What Do Rahm Emmanuel And Chad Griffin Have In Common?

They’re both very adept at manufacturing reality.

We discover today that CNN’s documentary series on Chicago under Rahm was coordinated in ways big and small with the mayor’s office. And – surprise! – it turned into a major propaganda coup for the ambitious Democrat. What you see is how a public figure can effectively get the media to burnish his image by leveraging access. This access-journalism in a very competitive climate can become propaganda very easily griffinetal– and is a win-win for both parties. The media entity gets a high profile product which it can use for ratings and ad money; the politician gets the kind of coverage no ad campaign could ever deliver. The only loser is the viewer.

And the more you see the Becker book’s roll-out continue, you see how brilliantly Chad Griffin has leveraged access-journalism as well – with a special Hollywood twist.  Griffin, after all, is a product of Hollywood – a former agent and prodigious fundraiser. And so I’ve come to think that it’s best to see the Becker book and the coming HBO documentary as ways to manufacture a Hollywood-ready story that begins in 2008 and ends in 2013. That’s what Becker’s book is really about. It reads like a screenplay, packed full of emotional subplots, and quirky characters. In interviews, she has even referred to real people, like Dustin Lance Black, as “characters” in her story. In the big positive front page review in the New York Times (that’s two NYT cover-pieces on this book) Linda Hirshman sees the book and the HBO documentary for what they are:

Perry was more than a lawsuit; it was a Hollywood production. Griffin’s outfit, Americans for Equal Rights, was started by professional P.R. consultants — Griffin and his business partner, Kristina Schake — at lunch with the Hollywood actor, director and producer Rob Reiner. AFER was always about changing the culture; it even had its own writer and producer, Dustin Lance Black and Bruce Cohen, from the acclaimed gay-themed biopic “Milk.”

My sources tell me that the HBO documentary that Griffin also gave exclusive access to is as breathless, as fawning and as narrowly focused as Becker’s book. The entire movement for marriage equality is distilled into a five-year courtroom drama for perfect dramatic effect. Hirshman notes who the star of that future movie will be:

Supreme Court civil rights landmarks have an irresistible narrative arc. First, the protagonists are oppressed; in the marriage equality story, the protagonist who started the revolution was “a handsome, bespectacled 35-year old political consultant named Chad Griffin,” and he had spent most of his life “haunted by the fear that if he told anyone he was gay, his friends and everything he dreamed for his future would evaporate.”

“The protagonist who started the revolution.” Now, Hirshman is very well aware that this is a massive distortion, and she correctly notes that the Perry case was a failure and trivial compared with the Windsor case and that the book doesn’t just ignore the work of the real pioneers, like Evan Wolfson or Mary Bonauto, but actually sleights them in order to puff up Griffin’s role. But when even Hirshman finds herself echoing the tropes that Becker has used, you see how the truth in the end will not matter.

Griffin knows that for most people who have no grip on the history of  the movement, this five-year movie narrative will be it.

Critics can complain or devastate the claims of the book, but that will not matter. For the millions who see the HBO movie, and for those who absorb the Becker book, the entire movement will have begun in 2008 and Griffin will be Rosa Parks. It’s win-win. Becker gets a big advance for exclusive access; the exclusive access keeps other journalists away from the subject; the New York Times gets big spreads for its star reporter; Griffin manufactures a Hollywood reality in which marriage equality is only achieved because of his courage; HRC coopts the entire narrative by hiring Griffin; and Olson and Boies get to portray themselves as the central lawyers in the movement. It does not matter that the Perry case failed; it does not matter that the bulk of the progress came outside the contours of this narrow, failed case, and in the decades before. What matters is an easy cinematic narrative that obliterates reality in favor of propaganda.

And it will, I think, work. Check out Entertainment Weekly’s conclusion:

Forcing the Spring stands as … the definitive account of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.

Not one account; “the definitive account.” Not an account of one ultimately unsuccessful case, decided on a technicality, but “of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.” Then check out the promotional materials for Olson and Boies’ forthcoming book – and the p.r. campaign becomes clearer still:

As allies and not foes, they tell the fascinating story of the five-year struggle to win the right for gays to marry, from Proposition 8’s adoption by voters in 2008, to its defeat before the highest court in the land in Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013. Boies and Olson guide readers through the legal framing of the case, making crystal clear the constitutional principles of due process and equal protection in support of marriage equality while explaining, with intricacy, the basic human truths they set out to prove when the duo put state-sanctioned discrimination on trial.

Redeeming the Dream offers readers an authoritative, dramatic, and up-close account of the most important civil rights issue — fought and won — since Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

So Perry is now Brown v. Board of Education? Even though it failed? Even though another case succeeded? Even if there has been no definitive federal ruling from the Supreme Court yet? And notice the framing here as well: “the five-year struggle for the right for gays to marry.” That’s the “reality” that Griffin has successfully manufactured through the fawning screenplay of Jo Becker. The decades before – and the countless people, public and private, famous and unknown – are wiped from history. They don’t work so well as a movie, after all.

(Photo: Griffin and yours truly, with our spouses, in a happier time, at the White House state dinner for David Cameron, May 14, 2012.)