Death & Politics : 15 years ago, the killings of George Moscone and Harvey Milk shocked San Francisco. But they also foreshadowed a nation in crisis.


The killings took only a few seconds. Two bullets to the head apiece and five to the bodies. Neither victim had a chance.

On a cool November morning in 1978, Dan White strapped on a gun, slipped into City Hall and assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. It was an act of personal and political vengeance that shocked the nation and plunged San Francisco into a tailspin from which it has taken years to recover.

Just nine days before, 912 members of the city’s People’s Temple died in the jungles of Guyana. A town already reeling from tragedy had now lost its liberal mayor along with Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official. There were no apologies from White, a brooding ex-cop who quit his job on the Board of Supervisors and erupted when he couldn’t get it back. As the year ended, a low-level hysteria blanketed San Francisco like fog sweeping in over the bay. The city that had so often boasted of its tolerance and civility seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown.


“Suddenly, you had a sense that San Francisco was not the fabled city it once had been,” says Duffy Jennings, a public relations consultant and a City Hall reporter during the Moscone era. “The magic began to wear off, because this crime tore the city’s heart out. We were laid bare.”

Now, as the 15th anniversary approaches, the Nov. 27 assassinations may strike some as distant and dated, the kind of crazy thing that always seemed to happen in a community buffeted by political violence in the 1960s and ‘70s. “Kook Central,” some called it--home of the Zebra and Zodiac serial killers, cult leaders like the Rev. Jim Jones and the Patty Hearst kidnaping.

Yet the bloody event that rocked City Hall is more than a historical footnote. Beyond the personal tragedy and political carnage, it is a cautionary tale about change and diversity in late 20th-Century America, a grim foreshadowing of problems that plagued a city in the ‘70s but now engulf a nation.

Are we swamped with senseless, random violence in our streets, homes and schools? San Francisco experienced one of the earliest workplace slayings: An unstable, disgruntled person stormed into a public place and killed unsuspecting people with a gun that was easily obtained and concealed.

Is America anguishing over gays in the military? The City by the Bay grappled with a similar controversy in 1977, when Milk was elected to office. San Francisco was the first U. S. city to confront the explosive issue of gays winning and wielding real political power. In an age of televised law and order, many Americans are shocked that public acts of violence do not always lead to harsh criminal penalties, as in the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beating trials.

Yet San Francisco had its own version 14 years ago, when White admitted killing two public officials in cold blood but was convicted only of manslaughter, serving just more than five years in prison. In a novel defense, his attorneys claimed that White had acted in a “diminished capacity,” brought on by heavy consumption of junk foods. Outraged, California legislators moved to restrict such tactics in future homicide trials.

The most important legacy, however, turns on a lesson as old as civilization itself.

At the time, San Francisco was undergoing a sweeping upheaval: Italian and Irish powerbrokers who had run the city for decades were losing clout, while newcomers--gays, neighborhood activists and ethnic immigrants--seized control. Two worlds on a collision course. For some, White’s rage symbolized a dying order.

When he killed himself two years after his release from prison, the assassin seemed to close the book on the tragedies he had unleashed. But to this day, San Franciscans still debate his actions. Was he simply a deranged man with a gun? Or did he symbolize a conservative, blue-collar class provoked and humiliated by rapid urban change?

“We’re going through many of these same tensions in America now,” says Mimi Silbert, president of Delancey Street Foundation, a drug-rehabilitation institute in San Francisco.

“Change is necessary. But it’s also messy. We have to find better ways of communicating before more people like George and Harvey die in the same senseless way.”


For many in San Francisco, the killings of Moscone and Milk were traumatic events similar to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The shock, of course, was especially acute in the Moscone family, where the 49-year-old mayor left behind a widow, Gina, and four children.

Yet, one gunman also breathed new life into careers that seemed dead and changed a city’s course.

