on the whole movement.

Jonathan Capehart says that I have raised “a valid concern about how the history of the quest for marriage equality is being portrayed,” but like Socarides, he doesn’t really care. The juicy tidbits from a fawningly uncritical hagiography are worth it.

A couple of readers have also pointed out that, in the first page, Rosa Parks is described merely as a “black seamstress” who took a stand for justice one day in 1955 in a moment of clarity. Becker doesn’t seem to understand that Parks had been a civil rights activist for twelve years before the protest that made history, just as she seems oblivious to the notion that others had been doing what she describes as Chad Griffin’s unique civil rights work for twenty-five years before he came along.

If you want to read a film script for a Hollywood movie about the lone courage and insight of a couple of people who showed up at a civil rights movement a quarter century late and then claimed ownership of all of it, this is your book. A work of actual and informed journalism, let alone history, is yet to come.

(Photo: Jo Becker appears on “Meet the Press” on April 20, 2014. By William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

The Best Of The Dish Today

2014 B.A.A. Boston Marathon

Now there’s a Boston physique for you!

Meanwhile, the slams on the dreadful Becker book continue to pile up. When Michelangelo Signorile is compelled to agree with me, you have some idea of how bad it is. He notes how the book grotesquely distorts the legal work of Robbie Kaplan, who argued the much-more-significant Windsor case, only to have Becker relegate it to a footnote of her exclusive-access p.r. clients, Olson and Boies:

In Becker’s zeal to make her book and its insiders seem more important, she shockingly steals the win on DOMA by Kaplan and gives it to Prop 8 attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies. 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. …

But Becker’s breathtakingly shameless conclusion, for which she quotes no legal scholar and clearly got directly from Olson and Boies, is that Olson’s arguments on Prop 8 won the DOMA case for Kaplan. She even quotes Kaplan seeming to back this up, a quotation that I find very strange, having read everything Kaplan has said about the case since DOMA was struck down. (Kaplan has not publicly commented on this book.) The omissions in the book are certainly egregious. But throwing Roberta Kaplan and Edie Windsor under the bus while comparing Chad Griffin to a woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus is truly horrendous.

My sources tell me that Kaplan rebutted this argument to Becker directly, only to have Becker ignore her points – which tells you something about the ethics and fairness of this shoddy p.r. exercise. Signorile, however, has to insist that my notion of the gay left’s resistance to marriage equality in the 1990s is unfounded. Well, since Evan Wolfson is an upstanding member of the gay left, and always has been, he is partly right. But the idea that the gay left was supportive of marriage equality as a priority or even at all in the early days is not true. Don’t ask me (although I can recite you chapter and verse), see this new piece by Richard Kim of The Nation on the epic struggle within the movement that preceded and accompanied the struggle for marriage rights. Money quote:

In the early 1990s, the writers Andrew Sullivan and Tony Kushner, in the pages of The New Republic and The Nation respectively, laid out two catalytic visions of gay politics. In his essay “The Politics of Homosexuality,” Sullivan made the conservative case for a gay agenda that focused solely on eliminating state discrimination against lesbians and gay men, chiefly the bans on same-sex marriage and military service … Kushner’s rejoinder, “A Socialism of the Skin,” published in these pages in 1994, was a galvanizing interpretation of gay liberation’s utopian and solidaristic spirit … I am, of course, Team Tony. But twenty years later, it is undeniable that Sullivan’s brand of politics defines the gay movement and that the achievement of its limited goals is on the near horizon.

Does Signorile think Richard Kim just made all that up?

On Becker, two questions: why, after all this fuss, does she refuse to engage her critics? And where is the NYT’s Public Editor on this mess?

The most popular post today was “Was Jesus God?” followed by my response to Ann Wroe’s thoughts on sin. I also went another round responding to critics of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. From the in-tray, small business owners shared their Obamacare stories (follow the whole thread here).

See you in the morning.

(Photo: A man with ‘We’re Back!’ written on his chest limps by after finishing the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. By Andrew Burton/Getty Images.)

Exposing Becker’s PR Campaign

You might imagine that the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist would have attempted journalism in writing what is billed as a “definitive account” of the marriage equality movement. And if you mean by Meet the Press - Season 67journalism, being a stenographer and hagiographer for a handful of interested parties intent on spinning themselves as the new Rosa Parks, you’d be correct. No one doubts the validity and accuracy of the breathless accounts of Chad Griffin, Ted Olson and David Boies that Griffin, Olson and Boies gave directly and exclusively  to Becker.

But is it journalism never to seek any alternative views, or objective facts or actual history outside the bubble of access journalism? Is it journalism to make grand and sweeping statements about gay history, thereby revealing that you know nothing about it?

