In Remembering Milk, Let's Not Forget Moscone Josh Getlin served as deputy press secretary and speech writer for San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was killed on the same day as gay activist Harvey Milk. Getlin says it's important to remember that two people were murdered that day in San Francisco in 1978.
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In Remembering Milk, Let's Not Forget Moscone

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In Remembering Milk, Let's Not Forget Moscone

In Remembering Milk, Let's Not Forget Moscone

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later this week, a new movie called "Milk" opens around the country. It stars Sean Penn who plays San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in this country who was murdered 30 years ago this week. Since then, Harvey Milk has become a martyr to gay rights, remembered in books and documentaries as well as this new feature film. And his killer former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White also earned a place in the history books. But, in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, Josh Getlin argues we also need to remember the other man murdered that day George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco. Getlin was deputy press secretary and speech writer for George Moscone and was at his desk in they city hall when the shooting happened there three decades ago. If you were in San Francisco that day, if you remember that murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is And, you can also join the conversation by going to our website at and clicking on Talk of the Nation. Josh Getlin joins us now from our bureau in New York, and thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. JOSH GETLIN (Deputy Press Secretary and Speech Writer for George Moscone): Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you remind us in your piece that Dan White had resigned his position as San Francisco supervisor, that's a position equivalent to the city councilman. And that Mayor Moscone was about to announce his replacement when White appeared in front of your desk that morning.

Mr. GETLIN: Yes. He was walking down the hallway. This was an unexpected visit. He demanded a meeting in private with the mayor. This also was unexpected. And, as he made his way down the hallway, he passed right by my desk. Our eyes locked and it was very disconcerting to think that he was there at all. He was about to be replaced on the board and no one certainly had any idea what was going to happen next.

CONAN: And what did happen next?

Mr. GETLIN: Well, White demanded to meet with the mayor. He was given that private meeting. They went into the mayor's private back office and when the mayor's back was turned White pulled out a loaded .38 revolver, and he shot the mayor four times. Then, standing astride the body he reloaded the gun, walked across a long corridor at the city hall, and demanded a similar meeting with Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay elected supervisor. And when White gave him that private meeting, he did the same thing - he pulled out the gun, he shot Milk five times, killed him as well. And then fled the building. He surrendered to the police later, and sadly in what many people thought was a farce of a trial, he was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter and served just about five years in prison for murdering two defenseless public officials.

CONAN: Later committed suicide, I guess, a couple of years after he was released. That day, though, what was your experience? Did you hear the gunshots?

Mr. GETLIN: Well, it's interesting. I remember thinking as he went back into mayor's office that this was one very strange meeting. It certainly wasn't scheduled. It was unusual to say the least. And at point, right after the meeting commenced, I heard what I thought were the sounds of a car back firing in the street or maybe some crackpot with a firecracker. It didn't sink in much at the time. I was busy actually working on a press release announcing the person whom the mayor was going to replace Dan White with. And, it was only minutes later after the first shooting took place and the mayor's budget director discovered the body that we learned what had happened to the mayor we loved so very much.

CONAN: And what was it like to have to work that day?

Mr. GETLIN: Well, it was impossible, especially since I was in the press office at the time with the press secretary. You had to be very busy. You didn't have any time to really think or reflect on the horrible thing which had happened. A phone began ringing and although initially I was just almost physically incapable of picking it up and talking, pretty soon you had to do that. We were getting phone calls from all over the world. There was pandemonium. Police swarmed into the mayor's office. And as a matter of fact, we were so sealed off from the outside world that I think it was only several hours after that that some of us even learned that Harvey Milk had also been shot. It was a very traumatic upsetting event then. It continues to be that years later. It's really not the kind of thing you ever get over.

CONAN: No, I can understand that. In retrospect, I have to apologize. I was one of the reporters calling you that day. I happened to be on vacation at my sister's house in San Francisco, and I got a call and was assigned to the story. So, it was a disconcerting day for an awful lot of people because nobody understood what was going on. And the idea, as we learned shortly thereafter, that a former supervisor, a retired policeman was the person who had done it. It just seemed incomprehensible.

