Thirty years ago this week, on the morning that San Francisco Mayor George R. Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death, I sat at my desk in City Hall and locked eyes with the killer.
My boss, the mayor, was about to make a new appointment to the Board of Supervisors, a move that would finally give him the majority he needed to push through a flurry of city reforms. But at 10:30 a.m., the man he was going to replace on the board, former Supervisor Dan White, suddenly appeared in the hall near my desk. He stared nervously at me, nodded tersely and walked toward the mayor’s office, two doors down. His visit -- and his demand to meet alone with Moscone -- were unexpected. As I worked on a news release announcing White’s successor, I thought I heard fireworks or a car backfiring outside. But I didn’t think twice about it.
Minutes later, all hell broke loose.
White -- who had quit his job 17 days earlier and was turned down by Moscone when he tried to get it back -- shot the mayor four times, twice in the head as he lay on the floor of his private back office. Standing astride the body, he reloaded his .38-caliber revolver and then raced down a long hallway toward the supervisors’ chambers. There he demanded to meet with Milk, the city’s first openly gay elected official. Neither had much use for the other: White had voted against the city’s first gay-rights ordinance, and Milk had lobbied Moscone not to reappoint him. Nobody in the supervisors’ offices knew anything yet about Moscone’s death, so Milk readily agreed to meet with his colleague. When the two were alone, White shot Milk five times and then fled the building. He later surrendered to police.
In the shock and horror at the mayor’s office, some aides collapsed in grief. Others were frozen in silence. The phone in the press office began ringing incessantly, but I couldn’t bring myself to answer it. I could barely speak. For those of us who loved George Moscone, his senseless death was impossible to believe. A sunny, compassionate man who had just turned 49, he left behind a wife and four kids. The city was already reeling from the deaths of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, a week before. (Jim Jones’ cult had been based in San Francisco, and many of the dead were from the Bay Area.) Now the city had lost its first modern, progressive mayor.
No one who lived through that morning at City Hall would be surprised that people remain fascinated by the story years later. But how these murders have been remembered is surprising, and saddening, to those of us who saw the story unfold behind the scenes. The mayor who was at the center of events on Nov. 27, 1978 -- and whose leadership helped make San Francisco the model of diversity and inclusion it is today -- has been largely forgotten.
This week, the city is once again hosting ceremonies marking the killings, and Milk’s story will, for many, be a primary focus. Although he was known chiefly in California circles at the time of his death, he has become a national martyr for gay liberation. His courageous story has inspired books, an opera and an Oscar-winning documentary. “Milk,” a new feature film starring Sean Penn that opens this week, dramatizes it once more.
White has also earned his place in the history books. The disgruntled politician who killed two defenseless public officials has been the subject of a nonfiction book, a stage drama and a TV movie. His 1979 trial for murder became a fiasco when a jury found him guilty only of voluntary manslaughter. Although White admitted to the killings -- and had slipped into City Hall through a window so he could elude metal detectors -- he spent only a little more than five years in custody. His legal team sold the jury on a diminished-capacity defense, the now-famous “Twinkie” defense, arguing that stress, sleepless nights, dark mood swings and junk food caused him to snap. He killed himself two years after his release.
But there is precious little recollection of George Moscone.
His family has chosen to mourn its loss in private, and he’s had few historical cheerleaders. The definitive book about his richly evocative life and times has yet to be written. Today, Moscone is remembered largely for a downtown convention center that he helped construct and that bears his name. If you ask many San Franciscans what he accomplished as mayor, you’ll get puzzled looks.
Three decades ago, however, his impact was unmistakable.
In the years leading up to Moscone’s 1975 election, San Francisco was run by a tight-knit coalition of labor unions, downtown business leaders and old-line Democratic Party officials. All that changed when Moscone, a native son and former state senator, won a hard-fought mayoral election on a platform of inclusion.
Overnight, he opened up City Hall to people who had been excluded from power, including gays, blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, grass-roots activists and liberal Democrats. He appointed scores of them, including Milk, to powerful boards and commissions.
The mayor campaigned against racial and gender bias in Police Department hiring, he pushed for curbs on runaway downtown development, he kept the San Francisco Giants from leaving town and he promoted greater public access to the city’s waterfront. Earlier, as majority leader of the state Senate, he helped create California’s school lunch program; he also passed a bill reducing penalties for simple possession of marijuana and a landmark law legalizing sexual behavior among consenting adults.
To his supporters, Moscone was a man who welcomed and embraced change. But many San Franciscans were alarmed. They deplored the emergence of new groups, especially gays, and felt their power slipping away. Despite its freewheeling image, San Francisco was bitterly divided, and the mayor’s daunting task was to push through changes while respecting sensitivities on the other side. It was then -- and remains today -- a tough job for any politician. Harvey Milk gets a lot of attention because he was fighting for a cause out on the edges -- provocative, visible and angry. Moscone gets less credit because he worked quietly within the system, trying to bring divergent groups together.
Some, like White, could not handle change. He had been elected from a largely white, working-class district, and his campaign urged voters to “Unite and Fight” against the city’s new political landscape. In a fiery election pamphlet, he declared: “I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles.”
A former cop, White was dogmatic and insecure, ill-suited for the give-and-take of politics. When he abruptly quit his job, saying he couldn’t make ends meet on the $9,600 salary, Moscone saw a golden opportunity: With a new appointee who was loyal to him, he’d finally have a 6-5 majority on the 11-member board that had rejected many of his proposals by one vote. When White asked for his job back, the mayor said no. And that’s what brought the killer to City Hall. On the day Harvey Milk became a martyr, George Moscone was the main target.
Thirty years later, Moscone remains an enigma to all but a handful of us who knew him. But this year, and every year, we mourn the loss of our friend who did so much to shape the modern face of San Francisco. And we continue to hope that history will one day give him his proper due.
Josh Getlin, a former Times staff writer, was a deputy press secretary and speechwriter for the late Mayor George R. Moscone.