At the time, Dianne Feinstein was president of the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s equivalent of a city council. Earlier on the morning of the killings, she had told several reporters that she was quitting politics after two unsuccessful attempts to become mayor. But in the chaotic aftermath, Feinstein served the remainder of Moscone’s term and went on to win two more mayoral elections.

“Dianne Feinstein’s career was resurrected by the assassination of George Moscone,” Assembly Speaker Willie Brown says. “Her career was on the down slide and probably would have continued on the down slide. . . . You might say she would not be a U. S. Senator now had it not occurred.”

Feinstein acknowledges the role that the tragedy has played in her career, noting that “although I had wanted to be mayor, this is not the way I wanted to get there. It was a very, very hard thing.”

The link continued in her future campaigns. Indeed, Feinstein’s 1992 Senate primary bid utilized a TV spot with footage of her announcing Moscone’s and Milk’s deaths--an image of toughness and control that contributed to her victory, according to many political experts.

Once she was mayor, however, Feinstein steered the city away from Moscone’s liberal course, and the progressive coalition that once governed San Francisco began to erode. Gay power grew in the city, but it had always been a separate political phenomenon. As the 1980s began, left-of-center activists, who had gained influence under Moscone, were losing clout.

In 1991, voters dumped unpopular Democratic mayor Art Agnos, and elected Frank Jordan, a conservative former police chief. The disarray on the left--and a leadership void--continues.

“The left is scrambling now,” Brown says. “They have no spokesperson. They haven’t been able to sustain the electability of any of their own.”

Feinstein defends her centrist politics, saying the city was exhausted by partisan strife: “We went through rapid change and upheaval back in the ‘70s, and the city needed to get back on a moderate course. There was fear and apprehension after the killings, and no San Franciscan can forget them.”


Yet many have.

The passage of time and demographic shifts have reduced the number of people here who remember the murders.

Many longtime residents have left, replaced by a transient population of immigrants and young professionals. In 1960, according to census data, the city of 740,000 was 18% nonwhite. Three decades later, the number increased to 53%. Between 1980 and 1990, the Anglo population dropped 7%, while Asians grew by 43% and Latinos by 20%.

Shortly after the mayor was killed, the city renamed a Marina playground in his honor. But on a sunny afternoon in Moscone Park, present-day San Franciscans give surprising answers when asked about the assassinations.

“Moscone . . . isn’t he the mayor?” asks one of three young lawyers standing by a tennis court. “No, come on, you’ve got it wrong, Moscone is the mayor who was killed by Dan Milk,” answers his friend. “You’re both wrong,” says the third man. “It was the mayor who killed Dan Milk.”

Dick Pabich, a top aide to Harvey Milk who has watched San Francisco politics evolve since the killings, shakes his head at many of the changes. In some cases, he says, young gays who have recently moved to the city know little or nothing about the slain gay supervisor.

“It’s amazing, but the voter rolls say it all,” Pabich says with a sigh. “I recently saw a statistic that more than 70% of the people now registered to vote in San Francisco didn’t live here at the time of the killings. So, despite all the attention Harvey’s gotten, the picture can get muddled.”

In the years following his murder, Milk became a patron saint of the gay rights movement. A controversial figure among gays while alive, he was embraced by his rivals in death. The legend grew after the 1982 publication of “The Mayor of Castro Street,” a much-praised biography by Randy Shilts, and the 1984 release of an Oscar-winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

Today, gays are plugged into San Francisco’s mainstream in a way that would have seemed improbable when Milk was alive. The evidence is everywhere, but perhaps best symbolized by the civic center police station where Dan White surrendered hours after his killing spree. Then called Northern Station, it’s now the Harvey Milk Children’s Center.

Every year, a candlelight march commemorates the assassinations on the Nov. 27 anniversary, beginning in the predominantly gay Castro Street district and ending in front of City Hall. It’s a festive occasion, with effusive tributes to Milk’s martyrdom and brief but respectful acknowledgments of Moscone.


