Julie Sherman (julieswn) Mon 14 Mar 11 12:07
This week we welcome Mike Weiss to inkwell, to discuss his new book on Dan White and the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, "Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk." Edgar Award-winner, Mike Weiss covered the trial of Dan WHite and the White Night riots for Time, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of two other nonfiction books, "Living Together" and "A Very Good Year," as well as the acclaimed Ben Henry mystery series. Weiss was raised in New York City, educated at Knox College and John Hopkins University, and worked for many years as a reporter in San Francisco. Interviewing Mike will be our own <proctor>, Laura Hogan: Laura Hogan is a lawyer in New York City. After practicing at a bunch of BigLaw firms (one on the West Coast), she finally landed at the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, where shes a staff attorney and is finally happy for the first time in her legal career. Laura was bitten by the true crime bug around 1985, when she first read Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss. To this day, shes obsessed with the Jeffrey MacDonald case (in a healthy way, of course), and pretty much eats up any true crime with a spoon. Laura lives in Queens, New York, with her husband and two grouchy cats with funny names. Welcome to Inkwell, Mike and Laura!
Laura Hogan (proctor) Mon 14 Mar 11 18:08
Thanks, Julie! Im really happy to have the chance to interview Mike. I think everyone reading this probably knows the basic facts about the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Just to give a short summary: when he became a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man in the United States to win an election to public office. While on the Board of Supervisors, Milk sponsored a civil rights bill -- one of the most stringent in the country -- that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation; the bill passed in 1978. In November 1978, when he had been in office less than a year, Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White. Probably not incidentally, White was the only Supervisor who had voted against Milks civil rights bill. Of course, the social changes that had taken place in this country in the 1960s continued to grow in the 1970s, and San Francisco was itself undergoing a shift. One of the greatest changes you talk about in the book, of course, was the fact that a large population of gay men -- many of whom, like Harvey Milk, had been involved in the 1960s counterculture -- was starting to form in San Francisco. Can you talk about the changes San Francisco was undergoing during the mid- and late 1970s, and how they framed the events you focus on in the book?
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Tue 15 Mar 11 16:37
Hello, Laura. Just wanted to let you know I grew up in Queens, in Whitestone, and went to Bayside high school. So, Queens aside, you ask a good question. I was struck by your phrase, "Probably not incidentally." Am I wrong in thinking it suggests that there was a direct connection between how Dan White felt about gay people and his assassinating Harvey Milk? (From here on in I'm going to refer to the three principals, Harvey, Dan and Mayor George Moscone by their first names, as I do in Double Play. I think the inter-relationships, and most especially the relationship between Harvey and Dan, was far more complex and nuanced than is commonly known. The 1977 election that brought both men to City Hall marked a new era in San Francisco politics. For the first time, the supervisors were elected from eleven individual districts and not citywide. Dan White was a man with absolutely no political experience who was driven by the conviction that the people of District Ten, for the most part working class and poor people, needed him to speak for them. Harvey Milk was a gay man who felt it was high time for gay people to have a voice in city affairs (although his constituency also included a majority of straight middle class and working class people) That political shift was one expression of a prolonged economic dislocation in which traditional blue collar jobs were disappearing, to be replaced by jobs in banking and finance, in goverment, and in the service industries. The Irish and German families who had considered themselves the backbone of San Francisco's prosperity found themselves increasingly marginalized. There was a graphic symbol of this profound shift toward "knowledge workers," as the president of Pacific Telephone called these newcomers: the highest point in the city had been the cross atop Mt. Davidson, now it was eclipsed by Sutro communication tower on Twin Peaks. So Dan White's constituency, and Dan White himself (he was a former fireman and policeman whose father and father-in-law were firemen themselves, and had fourteen siblings and step-siblings) felt his kind were being displaced, and