Monday, January 12, 2009

For Every Winner, a Loser

Well, a week and a half of sleep and more sleep has left me healthy, wealthy, and wise. OK, OK, but one out of three ain't bad, right? I finally saw Milk yesterday, a film that features some terrific performances and that is very well-made, and a film that I recommend, although I didn't learn anything new about Milk's life or his times. I did leave the theater thinking the same thing I thought after reading The Mayor of Castro Street and watching The Times of Harvey Milk, which was what the story would look like told from Dan White's point of view.

Something clearly happened that left White deeply disturbed. Although the notion that Twinkies made him do it remains laughable, whether the murders were premeditated or not they would seem to have resulted from some sort of derangement that one would think wasn't apparent during the election. White (and Milk) had been elected just a little over a year before the murders, and White was popular during the campaign. He came into office with a bright political future ahead of him. How did he go from that to depressed and homicidaly angry? Milk hints that White may have been gay himself but repressed and closeted; other treatments of the story paint him as simply homophobic and racist. I don't think either simplification explains things.

It's interesting to note that White represented a district that was mainly white and working-class, but that also included San Francisco's largest and most notorious housing project. White was the only candidate in his district who campaigned in the project, befriending many of the residents and garnering the support of the local gang. Yes, he was the candidate of the police and firemen's unions, but he was also the candidate of a large black underclass.

When he first took office, White befriended Milk. Milk was one of only three city hall colleagues invited to the christening of White's child. Before White's resignation, the San Francisco supervisers were split ideologically, with six conservative and five liberal members. White often voted with the liberals his first months in office, thereby shifting the balance of power. White was willing to vote with Milk and other liberals in exchange for getting their votes for his legislation, and the undoing of this loose coalition was a large part of White's undoing.

The city wanted to open a youth treatment center in White's neighborhood, and one of his campaign promises was to block this, claiming that the treatment center would make the streets of his district less safe. Natrually collecting the necessary votes was difficult in part because no one wants to vote against "youth" and in part because if the center wasn't in White's neighborhood, well, where would it be located? No one wanted in in their district, of course. White did find four votes besides his own. After a conversation with Milk, he believed that Milk would vote with him. On the day of the vote, he invited a number of constituents and neighborhood leaders to witness the defeat of the center. Instead, Milk voted against White, claiming that White had misunderstood him. White was humiliated before the supervisors, the press, and his constituents. He never got over this, and at this point began opposing anything Milk proposed, speaking out in the press against the gay community and liberals in general.

In the meantime, Milk's profile and legislative influence was growing, in part because of his visibility in the fight against Proposition 6, which would have barred gays not only from teaching but from holding any job in the California public school system. This story got national attention, as did Milk. While White felt more and more ineffectual, Milk seemed to be more and more powerful. Milk's defining piece of legislation was a civil rights ordinance stating that the city would not discriminate based on sexual preference. It passed with only one dissenting vote: White's. Not only did White feel betrayed by Milk, he felt betrayed by what he thought was his conservative coalition.

In the meantime, White had been required by city law to quit his position as a firefighter once elected. At that time supervisors were considered part-time employees, and White found that he could no longer support his family on the part-time salary. He opened a fast-food restaurant on the newly-constructed Pier 39, but that venture proved backbreaking and was failing. He tried to garner support for a pay raise for supervisors, but no one would introduce or second such legislation.

Feelings of failure as a husband, father, and legislator led White to resign his post at supervisor. We all know what happened next: he reconsidered, asked Moscone to appoint him to the seat he'd just resigned, was rebuffed in part because Milk and other liberals saw the opportunity to get another liberal vote out of the seat, snuck into city hall, killed Moscone and Milk.

To me, his story isn't just of latent homosexuality or of intolerance but also of failure and frustration, and of being on the wrong side of history. It's a tragedy as much as Milk's life ended in tragedy. Milk's story, and Milk the biopic, is history as told from the other, brighter end, where principles we all now believe in have triumphed (or mainly triumphed, considering the success of Proposition 8). White's story, on the other hand, is history as seen by a confused but well-meaning person trying but unable to live through change successfully. I don't defend him, but do try to understand him.


tunsie said...

i am back from australia.politics is an ever changing time he is your foe.tomorrow he is your ally.u need 2 be careful whose toes u step on.because u may be sitting next 2 the person u laughed at 2 months earlier.the most important thing 2 do is 2 stay clean.politics parallels life that way.don't put someone down till u know the whole story.because it will come back and bite u in the ass and it is YOU who loses thier business,REMEMBER KARMA.don't hurt anybody.i could have and wanted 2 but my niece stopped me and said uncle their dyfunction will ultimately pay them back with interest.i love u jennifer.u are sooooooo mature.xoxoxxoxo tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

Elucidator said...

Welcome back, Tunsie. Everyone wondered where you were!