Now of course I am an interested party here, having been part of the movement for twenty-five years, but who, like so many 0thers, got wiped from history in Becker’s ridiculous book. So take my own biases into account here as well. But here’s the reasoned view of Chris Geidner, the best journalist on gay politics in the country, who has meticulously followed and covered the marriage equality movement for years. If you read one article on this book, read Geidner’s. His bottom line:

The small universe of people who constitute Becker’s sourcing for the book — and her apparent unwillingness to explore alternative reasons for or views of the developments those sources discuss — make the book a dangerous draft of history.

Geidner points out that the book is best understood as “a piece in [a] public relations campaign, orchestrated by Griffin, who is now the head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights group.” It is designed to rewrite history to make an organization that was long a frustrating, infuriating laggard in the movement to be the indispensable force for real change. All the manifold facts, events, lawsuits, demonstrations, arguments, articles and books that get in the way of this PR campaign are removed, deleted, or simply ignored.

Case in point: the early, epic scene in Becker’s book in which a lone voice for equality, Dustin Lance Black’s, speaks truth to power. Geidner notes:

“If there was applause, Black didn’t remember any,” Becker writes. “Instead, he recalled an ocean of pursed lips and crossed arms, and that he was literally trembling as he walked off stage. … Tim Gill … denounced Black outright, telling the crowd he was naive and misguided.” Video from the event provided to BuzzFeed, though, shows that the speech was interrupted with applause five times. At the end, at least some members of the audience gave Black a standing ovation, the video shows.

The first words after Black’s speech were from the moderator:

Thank you. Righteous, real energy! That’s what we need! Urgency. Thank you.

If there was video of the event and you were a reporter and had a key passage describing that event, wouldn’t you want to check the video to see if your source’s account is true?

Becker didn’t – because it was irrelevant to the self-serving narratives of her exclusive sources. She also asserts, for good measure, that Black was denounced by Tim Gill – but the truth, as Geidner proves with transcripts, is simply different.

And so her book simply distorts and misleads and delivers excruciating contortions of logic and history again and again. (For even more evidence of this, see Aravosis.) Moreover, all the distortions in the book – about every moment in the movement – have the same effect: making Griffin and Boies and Olson into Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and Lyndon Johnson rolled into one. That’s why this book is such a travesty of both history and journalism and why the NYT’s publishing an extract from it is something their public editor should look into. It’s also why the movement has to take a long, hard look at its biggest organization, HRC, and ask why its executive director, for the first time in the marriage movement’s history, is trying to make one individual – himself – the alpha and omega of the entire breakthrough.

That has never happened before. And it is in effect an attack on the very movement HRC purports to lead.

(Photo: Jo Becker appears on “Meet the Press” on April 20, 2014. By William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

“Nothing Could Be Further From The Truth”

Nathaniel Frank is the latest writer, journalist and activist to be appalled by the shoddy, shallow, dishonest journalism of Jo Becker. You will learn more about the history of the marriage equality movement in his single piece than you will in the entire 400-plus pages of Becker’s p.r. material for Chad Griffin. How Becker’s book came to be written, let alone published, remains “a major mystery that some intrepid reporter may one day unravel.”

David Plouffe On Becker’s Book: “Decidedly Inaccurate”

The account Jo Becker gives of the Obama administration’s response to the issue of marriage equality is one of the few parts of the book that has not been demolished since it was published. Since her account did not square with my own memory, I asked David Plouffe to address some of the claims in the book and he was eager to do so. Plouffe ran Obama’s 2008 campaign and during the time in question was Senior Adviser To The President.

Below is a Q and A I had with Plouffe today on the events Becker purports to report. My questions are in italics. Plouffe’s answers follow:

AS:  Becker’s book argues that the president’s position seemed stalled on marriage equality in 2011 and 2012 and that he likely did not intend to evolve any further on marriage before his second term. Do you agree?

DP: Absolutely not. The President made a decision that he was ready to “fully evolve” and announce his support for marriage equality. As he put it, “If I get asked if I was still a state legislator in Illinois would I vote to recognize same sex marriages as New York State did, the answer will be yes.” So the only question was when and how to announce in 2012 he would be the first President to support marriage equality, not whether to.

AS: What were the major and minor influences that caused the president to embrace marriage equality when he did?

DP: His evolution was not contrived as some suggest, but real. He spoke powerfully to some of his reasons in the Robin Roberts interview, but also the decision not to defend DOMA was instrumental, as well as the increasing number of states that were recognizing marriage. However, his family and friends and the discussions they had were likely the single greatest influence. His ultimate support for marriage equality was arrived at in a way that while public, was not too dissimilar to the journey many of us in the country took. Also, the President believed his support for marriage equality could change the opinions of some in his electoral coalition – witness the striking change in support in the African-American community which was illustrated in the Maryland ballot initiative results in 2012.

Given the Democratic convention and the Debates, where this issue was sure to come up, and that he had personally decided to support marriage equality, the plan was to make sure the announcement was made by June.

AS: Did Biden force your hand on substance? Or just the timing? What was the president’s personal response to Biden’s public statement?

