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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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The Odd Couple Fighting For Marriage Equality

 Above the Fold

    David Boies and Theodore Olson came to The New York Times headquarters in Manhattan this week to discuss the constitutional challenge they have brought against California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed marriage equality in that state at the end of 2008, after 18,000 same-sex couples had been married there.

    The left-leaning litigator and the right-leaning appellate lawyer, who squared off against each other in Bush v. Gore back in 2000, now seem like old acquaintances who suddenly realized how much they liked each other when they reached late middle age.  

    When they first announced their federal suit nine months ago, with the clear intention of litigating it all the way to the Supreme Court, they caused a quiet uproar within the gay legal establishment, which had made a collective decision to keep the marriage issue out of the federal appellate courts, at least until there was a greater national consensus in favor of marriage equality, or another conservative justice was replaced by an Obama appointee--or both.

    Some people were so skeptical of what seemed like Olson’s very sudden conversion to a left-wing position, they accused him of purposely trying to undermine the fight for marriage equality by pressing the case in Federal Court prematurely.  But Olson’s moving public declarations in favor of same-sex marriage--as well as his brilliant performance at trial before Federal Judge Vaughn Walker--gradually obliterated the doubts about his sincerity.

    New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak was a superb moderator at the Times confab, and he went straight to the controversy over the timing of the lawsuit. 

   Why now? asked Liptak.

   “You never know exactly what the right time is,” David Boies replied.  “But there were three things that made us think this was the right time:”

* We have clients who want to get married

* I think it’s very hard to sustain Prop 8 on any legal basis

* This suit was going to be brought by someone, somewhere, and we thought it was best to bring it with the best possible resources (which included at least thirty lawyers and assorted support staff from the firms of Boies and Olson).

    After the initial shock of the gay legal establishment, it gradually decided to embrace the Boies-Olson effort--and it ended up supplying many of the expert witnesses who helped the lawyers build such a brilliant record at trial.

    The lead lawyer on the other side of the case was Charles Cooper, with whom Olson had actually served in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department.  Judge Walker had repeatedly asked Cooper exactly what damage would be done to the institution of marriage by allowing same-sex couples to marry, and Cooper persistently avoided answering.  Finally, Cooper conceded, “I don’t know”--and Olson clearly viewed that as an important turning point in the trial.  Judge Walker's decision in the case is expected sometime later this year.  From there the case will go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and then, almost certainly, to the highest court in the land.

   The most unlikely fact about this case so far: according to a report last month in the San Francisco Chronicle, Judge Walker, a Republican appointee of President Geoge H.W. Bush, is gay.

    The first action the Supreme Court took in this case was to deny the trial judge’s request to allow the proceedings to be televised--by a 5 to 4 vote.  But Boies and Olson insisted it was a mistake to see that vote as predictive of the final outcome of the case.  They believe the Justices were merely reaffirming their longstanding opposition to cameras in their courtroom under any circumstances, and they were not about to establish any precedent that might undermine their determination to keep things that way--forever.

    To skeptics who can’t see how this particular Supreme Court could ever endorse same-sex marriage, Olson emphasized that the Court had repeatedly held marriage to be “the most fundamental right of associational freedom”--a right which applies to everyone, including even prisoners who have no chance of ever living with their spouses.

    What was even more remarkable than the spectacle of a Reagan appointee making a full-throated defense of marriage equality was the atmosphere in which this confab took place.  Most of those present were gay and lesbian New Yorkers invited to the event.  But in the third row sat New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. , and six rows behind him was Andy Rosenthal, the editor of the Times editorial page.

    Thirty years ago, their fathers, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger and Abe Rosenthal, were running this newspaper, and they shared such antipathy for homosexuals that gay employees of the newspaper believed that their careers depended on keeping their sexual orientations a secret.

    But as the younger Sulzberger began his ascension through the paper’s corporate ranks, he did a  remarkable thing: he made it clear to every single person who worked for him that he would not tolerate an iota of prejudice based on sexual orientation. 