That may be the greatest irony of the killings. There’s little recollection of the mayor who was truly at the center of events that fateful day in 1978. And with the passage of years, some key political facts have been overlooked.

The most important is that Moscone was White’s main target. The assassin went gunning for the man who refused to reappoint him to the Board of Supervisors post he had quit 17 days before. He visited Milk only after the mayor was dead.

Second, Pabich and others suggest, Milk wasn’t killed because he was gay--a belief that has fueled his legend and martyrdom. He was shot because White learned that Milk had actively lobbied the mayor against his reinstatement.

In the confusion, says Corey Busch, the late mayor’s press secretary, the life of a significant California politician has faded from view:

“All that George stood for as a person and as a politician has been lost in the singular way that he died. It’s been one of the most unsettling things to me over the past 15 years . . . something that history books need to correct.”

Although he served less than three years, Moscone left a lasting imprint on San Francisco politics. Long before the words diversity and multiculturalism became fashionable, Moscone changed the way the city did business, appointing large numbers of minorities, neighborhood activists, women, gays and others disenfranchised to boards and commissions.

“We in the African American community always had allies at City Hall before Moscone,” says Cecil Williams, minister of Liberation at Glide United Methodist Church. “But with George we had a partner. A real battler.”

Moscone drew political heat for his agenda and fought off a nasty recall campaign midway through his four-year term. Critics labeled him weak and vacillating, and many police officers detested him for appointing a liberal outsider, Charles Gain, as the new chief.

A more cautious official might have moved slowly in a bitterly divided city. But the mayor had been elected by a liberal coalition, and his voters--some flexing political muscles for the first time--demanded change.

A genial, outgoing man with a rich sense of humor, Moscone served for 10 years as the state Senate majority leader before winning the mayor’s seat in 1975. In Sacramento, he helped create California’s school lunch program, pass laws that decriminalized sexual behavior between consenting adults and reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

Born in San Francisco, Moscone came from a conservative Italian neighborhood and his evolution as a liberal was surprising, says Assemblyman John Burton, the mayor’s best friend. Along with Burton, his brother Phil and Willie Brown, Moscone formed a coalition that dominated city politics for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“We went through the same thing that people did with (Franklin D.) Roosevelt, when they viewed him as a traitor to his class,” Burton recalls. “George and I came from the city. We came from the playgrounds. We came from the bars.

“All of a sudden, people from the old neighborhoods said, ‘What are these guys doing being close to the blacks and the gays?’ I guess you get more angry at someone you think is one of your own when you find out he’s not.”


The war began even before Moscone took office.

John Barbagelata, a conservative realtor the mayor beat in a close runoff election, quickly made life miserable. He demanded a recount, raised allegations of voter fraud and launched an unsuccessful recall. To this day, he hammers Moscone for being a pawn of left-wing extremists and an apostle of radical change.

Adds state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp, then a supervisor and Moscone’s chief antagonist: “George created a searing conflict with many city residents. He acquiesced in the policy of not prosecuting so-called victimless crimes like prostitution and marijuana. . . . There was a pronounced acceptance of homosexuality. It was a change-of-life crisis for San Francisco.”

For some, Moscone’s political style was a welcome change. Larry Kevison, a longtime resident and cab driver, says there was a feeling of optimism during those years, a belief that people like him had a stake in government: “For once, I thought that the big shots down at City Hall might actually care about me. You don’t get those feelings too often.”

Others were uneasy. Jim Bogue, a San Francisco firefighter and tenor who sang at Dan White’s funeral, remembers growing anger in his neighborhood.

“A lot of people here couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “The gays were coming on strong and people were mad at the mayor. When I was a kid, it was another world. The Beaver Cleaver family lived here. All that changed.”

You still hear the same debate in some parts of San Francisco. Yet fewer people bring up Moscone’s name as memory of his Administration fades.

“Maybe it’s just human nature that people want to put traumatic things behind them,” says Rick Laubscher, a public relations director and former TV reporter.

