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San Francisco 1978

Stumbled across an internet discussion about former San Francisco mayor George Moscone the other day - “Was Moscone a cool guy or an asshole?” Got me thinking ’bout those old days. . .

I remember Mayor Moscone as being a pretty popular figure back then. San Francisco really fancied itself as the hip, progressive City That Knew A Better Way back then. We were ahead of the curve and it would be years before the rest of America (the neanderthals!!) caught up with us. And George Moscone seemed the perfect mayor for those times. He had that hip, cool Clinton/Kennedy image. I mean, he drove a flashy convertible sports car, was rumored to have a black girlfriend, and he had a well-stocked bar in his office at City Hall. You could easily imagine Moscone by mid-afternoon, calling it a day, and breaking out the martinis. Making many a’ toasts to that beloved City By The Bay.

Moscone seemed as much a toast-master general — the convivial party host — as he did a politician. And make no mistake, my friend, those were PARTY days back then. The mid-1970s.

The 1970s are a slightly understood decade. People think of “the ’60s” as this wild decade. In fact, the 1960s was NOTHING compared to the 1970s when it came to “sex and drugs and rock 'n roll.” People think of the ’60s and they think of all these wild hippies.  But in truth, that whole business really didn’t catch on until the ’70s. The hippie counterculture was really just a tiny fringe thing in the ’60s. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single long-haired hippie guy in my entire town in the suburbs of New Jersey until around 1970. It wasn’t until Woodstock that the hippie thing first really started to catch on with mainstream American culture, and that was in late 1969 when the so-called “60s” was almost over.

The watershed moment was when Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974. It was as if the cultural war that had been “the 60s” was finally over. And the hippies had been declared the victors. Nixon had resigned in disgrace, the Vietnam War had been exposed as a colossal failure and — whaddaya’ know? — the Hippies had been right all along! So naturally it was Party Time!!!

I think another slightly misunderstood aspect of that period is this: When people think of “the ’60s” they think of the hippies and the counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement and all that. But basically, what it was - it was a Liberal Revolution. Nixon, and all he represented (white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, Republican males) had lost. And the Liberals had won. And when you look at it, when you look at virtually every social change in American society from the ’60s to the present (and there have been plenty of these changes) almost all the changes have moved America in a more and more liberal direction (which I guess is why American society keeps getting better and better every year, he says, sardonically).

And believe me, San Francisco at that time was Party Central. I remember hitting San Francisco for the first time in the summer of ’76 as a wee lad of 19.  And I’ll never forget that first Gay Freedom Parade I went to (well, I didn’t actually go to it, I happened to be living on the streets so I was there in the midst of it whether I went to it or not).  I remember this open-air, flat-bed truck going down Market Street with all these half-naked men chained to crucifix-like boards while big, beefy leather boys whipped them on their backs. And everyone seemed like they were wired out of their minds on speed. It had the air of a frantic party that had been going on non-stop for weeks, with no end in sight.

All that would change — San Francisco’s smug sense of itself — a couple years later in 1978, when ex-San Francisco supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall with a loaded gun and murdered Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in cold blood.

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This incident, too, is slightly misunderstood. I heard they recently made a Hollywood movie about this incident, and Dan White is portrayed as a raging homophobe. I’m sure this makes for an exciting Hollywood villain, but the truth (as usual) is slightly different. In fact, Dan White’s campaign manager/ business partner/ close friend was gay. And in fact, White had generally sided with Milk for most of his tenure as supervisor. It wasn’t until White got into a non-gay issue dispute with Milk and Moscone that he went ballistic. And it's worth noting, White gunned down the decidedly un-gay Moscone first. But I guess that’s neither here nor there. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected politician in America. So his place in history was already secure. And his martyrdom cemented it. Though it's likely Dan White wasn’t so much a homophobe as just your garden variety flaming asshole.

I remember hitching from Berkeley back to San Francisco on the night they announced the Dan White verdict. He only got sentenced to about 7 years, thanks to the famous “Twinkies defense” (The story everyone believes is that White claimed he had been binging on Twinkies prior to the shooting  - and his blood sugar went haywire -  causing temporary insanity. The reality is that a psychiatrist at the trial said White went from eating healthy food and dressing well to eating junk food and wearing dirty clothing, which indicated depression - thus the “diminished capacity” defense.)

Anyways, that night hitching to the city, I got picked up by a station wagon full of gay guys. They were going to San Francisco for a quiet, peaceful, dignified candle-light protest, to voice their displeasure over the White verdict - which quickly escalated into a mass riot, with City Hall set on flames and dozens of police cars burned to a crisp. The cops responded in kind by storming into a Castro Street gay bar, armed with billy clubs, and beating the holy crap out of any gay-looking person they could find. It was like a night of citywide warfare. The famous White Night riots. (When a reporter asked some gay guys why they were destroying the city, one of them famously replied: “I guess we ate too many Twinkies.”)

The City had already been reeling from the Jonestown Massacre, which had happened just a week before Moscone and Milk had been murdered, So it was like a double whammy - a one-two punch in the gut.

Like Moscone and Milk, the Reverend  Jim Jones had been another San Francisco institution during those times. And the murder/suicide of 909 people (a good many of them former San Francisco citizens) was truly mind-boggling.  Jim Jones was practically a liberal wet-dream. He (falsely) claimed to be of Native American Indian ancestry, he adopted numerous children of different races and ethnicities, and he ministered to the black community in the inner city. His whole act had been pulled directly from the Heroic Civil Rights Leader handbook. And in fact, I don’t remember hearing one single bad word about the Reverend Jim Jones from a single Bay Area media outlet in all those years, pre-massacre.  In fact, I remember several hugely laudatory articles in the San Francisco Bay Guardian — that muck-rakin’, truth-seekin’ progressive tabloid.  (Though, in typical Guardian blowhard fashion — they had the gall to run a big article after the massacre blaming the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner for misleading the public about Jim Jones).

Overnight, San Francisco went from being the Hip Cool city to “the Whacko Capital of America.” San Francisco would never quite regain its equilibrium. And, as they always say at the end of portentous blogs like this: “It was the end of an era.”###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney