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

November 21, 1993|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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