Mr. GETLIN: Well, it did. Although, for those of us watching this unfold behind the scenes, we knew that Dan White was an unstable personality to say the least. He was truly ill suited for the give and take of politics. He was highly emotional, very dogmatic. He nursed a lot of resentment and grievances which is really not the kind of thing you do to succeed in the political life. And he had resigned his job 17 days before - very abruptly - saying that he couldn't make ends meet on the $9,600 a year supervisor's salary. Then, he demanded it back. He was under tremendous pressure from the police department to get that job back, because Dan White actually represented the sixth vote on an 11-member board of supervisors. And, once Moscone had the opportunity to replace him he would finally have a working majority which was something he felt was crucially important for his agenda. Dan White suddenly demanded the job back. The mayor refused to give it to him and the rest, as we say, is a very terrible history.

CONAN: We're talking with Josh Getlin, deputy press secretary and speech writer for the former mayor of San Francisco, the late George Moscone murdered 30 years ago this week. And let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Anne joins us from Sacramento.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. I was a first year grad student at San Francisco State, and I happen to be working downstairs in the mayor's office when he was killed. And it's a day I'll never forget - hearing the gunshots in his office and then at the other end when the supervisor was killed, and we were just all standing around. We knew what had happened, and all came out under the rotunda when Dianne came out and told us, and it's just something that you just always remember. As you can tell I'm still upset 30 years later, you know, and it wasn't that long after that Jonestown happened. I mean, it was just all at the same time. So, you could imagine the city was just in enormous mourning.

CONAN: Dianne, you referred to was of course, Dianne Feinstein.

ANNE: Dianne Feinstein...


ANNE: Who was president of the board at the time. And all the politics around Dan White and leaving the board and coming back on. You know, everything was a different world then. His district was not supportive at all of Harvey Milk, and the mayor had the deal that Harvey Milk was making - no doubt replacing Dan White in the Excelsior District. I mean, it was such a different world in politics then.

CONAN: Josh Getlin, you write your piece that, in fact, Mayor Moscone was the first inclusive mayor of San Francisco. And, as he tried to bring in people who had been historically denied the opportunity and representation in city hall that this didn't sit well with some people.

Mr. GETLIN: No, it's true. The city was pretty bitterly divided in many ways politically and culturally at the time. George was a mayor who understood that the city was changing and needed to change. He represented a whole bunch of constituencies of people who had been essentially excluded and marginalized when it came to local government. And when he came in after his election, he essentially opened up the doors at city hall to blacks and Latinos, gays, Asians, women, neighborhood activists - a whole group of people who had not really been properly represented in the city hall matrix before and now suddenly were. There were people who applauded him as a man who welcomed and really embraced change, which is what he was, and that's his real legacy, that's how he needs to be remembered. But there were San Franciscans who were greatly upset by these changes that the city had been run by a very tight-knit collision of old line democratic leaders, labor bosses, downtown business people, and they were none too happy with the changes that George Moscone brought into San Francisco. That led to an awful lot of friction and it was a very, very divisive time in that sense.

CONAN: And it hardly seems possible that it was 30 years ago.

Mr. GETLIN: It seems unreal that it was 30 years ago. But you know, if you live through something like that and you lose someone who was not just a great mayor and a decent boss but a good friend, it's a painful wound that never really heals.

CONAN: Anne, what about you?

ANNE: He represented for me an enormous possibility. I was pretty young when Bobby Kennedy was killed - really just beginning my sort of political awareness - and George was for me - even if sort of in my eyes, the possibility of a new way and for a community to see itself take care of it.

CONAN: Anne, thank you very much for the call and for sharing your story.

