Remembrances

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tomorrow is the anniversary of a grim day in San Francisco. Here's how we learned the news 30 years ago.

(Soundbite of announcement, San Francisco City Hall, November 27, 1978)

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California; Former Mayor, San Francisco, California; Former President, San Francisco Board of Supervisors): Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Unidentified Man: Jesus Christ!

INSKEEP: That was Dianne Feinstein, then head of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and now a U.S. Senator from California. Thirty years later, the murders of Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk have inspired a movie. And in San Francisco, the legacy of that day runs deep. This morning we have a look back from a Bay Area native, NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES: San Francisco was already on edge over the mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, from the previous week. Jim Jones' cult was based in the Bay Area and most of the victims were from here, but no one could have imagined the tragedy that was about to unfold at City Hall.

(Soundbite of police two-way radio conversation, November 27, 1978)

Unidentified Police Officer #1: Code 3, room 200. I'm in the mayor's office.

Unidentified Police Officer #2: What's going on there?

Unidentified Police Officer #1: We don't know yet. Somebody's been shot.

GONZALES: George Moscone, the most liberal mayor in the citiy's history, was gunned down in his private office. On the other side of City Hall, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, Supervisor Harvey Milk, was also murdered, and the killer was someone everyone knew.

(Soundbite of police two-way radio conversation, November 27, 1978)

Unidentified Police Officer #3: Attention all units, suspect named Dan White. Considered armed and dangerous.

GONZALES: Dan White wasn't just another crazy man with a gun. At age 32, he was a Vietnam vet and ex-cop who'd become one of San Francisco's youngest elected officials. On the cities Board of Supervisors, White represented a working-class district where many felt under siege by the rising power of women, minorities, and gays. But White wasn't made for politics, especially the new kind, says author Mike Weiss, who wrote a book about the Moscone-Milk killings.

Mr. MIKE WEISS (Author, "Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings"): He was incredibly naïve. And this is, to me, at the very root of the tragedy that occurred at City Hall. And he knew nothing about politics. And so he was defeated in City Hall again and again and again. And the engines of his defeat included George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and their allies in the liberal wing of the city Democratic Party.

GONZALES: Dan White was out of sync with a city that had also elected the first Chinese-American and the first African-American woman to the Board of Supervisors. After less than a year in office, he abruptly resigned, saying he couldn't support his family on a supervisor's part-time salary. But conservative downtown business interests wanted White back in. They pressured him into pleading with Mayor Moscone to reappoint him. At first Moscone said he would. Then the Mayor had second thoughts. Judge Quentin Kopp, who served on the board with White, remembers the politics of the time.

Judge QUENTIN KOPP (Politician; Retired Judge): Dan White's resignation was a gift, politically, to George Moscone because now he could replace him with someone nobody had heard of, but it would be a sure thing vote for George Moscone. And that gave him six votes out of 11 on the Board of Supervisors.

GONZALES: On November 27, 1978, Dan White knew Moscone was about to appoint someone else. That morning he carried a snub-nose .38-caliber pistol and crawled through a basement window at City Hall to avoid metal detectors. He confronted the mayor in his office and shot him four times. White then headed toward the office of Harvey Milk, who he believed was involved in a conspiracy with Moscone.

(Soundbite of 1983 KQED-TV documentary)

Senator FEINSTEIN: And I said, Dan. And he didn't stop.

GONZALES: Dianne Feinstein saw White in the hallway. At the time, Feinstein headed the Board of Supervisors. She later told San Francisco's KQED-TV about seeing White, not knowing he'd just killed the mayor.

(Soundbite of 1983 KQED-TV documentary)

Senator FEINSTEIN: And he went two offices down, I heard the door close, and then I heard the shots. And I was the first one into the office where Harvey Milk was on his stomach on the floor. I knew that he was dead.

GONZALES: Dan White was soon in custody, but the real drama came during his trial. White's attorney said he was zoned out because of depression. A symptom was White's steady diet of junk food. The press dubbed it "the Twinkie defense" and the prosecution, believing it had an open and shut case, played a tape of Dan White's confession.

(Soundbite of Dan White's confession)

Mr. DAN WHITE: I was troubled. The pressure. My son's out to a babysitter. My wife's got to work.

GONZALES: But the strategy backfired. The confession won the jury sympathy. They found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, not murder.

(Soundbite of protest)

GONZALES: San Francisco's gay community exploded in anger and marched in what's known as the White Night Riot. In spite of the outrage, White served just five years in prison. Two years after he was out, he killed himself. Year's later city politics still reflected the trauma of White's actions, and Dianne Feinstein emerged as a political star. She'd already run for mayor twice and lost, but after Moscone's murder she inherited the Mayor's chair and led the city in a more conservative direction as she became the calming force in San Francisco's tragedy. Today the entrance to the mayor's office in City Hall is flanked by busts of Feinstein and Moscone.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco, California): So it's impossible to go to work, it's impossible to do your job, without being reminded of the tragedy of 30 years ago.

GONZALES: San Francisco's current mayor, Gavin Newsom, was just 11 years old back in 1978. His office looks the same today as it did three decades ago.

Mayor NEWSOM: Same door that Dan White walked into, same door in the back that Dan White walked out of after gunning down and assassinating Mayor Moscone - literally just a few feet away from where we're standing.

GONZALES: Newsom sees some parallels to those days. Thirty years ago Harvey Milk led the successful fight against Proposition 6, a measure that would have barred gays from teaching in California schools. It reminds Newsom of his fight now against the newly passed Proposition 8, which denies gays the right to marry.

Mayor NEWSOM: There's been a lot of advancements, but we're still not there. You know, I think it's pretty damning that 30 years later we would still be talking about full equality for the gay and lesbian community.

GONZALES: Other San Franciscans are likely to think about how much their city has changed as a new movie about Harvey Milk opens this week. There's no question the gay community was ultimately energized by Milk's death. But with all the spotlight on Milk's legacy, author Mike Weiss worries history may have forgotten George Moscone.

Mr. WEISS: Because Harvey was victimized and became a martyr for a cause, he's been remembered and very appropriately so. I mean, he was a pioneering politician, there's no question about that. And you know, mayors just aren't very well-known outside their own cities. So, you know, George has about what mayor's get. He has the convention center and a playground named after him.

GONZALES: Weiss says George Moscone embraced diversity at a time when it was rare and helped create the city that many now take for granted. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: To hear a 1978 interview with Mayor George Moscone months before he was gunned down, go to npr.org.

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