When the news came over the radio Monday, one of those sudden midafternoon announcements that send urgent bulletins into the talk shows, it was as though the whole terrible business had risen up again. Over and over you heard the recitation of detail, long into the evening and then in color on the late-night newscasts, 1973 Buick LeSabre, garden hose running from the exhaust pipe to the passenger compartment, towels stuffed in the windows to ensure maximum air seal. The body was found wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt, but the sheet on the stretcher was all you saw, the somber faces of uniformed men and a single long white drape that cloaked the last public view of Daniel James White.
It was not the way he did it that startled most, or even that he did it at all -- he killed himself, according to the initial police accounts, with the same fastidious precision he had used when he shot to death the city's mayor and a supervisor seven years ago, this time taping an apologetic note to his brother to the windshield of the car and apparently timing his death so that his wife and children would not have to discover his body in the family garage. What resonated with such odd clarity was rather the conviction that something like fate had accomplished what the justice system could not.
"What goes around comes around," a gay man said, and people at City Hall spoke of "poetic justice," or retribution long deserved. It was the peculiar legacy of Dan White, the upright Catholic boy whose parochial school upbringing was so frequently recalled at his own murder trial, that his last public sin left so many of the outraged forced to contemplate their own notions of some mysterious workings of God.
His tragedy, the tragedy he created and apparently never escaped, was of proportions so grand that San Francisco officials kept referring to "putting this all behind us" and "closing the book on this," as though the volume's worst pages still lay open to public view on the City Hall steps. In a certain sense they were right, of course; there was celebratory champagne in the gay neighborhood and unencumbered mourning on the streets where White grew up, but in much of San Francisco the news played to a grim and complicated sort of relief: Good. Poor Mary Ann, poor children. But he did it before a gay man could. And he did it to himself.
He was not a man of any grandeur at all. He had a shock of dark hair that angled down over his forehead, and a chin dimple that showed up nicely in campaign photographs. He was eager, charming, athletic, the second of nine children to a father who had died when White was 17. He came from a flat, foggy neighborhood so isolated by geography and social class that there are lifelong San Franciscans still not sure precisely where Visitation Valley is. And that was how he became a city supervisor eight years ago, raising what he perceived as the muted voice of the newly excluded: Amidst the gathering numbers of immigrants causing such political fuss, the Asians and Latins and thousands of openly gay men, White arrived in office as the former police officer and firefighter who would sound the alarm for old San Francisco.
That was why Dan White, the sometimes inarticulate man whose visible problems seemed only mildly interesting matters of finances and personal stress, was dwarfed from the beginning by larger passions of politics and circumstance. When he quit office in November 1978, he cited economic difficulties brought on by his $9,600 supervisor's salary; when he pressed Mayor George Moscone two weeks later to give him the job back, it was the prodding of friends and constituents, many of them clamoring for the old San Francisco White had promised to defend, that reportedly had made him change his mind.
He stormed into Moscone's office, argued with him over the mayor's refusal to give him back his post, and then shot him four times, the last two shots at extremely close range to the head. He walked into Supervisor Harvey Milk's office, argued with him over Milk's support of the mayor's decision not to reappoint him, and shot him five times after Milk, as White would describe it during his subsequent confession, "smirked" at him.
Within less than half an hour, Dan White had killed the two elected politicians who most publicly summoned the vision of the new San Francisco constituencies: Moscone, the voice of the disenfranchised minority, the mayor who put Asians and Hispanics on city boards and supported the black officers suing the police department; and Milk, the celebrated gay leader whose election to public office here had elated gay men and women as far east as Greenwich Village.
White pleaded, in the phrasing of the legal defense his own trial helped politically discredit, "diminished capacity." It was a technically distinct kind of insanity plea, the idea being that because of deep depression and emotional stress White lacked the "capacity" to kill with malice and premeditation, and White's attorney Douglas Schmidt has been saying since Monday afternoon that it ought to be evident now that White was diminished -- that as Schmidt said this morning in a telephone interview, "The guy, psychologically, was a mess."
"It wasn't a hoax," Schmidt said. "He was a sick man . . . He didn't understand his own problems. He didn't probably face adequately the fact that he had a major mental illness. The guy needed medication. He needed treatment. And he didn't get it."
*White, on the basis of his "diminished capacity" defense, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, requiring a sentence that totaled, when shortened by legal mandates aimed at well-behaved prisoners, just over five years. It was a verdict that strained credulity, to almost everyone who had sat outside the courtroom; the papers had outlined again and again how White had sneaked his gun around the City Hall metal detectors and had then reloaded before shooting Milk.
But that was not the whole of it. That was not the only reason that thousands of gay men massed before City Hall that night, at first chanting, then screaming, then hurling rocks and smashing glass and setting police cars afire. That was not the only reason that San Francisco liberals, the men and women who might have argued fiercely with Dan White two years earlier that the death penalty was unconscionable state murder, found themselves outraged that this man was not to be made to to suffer greatly, and for a very long time.
He had struck at what was loved here, and he had done it from within, as a creation of San Francisco. It did not seem to matter whether he was diminished or not; there was some level on which Dan White the angry little supervisor did not seem to matter at all in the face of what he had brought about. He had left behind a city where casual acquaintances embraced one another at public memorials, and reporters wept as they filed their accounts of the mayor's funeral, and policemen smashed up gay bars or strode into stationhouse locker rooms to scrawl graffiti praising Dan White as a hero of the true San Franciscan.
What was wanted, what all but the gentlest and most forgiving seemed wildly to need, was retribution. Nobody cared whether the state might see fit to "rehabilitate" Dan White; the issue, bald and unsettling as it was, was revenge. While White was in jail, steadfastly refusing either public statement or public regret, there were many poisonous rumors about what would become of him when he was released; the most popular, passed with a certain dark pleasure among people privately hoping it would come true, was that some troubled gay man would martyr himself by murdering White as soon as he hit the city streets. When White's wife became pregnant as the result of one of their conjugal prison visits, enormous distaste greeted both the news and the notion that White was being allowed conjugal visits at all. No one blamed Mary Ann White, a schoolteacher of such apparent patience and goodness that everyone in town refers to her, like some admirable niece, by her first name; it was simply that that the still-bereaved needed to imagine no pleasure at all for the man who had done this to San Francisco and then refused even the feigned pretense of saying he was sorry he had done it.
The child of that particular union, a boy, was born with Down's syndrome. It was the sort of information that was passed only sotto voce after the initial reports, and it became, in its way, part of the tone of what seemed to have happened to Dan White's life. He was paroled in January 1984, some unmarked vehicle spiriting him down to Los Angeles, and when his parole was over and he was left to go where he wished, he went to Ireland for a while and then came home to his small stucco house in San Francisco.
It seems unfathomable that he came back, that he imagined he could live here for good. Schmidt thinks he came because his family was here, his wife was working and he was too sick to be perceptive either about himself or his surroundings -- "kind of a shell of man," Schmidt says. It is reported that his neighbors looked kindly upon him; possibly he imagined that a certain San Francisco, a bar-stool collection of machinists and policemen and elderly ladies frightened by the times, would embrace Dan White again.
And they might have, after all. That is part of the relief in the knowledge that unless police were utterly wrong in what they found Monday afternoon, Dan White took his own life; it is possible to imagine that some of the thing he let loose here died with him. One would like to think that. It is almost certainly wrong, but one would like to think it anyway.