ANNE: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Josh Getlin who was in the city hall in San Francisco as a deputy press secretary and speech writer when Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered 30 years ago this week. You're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And Patricia is on the line. Patricia calling from Marine County in California. PATRICIA (Caller): Hi. This is wonderful that you're having this discussion. I was here in the Bay Area, in San Francisco area, when that happened, and I think one of the most wonderful things that came out of this tragedy - this terrible loss of these two people - was that it really brought out and galvanized the support of the gay community and the support of a lot of other causes of people - diverse backgrounds - in a way that we hadn't seen in the Bay Area, not in that respect. It was just - ultimately, it came out to be a positive thing, a silver lining on a dark cloud. And, I think that Dianne Feinstein being able to be the mayor, it was an incredible moment. And here she is all these years later, such a wonderful person in the Senate. So there were good things that came out of the darkness.

CONAN: An awfully stiff price to pay, though.

PATRICIA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: A very high price to pay for that.

PATRICIA: Terribly high price. But, you know, life is tough and, you know, we have to go with the way it goes, and it was a sad moment. It was a terrifying moment especially as I grew up, you know, with having gone through the 60s and three assassinations of incredible people and then to have this happen was a just another huge dark mark on the board. But, good things can rise out of darkness.

CONAN: Patricia, thanks very much.

PATRICIA: Thank you.

CONAN: And she indirectly, and other people directly, have referenced the fact that this followed right on the hills of the Jonestown massacre. Of course this is the Reverend James Jones and the awful thing that happened in Guyana and both Congressman Ryan who died there and many of the people at the People's Temple were from San Francisco in the Bay Area.

Mr. GETLIN: Yes, that's right. It was a very difficult time for the city. I was with the mayor the morning he learned that Leo Ryan had been killed in Guyana, and we were just beginning to come to grips with the enormity of what had happened out there. There was a sense of paranoia in the streets at that point, because there were fears that the people's Temple had a hit list out for a number of politicians in San Francisco and elsewhere. The fear was palpable, and it was a very dark day. I remember that Monday - rainy and chilly. And I traveled with George, he just kept talking over and over again how senseless and unbelievably needless these deaths had been, and it's just hard to believe that a week later we had an even greater tragedy in our own front yard here in San Francisco that was again something staggering and impossible to believe.

CONAN: Let's get Darryl on the line. Darryl with us from Portland, Oregon.

DARRYL (Caller): Yes. I was living in the city during the 70s. And I remember those three events like it just happened five minutes ago. And, I was beginning to feel like time was ready for me to move on. And those events were like the knockout punch. And, the thing that really stood out was the moral candlelight service at the city hall and Joan Baez singing. And it was a really moving time, a gathering of spirits, of sorrow, of grieving and a healing service. And from there I walked on to the train and took the train up here to Portland. And, I said I'm leaving. And, I went back and resigned a month later from my position at the hospital, and I've been here ever since, and I'll never forget that time. It was just traumatic - walking around like zombies and unbelievable that this could happen.

CONAN: Darryl, thanks very much.

DARRYL: You're welcome. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We just have a couple of minutes left but Josh Getlin, we will see the movie "Milk" when it comes out later this week. You asked in your op-ed that we should also remember George Moscone, a man remembered by many today just as a name on a convention center in San Francisco.

Mr. GETLIN: Yes, and the reality is that George Moscone's legacy in San Francisco was quite profound and it should not be forgotten. As I said, he is the man who opened up the doors of the city hall to a great many people. He laid the ground work for the kind of San Francisco dynamic that we still have 30 years later. He was really at the center of events that day, November 27, 1978. He was the main reason Dan White came to the city hall, and his loss was a major loss for San Francisco. I think that when you look back on varying personalities, Harvey Milk and Dan White are both very provocative and vivid characters but George Moscone was the mayor of all San Franciscans. He tried to bring about change that was necessary and brokering change is not easy for any politician. It's a very messy business. He tried to do it as best as he could. He was a very kind and decent and compassionate man. And, he's missed a great deal.

CONAN: Josh Getlin, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. GETLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Josh Getlin, deputy press secretary and speech writer for San Francisco Mayor George Moscone at the time of his murder 30 years ago this week. He joined us from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to Josh Getlin's memories of George Moscone and Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times in which Senator Dianne Feinstein discusses her experiences at the shootings on our blog at Tomorrow, a timely look at the latest rash of scams and cons going around amidst the financial crisis. Plus, what's behind the recent vampire mania. Join us then. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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