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Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind The Double Assassination Of George Moscone and Harvey Milk

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 20, 2010
Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind The Double Assassination Of George Moscone and Harvey Milk

Three decades after Dan White walked into San Francisco City Hall and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, shooting them in private offices then kneeling over them to fire again to make sure they were dead, the impact of the double assassination continues to color and define California politics. That fateful day thrust Dianne Feinstein into a national spotlight and onto a seat in the Senate. The rage over the slaying of the country's first elected openly gay man to public office mobilized the LGBT community to seek, successfully, more offices, more visibility, more acceptance.

Double Play steps back from the political legacy and into the human dramas leading up to and following Nov. 27, 1978, the day White killed the two most colorful rising stars of San Francisco politics. Journalist Mike Weiss reconstructs the motives that led White to sneak into the city offices through a back window and ambush the two men who were redefining the city's political power structure through extensive interviews and document research, then takes the reader step by step through the trial in which White, against all odds, reason and evidence, got away with murder. What emerges is a portrait of a deluded, self-absorbed killer who habitually gave up when the going got tough and in the end, when contemplating what he had done, cried only for himself.

Weiss does not much explore the private life of Milk, which has been more deeply documented elsewhere, but he does etch contrasting portraits of San Franciscan natives Moscone and White growing up in a rapidly changing San Francisco and barely eking out livelihoods. The two emerged in the public political spotlight in remarkably different form. Moscone emerged as the great synthesizer harnessing the changes going all around and helping to define the new order of progress and tolerance, a leader in every sense of the word.

In contrast, White sought praise and acclaim in one job after another, trying to do the "right" things not because they were right but because they would bring him recognition. He joined and quit the police force twice before becoming a firefighter. He plunged into the race for city supervisor when the municipality created district voting and seized opportunities to thrust himself into the limelight, promoting his work in the fire department through the press and feeding neighborhood fears against a proposed mental health facility.

But White was ill-equipped to lead and ill-informed as to what the job involved. Inevitably he took every setback personally, saw every disagreement as an attack, felt every loss as a rejection of himself. He felt political betrayed by the people he worked with even as he was siding with commercial developers over his own neighborhood values. When, as he had with every job before, he abruptly quit his supervisor job, he was brow-beated into asking for it back, then convinced himself he was owed and promised the job back after having done so little while holding it.

Weiss presents some great vignettes from White's formative years, such as his temper tantrum on the baseball field against a man a had ben his greatest and most loyal supporter, but of great interest for future historians are the blow-by-blow descriptions of how incompetently and arrogantly the prosecution case against White was conducted. And in his postscripts, Weiss follows up through White's suicide in 1985 after serving just six years for voluntary manslaughter. He tells of White's confidential admission that, regardless of what was portrayed by his defense, he went to city hall with every intent of killing not just Moscone and Milk, but Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and future mayor Willie Brown as well.

Although Weiss' prose tends to the purple now and then, Double Play is a gripping read told well and thoroughly. As I put it down, I was left to reflect that if Milk gave up hope through his life, his death gave us resolve. Those are two worthy measures of character to have in which White was in fatally short supply.

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.


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