THE BLOG
04/21/2014 12:08 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Worst Problem With Jo Becker's Book on 'The Fight for Marriage Equality'

William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images

The most egregious problem with Jo Becker's new book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, isn't the omissions, which many critics have focused on in the past week. The omissions problem is pretty egregious, however, so let's deal with it first, because it's a criticism that Becker could have easily avoided, and that reveals a lot about how she approached this subject. It offers at least a partial explanation for something that is far more deceptive about Forcing the Spring.

Andrew Sullivan took the first shot on those omissions. I completely agree with him that the book is "access journalism" by a reporter who embedded herself with insiders in return for telling the story they wanted to be told, though Sullivan, as usual, engages in his own revisionism -- a fantasy in which he and a few other gay conservatives were the only writers spearheading the marriage movement. Since the late '80s Sullivan has done what he accuses Becker of doing now: dismissing all that went before and sneering at the hard work of what he's deemed "the gay left." But that's Sullivan. And nonetheless, he is right to lambaste Becker for radically diminishing his role and the monumental roles of Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD).

Forcing the Spring is about a highly significant phase of the marriage equality movement. Many of us certainly believe that the case argued by Ted Olson and David Boies that ultimately overturned California's Proposition 8 in federal court -- a case that was covered daily in the media and dispelled ugly lies about gay people in a court of law -- helped change the political culture and American public opinion. Becker could have solved the omissions problem by simply writing an introduction to the book detailing the people, events and accomplishments that took us to that moment, rather than beginning the book by comparing Chad Griffin, who in 2008 launched the group that brought the case against Prop 8, to Rosa Parks, an insult to both the LGBT community and the African-American community literally 100 words into the book.

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.

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.

It's quite astonishing. For example, Becker discusses the four 2012 campaigns where gay marriage won at the ballot for the first time, in the states of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Not once does she mention the names or efforts of any of the local groups that fought hard to win in these states (and except for one brief mention of Griffin texting Minnesota activist Richard Carlbom, she doesn't mention the actual name of any local activist fighting in these states), instead portraying these wins as having been attained by the high-powered strategies of her insiders, like former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman and Griffin, who by then had become president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). While HRC, Mehlman and other national figures and groups were enormously helpful, I know they'd agree that the wins were products of the campaigns by activists in the states and wouldn't have been wins without those activists -- and, at least in a couple of these states, if not all of them, gay activists probably would have won even without any outside help, as public opinion had shifted dramatically.

In another example Becker claims that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, because of their beliefs about what was constitutional, both realized at the same time that they couldn't defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court, a decision that was made in 2011. Yet she doesn't detail the relentless pressure campaign that had been going on for over a year before that decision, coming from the streets and online, including from Joe Sudbay and John Aravosis at AMERICAblog. They began the campaign to stop Obama from defending DOMA after the Justice Department filed an offensive brief defending DOMA in June 2009, in the face of many Obama apologists, some connected to the administration, who attacked them and said that the administration had to defend DOMA. Every word and action of Becker's insiders is reported in detail, but when it comes to others, they're just anonymous "activists" or vague events or an unattributed headline here or there.

Becker doesn't even tell the story of how Sudbay got the president to say, during an interview in October 2010, that he was "evolving" on marriage. ("[A]ttitudes evolve, including mine," Obama said.) It was a pivotal moment, certainly reported on at great length in the media, that would be used against the president over and over by media pundits and activists demanding that he "evolve already!" Becker doesn't cover it at all, only mentioning, while telling yet another story about the insiders that took place three months later, that Obama had "now said" that he was "evolving," again making it seem like it was the insiders who had gotten him there.

But perhaps the most outrageous and damaging of the distortions is what Becker does to attorney Roberta Kaplan, who won the DOMA case before the Supreme Court on behalf of Edie Windsor. Both are heroes of the marriage equality fight, having won the case that has actually been used by federal judges from Oklahoma and Utah to Michigan and Texas to rule marriage bans unconstitutional, while there was no ruling from the Supreme Court on the merits regarding Prop 8.

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. 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."

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.

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