Three decades after the horror, it’s an odd twist of history that the late Mayor George Moscone has become little more than a footnote in popular media narratives about San Francisco’s City Hall assassinations.
Dan White, the cowardly ex-supervisor and cop who shot and killed the mayor, then reloaded, walked down the hall and gunned down Harvey Milk, has been the subject of a book, a TV movie and a stage play.
Milk long ago became a global icon of the gay civil rights movement, his life and martyrdom celebrated and honored in a major film and a documentary, both of which won Oscars, along with an opera and a best-selling biography.
But Moscone, who was White’s primary target on the awful morning of November 27, 1978, is usually portrayed as a cipher or, in the case of “Milk,” the famous Sean Penn vehicle, badly misrepresented as a weak-willed hack.
Josh Getlin, who served Moscone as a young speechwriter and later moved to the L.A. Times editorial page, summed up this historic anomaly in an op-ed piece on the anniversary of the killings in 2008:
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.
Now Moscone’s friends, family, aides and colleagues are trying to make that happen, working to produce a full-length documentary focused on the life, times and politics of the mayor. They’ve organized an event next week in San Francisco to raise money to finish the film, which has been in the works for several years.* As Corey Busch, a Bay Area business executive who served as Moscone’s press secretary, told us in email:
History can’t be allowed to forget George or what he meant to California and San Francisco. With the perspective of the past 30 plus years, he truly emerges as a unique and very significant historical figure. We’re going to do our best to give him his due and to add to the true historical record of that time.
Moscone was not a saint. He was conned by Jim Jones, who led the Peoples Temple mass murder-suicides, just days before the City Hall assassinations, in Guyana. The mayor at times was overmatched against the power of city unions, as during a 39-day strike shortly after he took office. Willie Brown famously said of him, “George Moscone has two drinks and thinks he’s invisible.”
A blue collar guy who left a wife and four children when he died three days after his 49th birthday, however, he was a family man and a skilled and effective politician, a pragmatic liberal with a passion for social justice who helped lead California into an era of remarkable diversity and dramatic change.
Years before he was elected mayor in 1975, Moscone was a major player in Sacramento, where he served three terms in the senate.
Among other things as Majority Leader, he authored legislation (signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown) to provide school lunches for poor kids. He fought fiercely against the death penalty and, with then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, led the battle to repeal California’s anti-sodomy law, an early landmark in the campaign for gay rights.
Elected San Francisco’s 37th mayor, after one of the most raucous and bitter campaigns in the city’s history, his accomplishments ranged from the prosaic to the transformational.
He pushed through a huge bond issue to build a new sewage treatment system, at a time when the city routinely poured raw filth into the Bay, and was legally banned from new construction. He broke the generation-long political deadlock over the South of Market Yerba Buena redevelopment project, where millions today visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the convention center that bears his name. He won the lasting gratitude of Calbuzz by saving the Giants, when the team was about to leave town for Toronto.
Most importantly, Moscone gave voice to neighborhoods and working people, who had been shut out of a City Hall long dominated by big business, big labor and the big money transactional politics of his predecessor, Mayor Joe Alioto.
Moscone was the first mayor to appoint large numbers of women, minorities and gays – including Harvey Milk – to city boards and commissions, and his success in creating a municipal government that looked like the city was profound and lasting.
In an appraisal of his brief tenure as mayor, written for the 20th anniversary of the assassinations, Old Chronicler Susan Sward interviewed San Francisco State history professor Richard DeLeon, who has written extensively on the city:
DeLeon said that if he were to inscribe on some tablet what he believes the mayor left behind, he would write: “”George Moscone included the excluded.’”‘
“So many avoid conflict and nothing happens, but he was brave enough to get into it. He decided to swim upstream. He chose to make history.
* Former Speaker Willie Brown will host a reception to benefit the George R. Moscone Documentary Film project on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in downtown San Francisco. For more information contact Shari Rubin-Rick at 415-413-0240 (X102) or at Shari@integratedfundraising.com.