   Practically overnight, he transformed what had been a relentlessly homophobic place into one of the most gay-friendly institutions in the world.  

    And when Sulzberger went against his father’s wishes and started publishing same-sex wedding announcements in the newspaper in 2002, he did at least as much as any state legislature could to legitimize the idea of marriage equality.

    Not at all coincidentally, Andy Rosenthal’s editorial page has published more brilliant editorials in defense of equal rights for gay people than any other editorial page in the world.

    What a difference a new generation can make!

    The Times photographer for this week’s event was Sara Krulwich, a founding member of the New York Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.  In the audience sat Krulwich’s partner, Lynn Paltrow, and their 17-year-old twins, Allen and Samantha.

    Adam Liptak called on Allen Paltrow-Krulwich to ask the final question, and the senior at The Bronx High School of Science, who is also vice president of the school’s Speech & Debate Team, highlighted another difference between the generations.

    “My name is Allen and my two moms are here,” he said.  “And we have a split in our family--they’re skeptical about bringing this case right now.  But I don’t agree with them.  I personally think that even the worst case scenario leaves all the [other] political strategies in place” to advance the cause of gay marriage.

    David Boies said it was a “great question,” and he agreed with Allen enthusiastically that even a defeat at the Supreme Court would do nothing to undermine the other strategies for equality.

    If indeed that worst-case scenario should come to pass, and this Supreme Court rules against marriage equality--and assuming that Allen Paltrow-Krulwich decides to go to law school--look for him to be the lead lawyer on the next marriage equality case which reaches the top Court, perhaps twenty years from now.

    That case will surely culminate in the next great judicial victory for gay Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

    That eventual outcome is certain, because every new generation of Americans is dramatically more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it.

    In our time, that is especially true, because of the example of families like Sara and Lynn and Samantha and Allen.




For the best guess about what will happen next in this case, see the typically brilliant analysis of ACLU LGBT Project Director Matt Coles.

The Boies-Olsen team introduced this anti-gay marriage ad made by the National Organization for Marriage, because they believed it made their opponents' position look so ridiculous.

The ad's most important effect was to inspire Stephen Colbert to do his own version: the single best piece of satire of 2009.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations

Boies and Olson previously debated the prospects for marriage equality with Bill Moyers. Read the transcript of that program here.


Yes, attitudes have changed at the Times vis-a-vis gays and same-sex marriage. But those changes slowly evolved. I recall being astonished by the review of Bruce Bawer's "A Place at the Table," a polemic for gay marriage, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, in the December 12, 1993, Book Review. Ms. Steinfels concluded her otherwise intelligent critique of Bawer's argument in favor of same-sex marriage with the mind-numbing assertion that "society has a legitimate interest in privileging those heterosexual unions that are oriented toward the generation and rearing of children." Steinfels was the editor of something called Commonweal Magazine--I think it's a Vatican rag--so Bawer's advocacy of same-sex marriage undoubtedly challenged her core beliefs. Unsurprisingly, said Steinfels is married to Peter Steinfels, who writes the Beliefs column for the Times; but Peter Steinfels has argued for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church and is, therefore, an advocate of radical reinterpretation of church doctrine. It is perplexing, to say the least, that la Steinfels would argue that a couple who married in their sixties, say, would have a lesser marriage than any younger couple who had progeny, or that couples who adopt children are somehow lesser parents. Let us assume, generously, that she was merely reporting what she believed to be a "widely held conviction," yet the fact remains that she did not challenge it--in fact, seemed to think it not only widely held but also unassailable. Her view of same-sex marriage appeared a year after the younger Sulzberger was named publisher but some years before he was elevated to chairman of the board, and, as you correctly point out, there has been a sea-change since then. Steinfels's dopey argument has stuck in my craw all these years--an utterly irrational sentiment trotted out as a fundamental truth--and I am grateful for this opportunity finally to spit it out.


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