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Telling the stories behind the Supreme Court ‘gamble’ on same-sex marriage

April 30, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
“Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality,” follows the five-year legal battle over same sex marriage that ensued after California passed Proposition 8. The book digs beneath the surface with personal narratives of those who had been the public face of this major civil rights case. Jeffrey Brown talks to journalist and author Jo Becker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, tonight, a conversation about love and marriage and the law.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage, the latest turn in a long-running battle over the issue largely waged state by state.

It led to a high-profile five-year pursuit of a federal lawsuit to overthrow Prop 8 that ended in a major decision by the Supreme Court.

The story is told in the new book “Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality” by author Jo Becker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and, I have to add, long ago a young staff person here at the NewsHour.

So, welcome back.

JO BECKER, The New York Times: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, to go back to where this started for you, you clearly saw a big story developing in 2008. You managed to embed yourself with part of that effort. Tell us how it started.

JO BECKER: I wrote a story for The New York Times about Ted Olson, this guy that liberals love to hate, because he won Bush v. Gore for Bush, how he had come to embrace this cause.

And I was hooked. It was such an interesting group of characters. You had Rob Reiner, the movie director. You had Chad Griffin, a young kind of political operative, and the pairing up of these kind of super lawyers, Ted Olson and David Boies, who was his of course adversary in Bush v. Gore.

And mostly the plaintiffs, these four people who were willing to kind of put themselves out there, I wanted to know what does it feel like to kind of be kind of the face of in a major civil rights case?

JEFFREY BROWN: And the strategy which is part of much of what you write, the strategy they pursued was controversial even within the gay rights movement, right? Tell us how they decided to go for the federal lawsuit.

JO BECKER: At the time, there was a real feeling that the Supreme Court wasn’t ready, the country wasn’t ready.

And what all of the activities were pursuing instead this 10, 10, 10 strategy to have 30 states essentially with some form of marriage recognition before you went the federal route. This group thought it is time to do something different.

JEFFREY BROWN: The danger of course was that it could all backfire.

JO BECKER: It could be — it was a very — it was a gamble. It really was.

And a lot of the activists who had been working for years on this issue were extremely upset by it. There was a scene I describe in the book where they are called to the Reiners’ home in Brentwood, several of the lawyers who have been working on this case, on these issues, and they’re clueing them in: Hey, we’re thinking about doing this.

And it was like this cacophony of criticism, because not that they didn’t share the goal — they did share the goal, of course. But they were worried that they would take it all the way to the Supreme Court and they would lose. And that would just deal a terrible setback for the movement. That’s the fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: People waited to see what would happen with Barack Obama on this issue. And you describe that famous moment when it was Joe Biden who sort of forced his hand.

JO BECKER: Joe Biden, two weeks before he sort of made his famous gaffe, went on “Meet the Press,” and got out ahead of the president on this, he had been at the home of a gay couple, and outside playing with their kids.

And he had been asked this question in the privacy of this home, like, how do you feel about this issue? And a staffer told, it was like his hard drive got erased, being in that house, playing with those kids. He had been answering the question the same way, but suddenly he said something different.

And two weeks later, he told me that question and that episode was ringing sort of fresh in his mind. And he was — but — and he was asked on “Meet the Press,” and this time, he gave the same answer, but it was on national television.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did the president then feel, is it correct he felt forced to do something?

JO BECKER: Yes, he was — it forced the president’s hand.

It’s interesting. The president, everybody said, many of his aides said, urged him to take Biden to the woodshed. And he wouldn’t do it. And, in fact, the first lady, I report in this book, felt it was a blessing in disguise. She said to him that morning, you don’t have to dance around this issue anymore. You can go out and tell it — speak from your heart, tell what you really feel.

She said to him that morning at breakfast, enjoy this day. You are free.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about the reporting of a book like this. Here, you had incredible access for a long time to the plaintiff’s side.


So, basically, the only stipulation was that I did not — I wouldn’t write about this until after there was a resolution to the case, for obvious reasons. But I was in the war room, in the political war rooms where they plotted the kind of how to speak to the American public about — there was a huge public education campaign that went along with this.

I was there in those rooms, in the rooms while lawyers sort of talked over strategy, and with the plaintiffs in their homes. Every time they drove to court, I was in the van with them. And I try to tell their stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you are getting great reviews. You are also getting some real criticism and pushback from people especially in the gay community who think that you, by focusing so much on this case and this — these years, you exaggerate the contributions of some of the protagonists, you sort of ignore the past history that led up to it.

JO BECKER: You know, I am getting some criticism in some quarters.

Look, this book was never meant to be a history of the gay rights movement. That — wonderful books have been done on that. It wasn’t even meant to be a history of the marriage equality movement. It was — we didn’t sell it that way. We didn’t bill it that way.

This is a — The New York Times, as well as The Washington Post, has given this great reviews, as have others. And what they say is, it’s a stunningly intimate portrait. I tried to take you inside, let you feel what it’s like to be the judge who himself is gay and listening to this evidence, what it’s like to be the plaintiffs getting threatening phone calls.

But ultimately what I really wanted to tell is what it’s like to feel like you want something, as Kris Perry testified, you want something that everybody else has and you — and be told, no, you can’t have it. That’s a story actually that was so moving, that the guy who fought them all the way to the Supreme Court, the lawyer on the other side, Charles Cooper, said after watching them over these four-and-half years, when he finally saw them get married on television, he told me that he couldn’t help but rejoice from their happiness.

I mean, wow, what a story. I think it’s a great story. I hope people will read it.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The book is “Forcing the Spring.”

Jo Becker, thanks so much.

JO BECKER: Thanks for having me.