“What Dan White did was stupefying, almost too painful to recall. But I still vividly remember those last few months when Moscone was mayor.”


As 1978 dawned, San Francisco was full of new beginnings.

For the first time, all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors had been elected by neighborhood districts, instead of as citywide candidates, and a crop of grass-roots activists took control at City Hall. Newcomers Milk and White got a lot of attention.

Milk, 48, had run three times for the board, finally winning on his fourth try. A native New Yorker, he was a shrewd political strategist and charismatic gay leader who blended easily into the hurly-burly of City Hall.

White, 32, couldn’t have been more different. The board’s most politically inexperienced member, he was a staunch Irish-Catholic who came from a long line of firefighters. He’d campaigned as a conservative, vowing to fight the “deviates” who were taking over San Francisco. Few had ever heard of him.

That changed when White tried to honor his main campaign promise. A halfway house for troubled adolescents was to open in his district, and he tried to block it. Moscone vetoed an initial vote against the facility, and when it came up for a second vote, Milk cast the deciding vote in favor of the controversial home.

Feeling betrayed by Milk, who had initially promised support, White complained that City Hall was corrupt, and he attended fewer board meetings. His moods grew dark and unpredictable, and family members complained that he didn’t seem well. On occasion, White blew up at colleagues about minor legislative matters, vowing to “get them” later.

“Dan was really a surface person, meaning that if you disagreed with him he took it very personally,” says former supervisor Lee Dolson, a White friend and ally. “He didn’t have the kind of levity that many people have in public office, which (helps) separate the personal from the political.”

The young supervisor’s unhappy 11-month ride ended abruptly on Nov. 10, when he startled colleagues by resigning. White claimed that he couldn’t support his family on a $9,600 salary and said he was leaving politics. Sounding relieved, he told friends he wanted new opportunities.


So did Moscone.

For months he’d been on the losing end of a 6-5 conservative-liberal split. Suddenly, he could appoint the key sixth vote and push more of his program through.

That scared his opponents. The Police Officers Assn. was fighting a plan to increase minority hiring and a new, pro-Moscone vote could spell defeat. Business people feared a more liberal board would impose strict controls on downtown high-rise growth.

The balance of power was at stake as the mayor made up his mind. But after heavy lobbying by police and business groups, White announced that he wanted his job back. He had reconsidered and didn’t want to let his supporters down.

Moscone agreed. Then he heard from many of the supervisor’s constituents, who blasted White as ineffective and inattentive. By Sunday night, Nov. 26, Moscone had decided to appoint community activist Don Horanzy.

White got the news at 10:30 p.m. from a radio reporter, who asked him for a comment. He slammed the phone down, angrily refusing to believe what he’d just heard.


In the last seconds of his life, George Moscone poured a drink for his killer and prepared to give him a pep talk. There’s life after politics, he began telling White. You have a family to worry about. It will all work out.

The mayor had no way of knowing that the man standing before him carried a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 under his suit coat. He couldn’t have known that White had slipped into a basement window at City Hall to avoid metal detectors. Or that he had ducked into a side door of the mayor’s office so that two policemen outside didn’t even know that he had penetrated the inner office.

All Moscone knew was that White had demanded a Monday morning meeting, minutes before the mayor would announce Horanzy’s nomination. And it would have been out of character for Moscone to refuse. After offering the former supervisor a drink, he turned to sit on the couch in his back office. It was 10:50 a.m.

White later said he heard a roaring, rushing sound in his head as Moscone talked. The mayor lit a cigarette. White began firing. Two bullets ripped through Moscone’s chest and, when he fell to the floor, White leaned down and pumped two more into his head, execution style.

Standing over the dead man, he reloaded his gun, then walked down a long marble corridor and asked to meet with Milk. The two men entered an empty cubicle and five shots rang out. Feinstein heard them, saw White race past her and smelled gunpowder. Then she found Milk’s body, stomach-down on the floor.

