DANIEL J. FLYNN
Drinking Harvey Milk’s Kool-Aid
Lionized by Hollywood and California state legislators, the real Milk was a demagogue and pal of Jim Jones.
21 May 2009
This Friday would have been slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk’s 79th birthday, and California state senator Mark Leno has introduced legislation to mark the date with a state holiday. The bill doesn’t call for a furlough from work, but instead instructs the governor to proclaim a “Harvey Milk Day” and designates “that date as having special significance in the public schools and educational institutions” and encourages them to “conduct suitable commemorative exercises.” The legislation passed muster with the state senate in overwhelming fashion last week. Though only about one in five Californians polled supports the measure, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, Leno is optimistic. “If there’s one thing Arnold Schwarzenegger understands, it’s box office,” Leno relates. “And Harvey Milk now has box office.”
Indeed he does—and critical acclaim, too. Earlier this year, Sean Penn won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk in the eponymous biopic. A quarter-century ago, the Harvey Fierstein–narrated The Times of Harvey Milk won an Oscar for best documentary film.
Milk makes a rather unremarkable subject for the silver screen. In his seven years in San Francisco, he made four bids for elective office, only emerging victorious in his last—a 1977 run for city supervisor. For his persistence, Milk jokingly referred to himself as the “gay Harold Stassen.” He served for less than a year. In naming the onetime camera-shop proprietor one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century, Time conceded, “As a supervisor, Milk sponsored only two laws—predictably, one barring anti-gay discrimination, and, less so, a law forcing dog owners to clean pets’ messes from sidewalks.” Eleven months on the city council hardly seems the stuff of Hollywood legend. So Hollywood invented a legend.
Rather than the gentle, soft-spoken idealist portrayed by Sean Penn, the real Harvey Milk was a short-tempered demagogue who cynically invented stories of victimhood to advance his political career. During his successful run for city supervisor, for instance, Milk’s camera store was the object of a glass-shattering attack by low-grade explosives. Milk blamed singer Anita Bryant, the outspoken opponent of gay-friendly legislation. “Years later friends hinted broadly that Harvey had more than a little foreknowledge that the explosions would happen,” biographer Randy Shilts noted. One friend explained to Shilts: “You gotta realize the campaign was sort of going slow, and, well . . .”