he was angry about it. Anger and naivete are a combustible combination (witness Sara Palin). This was 1977 and San Francisco was also experiencing another immigration trauma. Never that I know of in the history of Western civilization had there been a gay neighborhood such as The Castro, with gays in large numbers summoning their courage and living openly. Who gays were, what they did, what they wanted, what their values were, was simply unknown to a great many people. And the unknown, especially the stigmatized unknown, can be scary. Harvey had every reason to be defensive around Dan. There are the differences between the two you mention, Laura. And during his campaign, White had delivered an intemperate attack on changing neighborhoods, crime and deteriorating schools. He blamed these ills on an exodus of families to the suburbs and an erosion of family values. A recent headline proclaimed San Francisco a Cesspool of Perversion, White said. Should we continue to be maligned and shamed throughout the nation? I say NO!...I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles. Harvey was a political pragmatist (as well as an idealist and a pioneer), and he knew theat the progressives on the newly elected 11-member Board of Supervisors, and their ally in the mayor's office, had only five votes they could count on. Dan White was a political unknown. On some issues, perhaps he could be a swing vote. Harvey assumed that Dan needed to be educated. That was Harveys approach to people who seemed suspicious or put off or biased. People close to both men had the impression that Dan believed there was a bond between them: they were political newbies, they were outsiders, they represented politically neglected constituencies. When Dans son Charlie was born, Harvey was the only supervisor to attend the christening where Dan introduced Harvey to an uncle by calling him, my best friend at City Hall. So as I say - and I've probably said way too much already - the terrible tragedy of November 27th, 1978 has been to be seen in multiple contexts. Only some of which we've touched on here. P.S. Truth in advertising: Double Play is not a new book. It was first published in 1985. Vince Emery Productions has, however, now published a new ediition. I've made some changes in the original manuscript to reflect things I've learned. I've also written a new Final Chapter, bringing the story up to date and, I trust, to its conclusion. In addition, an index and chapter notes have been added. And if you buy the book you get a DVD that includes the police interrogation of Dan White on the day of the assassinations, some police band transmissiions from that day, and much more.
Laura Hogan (proctor) Wed 16 Mar 11 08:30
Glad to hear you're another Queensian. I'm a pretty recent transplant, but feel as though I've lived there forever. I'd like to wait until a little bit later in the interview to address the point you touch on above -- namely, whether Milk's assassination was driven by homophobic animus or by a combination of forces. But for now, since that you've told us a little about the backdrop to the main events in the book, I'd like to pick up on your point about the ideological conflicts in San Francisco. I wonder if we could talk a little bit more specifically about the conflict between conservative forces -- specifically, the Christian conservative movement -- and the rising power of gay people in San Francisco. How, if at all, did conservative Christian opposition to gay rights, both in San Francisco and in other parts of the country, pave the way for Milk's ascension?
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Wed 16 Mar 11 11:12
Short answer. I don't believe it did. There was an attempt to bar gays from teaching in public schools - the Briggs amendment. And Harvey fought that tooth and nail, as you can imagine. That certainly raised his profile and showed he could fight and win a campaign.
Laura Hogan (proctor) Wed 16 Mar 11 19:45
I probably phrased the question badly, but I think we're saying the same thing in a slightly different way. Many people (frankly, including myself before I read Double Play) think of 1970s San Francisco as sort of a liberal paradise, and Harvey Milk is part of that perception. But in actuality, there was a very homophobic element in and around San Francisco in the 1970s (not to mention in the rest of the country), embodied, at least partially, by people like Senator John Briggs and by Anita Bryant, who of course based her anti-gay stance on the Bible and certain tenets of Christianity. For example, you write in the book about how the fundamentalist threat posed by Anita Bryant acted as one of Harvey's driving forces. So in a sense, Harvey Milk's career was based at least partially on the homophobia from the Christian right, which engendered the Briggs initiative, which in turn strengthened Harvey both personally and politically. So it was sort of dialectics in action.
