Forty years ago—November 27, 1978—Dan White assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk. In successfully unleashing the “Twinkie defense”—the contention that an overindulgence of sweets chemically coerced a good man into committing a bad act—White’s attorney distorted the jury’s understanding of why the former San Francisco supervisor snuck into City Hall through a window to kill two former colleagues. In the decades since that jury inexplicably convicted White of mere manslaughter, Milk’s advocates similarly distort public understanding of why Dan White committed homicide.
“Harvey Milk died because he was a Gay man,” Milk’s friend and fellow Bay Area Reporter writer Wayne Friday claimed in the immediate aftermath of the murders. “George Moscone died because he was a friend of Gay people—they can never convince me otherwise, and I will go to bed every night praying that their killer pays the full price.” When a court allowed White to pay less than that full price, angry activists chanted at City Hall, “Dan White, Dan White/Hit man for the New Right.”
Almost a decade ago, after Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” to President Barack Obama during a joint session of Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited Milk’s assassination as a warning against Republicans inciting unhinged individuals through their rhetoric. “I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw this, myself, in the late seventies in San Francisco,” a choked-up Pelosi explained. “This kind of rhetoric was very frightening, and it created a climate in which violence took place.”
All this smacks of non sequitur in the same way that Dan White claiming that sweets made him kill did. White, a San Francisco Democrat like Pelosi and his two murder victims, resembled neither a “New Right” figure nor a raging homophobe. Politically, he resembled Dianne Feinstein, who served as White’s mentor on the board of supervisors. On his first day in office, White engineered a coup of sorts that allowed the woman he admired to leapfrog over the board’s top Election Day vote-getter and into the board presidency. White successfully lobbied Feinstein, who had an antagonistic relationship with Milk, to appoint Milk to a committee chairmanship that he coveted. All these years later, Feinstein—not Bill Dannemeyer or Bob Dornan—possesses Dan White’s diary. The association between the two figures upends the narrative portraying White as a right-winger out to settle ideological scores.
White delivered the keynote address at the California Coalition for Handgun Control’s 1977 annual meeting. Like Feinstein, he supported gun control (he sometimes carried a firearm himself). As a supervisor, he voted for an aggressive affirmative-action policy that evaluated those in city management by how many minorities advanced under their leadership. On the board, the former cop and fireman essentially served as the representative of the city’s public-employees’ unions. When California’s Proposition 13, a tax-limitation measure backed by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, passed, White voted for tax increases to protect public employees from threatened cuts. Later, when those threats began to appear more like scare tactics, White voted to rescind the tax increases. The two votes illustrate White’s politics—not particularly ideological, and often inconsistent.
White’s stands on gay rights appear consistently inconsistent as well. The first person White hired in politics was a gay man, who served as his campaign manager and later his chief of staff and business partner. “That was never an issue,” Ray Sloan told me in an interview for Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. “In coordinating his campaign, I don’t think anyone knew or cared if I was gay. I neither hid it but I wasn’t out participating in any way that would say that. I sort of lived my own life. As time went on, it was clear that he knew. It just didn’t make any difference to him.”
Milk often joined White for coffee or lunch. Unlike other colleagues on the board, Milk attended the christening of White’s son. When Milk introduced the sole legislation authored by him to become law—a sensible ordinance requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets—White seconded it. But after Milk reversed his support for White’s efforts to keep a home for troubled youth from opening in his district, the troubled White reversed his support for a gay-rights measure important to Milk. Milk perhaps never saw White as an ally, but White clearly saw Milk as such, which led to feelings of betrayal.
During White’s brief time in politics, he sided with Milk on the most important issue involving gay rights. He endorsed “No” on Proposition 6, a ballot measure sponsored by California state senator John Briggs seeking to empower local school boards to fire openly gay teachers. White attended the largest gay-rights fundraiser in the history of U.S. politics at the time to mobilize support against Briggs, donating $100 to defeat the anti-gay measure.
About a week after Prop. 6 went down to defeat, White abruptly offered his resignation from the board of supervisors. Then the public employees who had worked hard to elect him let him know, at times angrily, that they objected to his sudden decision. Just as suddenly, the mercurial politician asked for his job back. Moscone initially welcomed White back on the board, but the mayor changed his mind after Milk lobbied him to seat someone else and encouraged political players in White’s district to jettison his attempt to regain his seat.
White felt betrayed. More important, he felt as though he had betrayed those loyal to him. A petty man nursing a petty grievance over a petty office murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“I know why Dan White killed Milk,” board colleague Quentin Kopp explained in an interview for Cult City. “Because Milk was lobbying Moscone not to weaken and not reappoint White to the board. That got around.” Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat who nevertheless disagreed with Kopp on much, agrees with him here. “This had nothing to do with anybody’s sexual orientation,” she reflected ten years ago. “It had to do with getting back his position.”
Towering figures who die for trifling reasons inspire alternative explanations for their deaths, and those explanations rarely mesh with the facts. Such is the case with the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
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