Frank Rich on the National Circus: How the New Gay-Marriage History Book Forgets the History of Gay Marriage

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Photo: Malcolm Clarke/Keystone/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the controversy of a new gay-marriage history, the demise of southern Democrats may have been exaggerated, and the viability of an all-female presidential ticket.

On Tuesday, investigative reporter Jo Becker's book on the marriage-equality movement, Forcing the Spring, was published to widespread criticism. Andrew Sullivan denounced it as a "troubling travesty of gay history," writing that the book overlooked the decades-long work of key players on the issue (including Sullivan himself) in order to make outsize heroes of three relative latecomers: the Human Rights Campaign's Chad Griffin and lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson. Dan Savage and writers at SlateBuzzFeed, and The New Republic, among others, seconded Sullivan's concerns. Are these criticisms — largely registered by those who fought for marriage equality — more than simply infighting among those who didn't get credit?

This is not infighting. While I often disagree with Andrew Sullivan, he is right to call this out as a genuine injustice. For a journalist to write a book that says, in essence, that the struggle for marital equality “had largely languished in obscurity” until 2008 and the battle over Proposition 8 in California is tantamount to saying that the black-civil-rights struggle didn’t get going until President Obama was elected president that same year. Obviously Becker’s intent wasn’t malicious, and the heroes in her book are real heroes. But by minimizing those who fought this issue from its emergence as far back as 1989 is to rob the more recent developments on same-sex marriage of all context, to deny credit to some giants in the fight (starting with the lawyer Evan Wolfson), and, perhaps most depressingly, to minimize the bravery of those who sacrificed a lot to pursue this cause at a time when it and its adherents were ridiculed and ignored, including by much of the Establishment press, Becker’s own employers the Times and Washington Post included. Keep in mind that the Times didn’t even allow the use of the word gay in its news pages until 1987. Even as recently as this month, a major television-news show, ABC’s This Weekallowed Ralph Reed to spew junk science about gay parents without anyone contradicting him on-air.

And there’s another agenda here, intentional or not, that is disturbing. While it takes away nothing from their recent impressive achievements, some of those who are glorified in Forcing the Spring were part of the Democratic and Republican administrations and establishments that exploited homophobia and the hot button of gay marriage for political advantage in the years before 2008. It was Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law; it was George W. Bush who embraced the Karl Rove stratagem of endorsing a Federal Marriage Amendment to prod the religious right to the polls in 2004. (His campaign chairman that year was Ken Mehlman, now a passionate and effective fighter for same-sex marriage, but then an equally effective operative for the Bush-Rove line.) This ugly part of the story is disappearing into the memory hole. But it was real, and it’s the harsh background against which Wolfson and others had to stage their fight. People are already forgetting just how lonely that fight was. One particular feature of the gay-civil-rights movement is that most gay people were invisible in America until fairly recently, hiding in the closet out of fear of losing their jobs, their rights, and their families. Their very existence was criminalized. With all due respect to those both gay and straight who have been fighting for gay rights in recent, more enlightened times — whether advocates, lawyers, politicians, or journalists — wiping out or whitewashing the history that came before is simply wrong. Some of the bravest heroes of the gay-civil-rights struggle in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer around to testify to what they accomplished against punishing odds.

Yesterday, the New York Times and Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey of registered voters in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina that found all of those states' Democratic Senate candidates polling better than expected. (The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, reviving 2012's "unskewed polls" movement, immediately claimed the results were rigged.) Should Democrats feel optimistic about their chances of retaining control of the Senate later this year?

As someone who has had little hope that Democrats could avoid another midterm “shellacking” this year, I want to believe these polls mean something. The fact that those on the right are questioning the numbers — much as they disputed the polls and assumed a Romney victory in 2012 — is even more encouraging. Indeed, a little latent GOP panic seems to be setting in. The Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy story on Wednesday calling attention to the fact that the supposedly endangered Democratic senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, is outdrawing her Republican challenger in corporate cash by a whopping margin, largely because she’s a reliable tool for Big Oil. (The PACs for Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP are all favoring Landrieu.) It also seems to be dawning on Republicans that Obamacare may be waning as an all-purpose issue for 2014 — not just because the law is taking hold and the number of enlistees is holding up, but also because polls show voters are just sick and tired of hearing about it. And indeed, aren’t we all? 

The Times published a story this week on the possibility that Hillary Clinton might choose a woman to be her running mate, noting "never has there been so much rising female talent in the Democratic Party." (Here's where we should probably note that Clinton has not even announced her own candidacy.) In an annotation accompanying your last New York essay, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said that Clinton's "embracing the idea of being the first woman to become president serves as both a sword and a shield." Do you think choosing another woman as a running mate would be a wise move? And would an all-female ticket prove even more impervious to GOP attacks?

As the Times pointed out, there are a lot of women stars in the Democratic party, from Elizabeth Warren (who has ruled out a 2016 presidential run) to Kirsten Gillibrand (who couldn’t run with Clinton, since the Constitution prohibits a ticket with both halves from the same state) to Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. I don’t happen to believe that an all-woman ticket is a political nonstarter. Those who recoil at a woman president will vote against Clinton even if her running mate is a guy from Duck Dynasty. Those who feel America is way overdue for female leadership at the highest level may be more energized about voting. And Republican politicians, who continue to be philosophically incapable of talking about women without being patronizing, insulting, or offensive, will have a 24/7 gaffe machine. To try to inoculate itself against such disasters, the GOP may have to recruit a woman for its own ticket. Assuming neither Palin nor Bachmann reenters the fray, this may be Ann Coulter’s big moment.