Ozro W. Childs (oz) Wed 16 Mar 11 20:45
Well, that much is true, and certainly there were some San Franciscans who hated Harvey Milk because he represented the gay movement, which had among other things started to transform a beloved part of San Francisco from a Scandinavian neighborhood to a gay mecca. But in general, San Francisco had been tolerant of pretty much everyone. Something in Genoese culture, I've always thought, made North Beach a tolerant place for both beats and gays, and with that background, San Francisco became the logical place for the hippie movement to thrive. The Examiner (which tried to represent the neighborhoods) was not so friendly, but the Chronicle (which represented Pacific Heights and the liberals everywhere, including in the Jewish community) was friendly to the longhairs. This is important, because the gay movement in San Francisco had its older-generation roots in the Beat era, but it's immediate roots in the Haight, as I remember from being an avid reader of the old Express-Times, which spotted the movement towards the Castro before anyone.
Ozro W. Childs (oz) Wed 16 Mar 11 20:59
Which brings me to Dan White. No doubt he represented the reactionary, conservative, and Catholic side of San Francisco, and in particular the resentments of the forgotten neighborhoods -- not only the Excelsior but also the Irish remnants in the Mission. But I have never believed he killed Harvey Milk because he hated his being gay. On the contrary, he had high hopes for this other outsider being an ally against the establishment, even though he was anti-gay. I have always felt that he blamed Milk for egging Moscone into not reappointing him to his seat on the Board of Supervisors. My take on the killings was that Moscone double-crossed him, and Dan White went into City Hall fully intending to kill Moscone in revenge -- a kind of revenge that any 19th-Century juror would have immediately understood. And possibly held out for acquittal if the revenge was justified, but otherwise would have voted for first-degree murder. 20th-Century jurors just didn't understand how logical and reasonable (but wrong) murder was in the face of betrayal. Milk? Purely an afterthought. Shocked by the horror of having killed the Mayor, Dan White said to himself, why not make it a hat trick and take out the other person who betrayed his hopes (would have killed Carol Silver, too, if she had been in the way). I would have voted for first degree murder of Moscone and manslaughter of Milk under the law as it then existed. I expressed this opinion long ago on the WELL. Reading Mike's book then and again now, I don't think he can disprove my theory, but I'm open to argument.
Mostly not sure (gertiestn) Thu 17 Mar 11 07:29
Mike, I really enjoyed reading your book. I type this post from the juror lounge in DC Superior Court, where I reported this morning for jury duty...something I take more seriously now.
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Thu 17 Mar 11 09:18
Oz, I certainly see your point and understand your thinking and clearly you are very knowledgeable. However there is considerable evidence that Harvey was not an afterthought. On his way to City Hall, Dan told his aide, Denise Apcar, that he intended to give George and Harvey a piece of his mind. He repeated that several times. Then there's the fact that he took ten extra cartidges with him, wrapped in a handkerchief. That certainly indicates he planned on reloading. In addition, after his release from prison, he confided in Inspector Frank Falzon - who was an old friend and had taken his original confession on the day of the assassinations, a confession in which Dan claimed he had no plan to shoot anybody - that on November 27, 1978,he had "lost it", his words, and intended to get not only Geroge and Harvey, but as you say, Carol Ruth Silver, another liberal supervisor, and Willie Brown, then the Speaker of the California Assembly and a close ally of George Moscone. This information is in the Final Chapter of Double Play, new to the current edition. I first heard about this a few years ago from Falzon, and later had an opportunity to tell Willie Brown that he was on Dan's hit list. He had been in George's office on that deadly morning, discussing their annual trip to a lingerie show to buy presents for their wives, when Dan arrived to confront George. Willie slipped out the back door as Dan was being shown in the front door of the mayor's office. Had he hung around, he might well have died as well. That knowledge made him tear up
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Thu 17 Mar 11 09:24
gertiestn, Thanks for your post. I know exactly what you mean. Ever since the White trial, I've viewed jury duty as a solemn obligation. I think the White jury reached the wrong verdicts. But the reason for that was not bias or indifference or flippancy, the reason was that the defense got the jury it wanted. The District Attorney's office, on the other hand, thought they had a hanging jury but were wrong. They failed to take into account that the defendant had always been an upstanding citizen - Vietnam vet, fireman, policeman. A good looking white guy. And empaneled a jury that, among other things, included four women of an age and background to be Dan White's mother. And the defense, specifically tailored to the jury they hoped for but never dreamed they'd actually get, was brillantly executed.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 17 Mar 11 10:23
That's one of the depressing things about jury duty. When I have had the time and wanted to be selected, I have found myself screened out by somebody who is stereotyping me. In the past, perhaps looking radical. Now, perhaps as looking like somebody's mother. Yet I have complex and nuanced values. I hate the whole voir dire operation.