“I intuitively knew that he was dead, you can tell,” she recalls. “I tried to get a pulse and my finger went into a bullet hole in his wrist.”

Pandemonium set in. With a stunned crowd looking on, Feinstein spoke the words she has never forgotten: “As president of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to inform you that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk have been shot. And killed.”


In the months after, San Francisco tried to heal. Then came White’s trial.

Prosecutors were sure that they had a slam-dunk case for first-degree murder and successfully picked a conservative, middle-aged jury. But Doug Schmidt, White’s attorney, outfoxed them. He persuaded jurors that the killer’s mental state had been seriously impaired at the time.

“I honestly believe that he didn’t go down to City Hall with murder and mayhem in mind,” Schmidt says today. “That’s a big gulp for anybody to swallow when you take a loaded firearm and what not. . . . But he just blew.”

When the verdicts were announced on May 21, 1979, hundreds of mostly gay protesters took to the streets and staged the bloody “White Night” riots. They stormed City Hall, threw rocks at officers and set police cars ablaze. The next evening, enraged cops waded into Castro Street bars with nightsticks, screaming for revenge.

“It was one of the ugliest nights you’ll ever see,” one veteran City Hall lobbyist says. “But it was a mirror of the times. With Dan White, it wasn’t just one guy with a gun. It was the whole damn city boiling over.”

The last act played out when the killer was released from prison. After spending a year on parole in the San Fernando Valley, White returned to San Francisco and tried to resume a normal life. But people shunned him and pressures became too great. On Oct. 23, 1985, White’s brother found him dead in his car at home. He had taped a garden hose to the tailpipe, stuck the other end through a window, turned on the ignition and died.

Along with suicide notes, police found a tape of an old Irish song that ends with the lines: “Oh, my God. What have they done to the town I loved so well?” In death, as in life, White was at war with his changing city.

Today, the horror is a memory. Although politics can still get bizarre, San Francisco is quieter, nothing like the 1970s.

“Hell, we have shootings all the time in this town,” says Rodney Maguire, a longtime San Franciscan, sunning himself in Moscone Park. “And unless it’s something like J.F.K., nobody remembers. Nobody gives it a second thought.”


Some remember.

They ask themselves over and over: What lessons can be learned from the tragedy? Could it have been avoided? And would the same thing happen today?

Busch, Moscone’s press secretary, says the answer to the first question is simple: America must crack down on the proliferation of guns and random violence.

“I’d have hoped that this tragedy would have shaken us collectively,” he says. “But we’ve learned nothing. The whole point has been completely lost.”

Feinstein has also called for gun controls and made a pointed reference to the assassinations during recent Senate debate over anti-crime legislation.

Yet she says there’s another, equally important lesson: Voters have to screen candidates more carefully, so unstable people like Dan White are not elected to office. Amid the pressures of public life, Feinstein suggests, some individuals just snap. She once read White’s secret diaries and calls it a miracle that he didn’t kill more people that day.

Some look back at San Francisco’s tumultuous years and make a plea for moderation. In a time of change, they suggest, one should proceed cautiously.

“You had this transition going on with Moscone, and so many people were threatened by it,” says Richard DeLeon, author of “Left Coast City,” a study of recent San Francisco politics. “George and his people underestimated just how big that keg of dynamite was they were sitting on.”

But others say Moscone knew the stakes and was determined to see San Francisco through a period of fundamental change.

Sue Hestor, a neighborhood activist and attorney, remembers the late ‘70s as a time when City Hall tried to work with people, not against them.

“George liked people and he trusted their best instincts,” she says. “Even though I’d fight him a lot and never got everything I wanted, he wanted to do the right thing. And I think he really cared about the city.”

Nowadays, Hestor adds, there’s a corrosive cynicism about local politics.

“I’d rather live in a city that was hopeful about the future,” she says quietly. “When you lose hope, you’ve lost just about everything.”

Times staff writer Josh Getlin was an aide to Mayors George Moscone and Dianne Feinstein from 1975-79.