DP: Not even the timing really. We were planning to do so within a week or two. So it might have sped it up by a matter of days, if that. He was very calm about it. He understood that this would be a historic moment and years from now, if not months (which turned out to be the case for most) all that mattered would be the words he spoke, not the process to get there. I will confess to being exercised because this was a historic moment and I wanted that to be the focus, not why we were doing it or how the timing was forced. He was right, I was wrong.

AS: David Brooks argues today that judging from Becker’s book, this was a decision dominated by elite political strategists. Is that your recollection?

DP: Not all all.

DP: Once he made the decisions, it was a settled debate. All we did was help think thru the timing and some of the questions that would arise from his statement. I understand the Becker book may give people that sense. It is decidedly inaccurate. I sat beside him from his decision not to defend DOMA in early 2011 to his embrace of marriage equality on May 9, 2012. It was his call. And from my unique perch at the time, I can assure you there were no guarantees this would not cost us votes in some of the battleground states. It was one of my favorite days in the whole Obama experience. Doing something historic and right that had risk associated with it – I’m certain that’s how history will capture it, not some of the BS out there now.

AS: Was the president’s reluctance to embrace a federal right to marry a function of his caution or of his understanding that civil marriage has been a state issue in the US?

DP: The latter, exactly. Though I think he believes that ultimately the Courts and the states will move almost universally in the right direction and we certainly have seen progress on both fronts since his announcement. There really hasn’t been an issue at least in modern times that has seen this rapid support growth, and given support levels for marriage equality across the ideological spectrum of those under 35, the path is clear.

AS: Over the first term, the administration had successively endorsed the notion of heightened scrutiny for gay rights cases, had bowed out of defending DOMA in the courts and had ended DADT. How did these events change the debate about marriage equality within the administration? Or were they irrelevant?

DP: I believe that while you had to look at each individually and make decisions based on the unique core facts at hand – and any administration must – there is no doubt that each was a barrier that was overcome and the result of each pointed in the same direction towards progress. Surely some will disagree with this this, but I think the gradual progression on the issues you mention in the first three years leading up to his marriage equality statement helped ultimately build support broadly for the equality case. Some may get frustrated by this, but the President has always had a very good sense of timing, even when it seems slow or not how they would do it on The West Wing TV show. I think in this case, we will look back and understand that each chapter unfolding as it did was the right path for the overall cause.

AS: Was there a sell-by date by which time the administration believed it had to endorse marriage equality before the election?

DP: Yes – our internal clock was June. There was platform language for the convention that had to be agreed to and the debates looming and he would start doing a lot of local interviews as well as national. It would be impossible to imagine not getting the question – directly  (Are you still evolving?) or hypothetically (would you vote for it in the Illinois legislature?) We were actively working thru dates and options in the very near term when the VP made his statements on MTP.

When you read the book, you get the impression that Chad Griffin did almost all of this himself. Think about that claim for a moment. And what it says about his vision of the marriage equality movement and its hundreds of thousands of participants, gay and straight, over the last two and a half decades.

Becker On Fresh Air

To Terry Gross’ immense credit, she had Jo Becker back on her radio show to defend the ridiculous premise and framing of her book, namely that the revolution of marriage equality began in 2008 with an epiphany by Chad Griffin. Gross tries repeatedly to get Becker to withdraw her idea that the “revolution” “began” in 2008. But Becker won’t. Money quote:

GROSS: So getting back to that first paragraph in your book, if you had it to do over again, would you have written this is how a revolution starts?

BECKER: I would.

GROSS: Because?

BECKER: Because I believe that this was a revolutionary step that they took, and not to say that it hadn’t been considered, but they were the ones that took the step.

But the case that actually made the difference federally was the Windsor case, argued by Roberta Kaplan, and not the case Becker has to hype because of her sources. And challenging Prop 8 was not a revolutionary step. It was risky, sure. But taking the issue to the federal courts had been part of the strategy for the previous twenty-five years. The idea that this was first dreamed up by Chad Griffin – after all of us had been clueless and cowardly beforehand – is absurd as well as insulting. She has no clue what she’s talking about.

Becker also describes 2008 as “a really, you know, dark moment in the gay rights movement.” Seriously?

In 2008, we had higher levels of national support for marriage equality than in any previous year – and close to double the support we had when the revolution actually began; we had won in California and Massachusetts; we were on the verge of winning in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and DC. And we had elected Obama, who was about to end the HIV Travel ban, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and remove the federal government from supporting DOMA. A terrible campaign in California (Griffin was right about that and I was too) lost us that state in a close race in the fall election. But momentum was clearly with us. Before the Perry decision, we had also won New York, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, and Minnesota. All those victories came through the more democratic process of state legislatures. Before the Perry ruling, we also had marriage equality in 13 countries – and a wave of others followed that had nothing to do with Olson or Boies or Griffin.

The book is an attempt by a tiny few to co-opt and claim credit for a movement they had previously had nothing to do with. No one with any knowledge of the movement has defended it. And, judging from her Fresh Air interview today, Becker can’t either.