Mostly not sure (gertiestn) Thu 17 Mar 11 10:49
As do I, usually...but I was chosen as a juror in a criminal case just a few minutes ago (I'm on my iPad in a Starbucks near the courthouse). Can't say more than that, but I feel especially alert.
Laura Hogan (proctor) Thu 17 Mar 11 17:12
Of course, it drives most lawyers completely bonkers when people try to get out of jury duty. Or at least most of the lawyers I know. So it's good to hear that there are people who actually take it as seriously as it should be taken. Mike, I'd like to move to talking about Dan White. As you note, he was a Vietnam vet, policeman, and firefighter, and was from District 8 -- a neighborhood whose citizens were not sympathetic to Harvey Milk or the gay community. Nonetheless, Dan White's record on gay rights wasn't actually that bad. Could you talk a little bit about what drove him to become a Supervisor, how he fared while he was a Supervisor, and what led up to his resignation?
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Thu 17 Mar 11 20:54
Sure, Laura, I'll try. I've always wondered exactly what drove him to run for supervisor. 1977 was a weird year politically, because the switch to district elections brought all kinds of newcomers into the mix. And this was San Francisco where you would have no trouble convening a quorum of weirdos, or for that matter messianic weirdos. Suddenly, instead of needing maybe $50,000 and a serious organization to be elected supervisor, maybe $6,000 or $7,000 and a "campaign manager" was all it took to buy a ticket in this power lottery. But the moment also brought out a large number of serious, mostly earnest people who felt that their voice should be heard, that they were the best conduit for teachers, or gays, or renters to be heard in City Hall. And of course the professional pols were also running, so the fields were large and full of unknowns. Dan fell into the earnest category, with a touch of the messianic. He fancied himself a bit of a St. Patrick driving the snakes from the land - later, at City Hall, he described his fellow supervisors as snakes. And he knew a lot of people. He had been a popular athlete, came from a large family, knew a lot of cops and fireman. So he felt he could gets the votes. But he was also willful and determined and energetic. He believed in himself as a son of the people, his people.He thought he was special, too. He wanted to be a writer and his hero was Jack London. And he approached life like an athlete: he thought he could win. Once he did win he was lost, of course. He had a high school education and a high school civics idea about how politics is conducted. He thought every supervisor should put forward his or her ideas, and that the best ideas would prevail. He had absolutely no idea that the name of the game was six votes, and that in order to get those six votes for the things that mattered most to them other supervisors would compromise on things that mattered less to their constituents. Nor did he know anything about the rules and the rules in legislative bodies are the keys that unlock the treasure chests of power. So he was often defeated. And he was humiliated in his own district when a youth center he had opposed was nonetheless approved with the support of Mayor Moscone and Harvey. Harvey, on the other hand, was a relatively successful freshman supervisor with a gift for keeping himself in the limelight. He was very focused on his constituency and on learning how to work the system at City Hall. He was also a glib, smart, funny, determined Jew from New York. He and Carol Ruth Silver, who sat beside Dan, had a running joke going about what a hunk he was, and which of them he'd prefer. It was hardly the best way to win Dan's friendship. But Dan's friendship was of no concern to Harvey, his vote was what was important.Harvey understood that politics was a business, Dan believed initially it was something far simplier and far purer, and so was repeatedly disappointed and discouraged. Throughout his life, Dan White had a history of quitting and running when the going got tough. He had quit his high school baseball team in a fit of pique when his coach wanted him to bunt; quit the police department when he felt he didn't fit in; quit the fire department to be a supervisor. He had not anticipated that he would have to give up his job as a firefighter if he was elected, but he did. Supervisors earned $9,600 a year, so suddenly he was a big shot but was broke. A connected fat cat developing a shopping and amusement arcade on a waterfront pier, Pier 39, gave Dan a lease on the very best stand, first one inside the door. His wife Mary Ann, a school teacher, was also putting in long hours at the Hot Potato, often with their infant son along. Dan felt a faulure because his wife had to work so hard; he was consistently defeated; he thought City Hall was corrupt and slimey, and while that may very well have been true it was also his choice to be there. So he did what he had always done: he quit. Impetuously, without informing the people who had helped put him there and counted on him as their man on the board, including the police officers association and the firefighters union, he resigned. And, politcally speaking the roof caved in. The pressure on him to reverse course was relentless.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Fri 18 Mar 11 17:12
It's hard to imagine that he lasted 3 years in the military with 1 yr in Vietnam - it's not like you can quit the military very easily. I'm about a 1/3 through the book right now. One question I have is how his military service affected what happened ultimately. It seems to me, not only was he flawed to start with but he must have come back from Nam with PTSD. Also, being part of a war must have contributed to his antipathy towards "The Other(s)" and his self- righteousness. So in a way I can paint a scenario where being on the board of supervisors could have been PTSD triggering because it would have been hard for him to get a handle on who was really aligned with him/on his side and his anger at those he felt beneath him having more power (leverage) than he did. Where the military might have had more rigid structure, politics does not. (Also, Mike, it makes reading easier if you put a blank line or two between paragaphs, thank you!).
mother of my eyelid (frako) Fri 18 Mar 11 17:17
Although I've heard a lot of this before, Mike, some of the details are new and fascinating. Your writing style is extremely readable too. Don't stop.
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Sat 19 Mar 11 11:55
Frako, thank you. We're going to be here for several weeks. Lendi, look! a line break between the last paragraph and this one. I think it's certainly possible that Dan having suffered from PTSD. Four psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist testified for the defense, and they diagnosed him as suffering from depression exacerbated by the pressure he was under and concluded that he acted in the heat of passion. Of course, their opinions fit perfectly into the defense strategy, or rather, shaped it. The doctor most responsible for this approach in the Dan White case was the late Don Lunde, of Stanford. I'm sure we'll get around tio talking more about this when we begin to talk about the trial in some depth.
Mostly not sure (gertiestn) Sun 20 Mar 11 01:56
Mike, one of the things that surprised me when I read your book was how deeply I felt the pain and confusion of Dan White. I am not in the Bay area & I wasn't there at the time of the killings and the trial. You did, I think, a remarkable job of giving a fuller picture of who Dan White was.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sun 20 Mar 11 05:44
>discussing their annual trip to a lingerie show to buy presents for >their wives ! What did you think of the movie Milk and, to a lesser degree, the documentary that preceded it? Where do you think Harvey Milk would have gone from there, had he not been assassinated?
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Sun 20 Mar 11 12:54
Thanks, gertiestn. When I decided to write the book it was important to me to find out as much as I could about Dan White, and to treat the entire matter evenhandedly. I thought the tragedy was immense and San Francisco had been defiled and irrevocably changed, and for that reason it was important to have a complete and truthful historical record, insofar as any book can be complete and truthful. Dan's murderous rage, his cowardice in shooting unarmed men, and his choice to save his own skin by hiding behind the kind of psychiatric defense he would have denounced if he had not been the defendant made me very angry,too. But I thought my anger was gratutious and needed to be channeled into understanding. So when you tell me that my book helped you to understand Dan White, and by implication what happened, I am grateful. slf -- I enjoyed the movie Milk very much. It was really entertainin g. I particularly loved the set designs, so true to what apartments looked like in the Castro and Noe Valley and the Haight circa 1978. And Harvey's camera store, too. Spot on. The portrayal of Dan White I found to be formulaic and stiff. On the other hand, Cleve Jones, Harvey's former aide and the creator of the AIDS quilt, found the portrayal of Dan to be persuasive, and he knew Dan better than I did in 1978. On the other other hand, Cleve was an adviser to Gus Van Sant on the movie and so had a hand in shaping it. The only other thing that bothered me about the movie was I thought that the nature of the historic coming out in the Castro, and in other neighborhoods in SF, was portrayed as being primarily political. As someone who lived nearby at the time, my recollection is that it was primarily sexual - a great explosion of suppressed lust and longing. But I suppose the way it was spun was inavoidable that a biopic about a politician would focus on politics. And Sean Penn and James Franco were terrific. As for Harvey's future, who knows? Conceivably he could have been elected mayor, or to the state legislature. I think that was pretty much the ceiling for a gay pol. But of course Harvey was an extraordinary individual. So there's no telling.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Mon 21 Mar 11 02:24
I do not find Dan White in the least sympathetic. He was a quitter who each time he quit thought he was taking the football home with him except he never had hold of the football to start with - which one he figured that out each time enraged him even more. He was a weak man who had spent a lot of time in rigid hierarchical organizations (military, police, fire dept) only to find out that they were as flawed as his father had been. He seems to have been manic depressive, never treated and probably never would have been given that in the 1970's it was rare to find someone like him in therapy or seeking psychiatric help.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Mon 21 Mar 11 02:30
One area in the book that is given short shrift, is how much anti-Semitism there was in a community like Dan White's. I grew up in San Francisco and was employed in Sf during the time in the book. The Catholic community centered around the parishes was quite insular. There was a lot of anti- Semitism - still believing things such as the Jews killed Jesus. People might have one or two Jewish friends but overall Jews were not viewed positively. With a number of Jews on the Board of Supervisors (Feinstein, Silver, Milk) there had to have been some antipathy that figured whether consiously or unconsciously with Dan White.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Mon 21 Mar 11 02:37
Where I worked in Nov 1978, there were people who had family in Jonestown and there were a couple of employees who were close friends with the Moscone Family. So Jonestown & the Moscone/Milk assassinations had impact at the workplace in a powerful way. My memories of those few weeks are of disbelief, horror, numbness. It felt as though much of the city was in shock - first only with Jonestown but then doubly so after the killings of Moscone/Milk.
Mike Weiss (mikeweiss) Mon 21 Mar 11 10:06
lendie - I completely agree that Dan White was a quitter and a coward in the face of adversity. These are points that are emphasized in my book. One does not have to find him sympathetic - I certainly don't - to try to understand him and what he did. As for anti-Semitism, I never considered it although I'm a Jew. You could well be right. Though Dan did not kill Harvey because of who or what he was, he killed him because he felt betrayed and manipulated by him, and because he was an angry and perhaps a sick man. Yes, those were dark days in San Francisco. What I remember most vividly was the silence. I rode from the Shell Building in the financial district where the Time magazine offices were located to my home in Noe Valley on the J-Church line that evening and not a word was spoekn in the packed streetcar. The city was quiet as a tomb. The rolling tragedies were beyond words.
Laura Hogan (proctor) Mon 21 Mar 11 10:25
I hadn't thought of the anti-semitic angle either, lendie. It's an interesting theory. I don't think White had a history of open anti-semitism, and I don't know that he would have been smart enough to hide it, but it's hard to ignore the "smart-mouthed guy from New York" angle, which is often code for something a bit more invidious. Mike, you allude above to the pressure on Dan White after he resigned. Before we move into talking about the trial, can you elaborate a little bit about what happened after White resigned, and how that led up to the assassination?
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