The U.S. Navy recently named USNS Harvey Milk after the ‘70s gay rights activist. Amid the current fetish of erasing heroes for blotches on their records, it begs the question: If we judge Washingtons and Jeffersons by their worst moments, why don’t we judge Mr. Milk by his?
He destroyed the hero who saved a U.S. president.
You may not know the name of left-wing radical Sara Jane Moore, but it would live in infamy alongside Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz and Oswald if not for the quick reflexes of PFC Oliver “Billy” Sipple. On September 22, 1975, he acted every would-be time traveler’s dream at a San Francisco hotel.
He knocked away the assassin’s gun. And the 38th president’s quip, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln,” didn’t go down in history as having eerily tempted fate.
Billy was a decorated U.S. Marine left 100% disabled by the Vietnam War. After Ms. Moore’s first shot missed, he leapt into action. “I lunged and grabbed the woman’s arm,” he said, brushing off praise. “I’m not a hero…It was the thing to do at the time.”
And what a time it was. In the wake of Watergate and amidst the Cold War, it’s easy to imagine disaster (which was Ms. Moore’s goal) if President Gerald Ford died. He had been elected to neither the presidency nor the vice presidency. The continuance of the government — the fate of the republic — might’ve been chambered in that revolver.
The Secret Service commended Billy, unlike the way President William McKinley’s protective detail had erased James B. Parker’s similar bravery in 1901. Mr. Parker had stopped Czolgosz from firing a third shot at Mr. McKinley and initially seemed to have saved him, too.
The G-men didn’t appreciate being shown up by a mere African-American waiter and ignored his heroism. Just six years later, he was picked up as a vagrant in Atlantic City and soon died in a mental hospital, afflicted by demons that were kin to those Billy would face thanks to Harvey Milk‘s selfish cruelty.
I haven’t said up to this point that Billy Sipple was gay; he didn’t wish that to be his identity. According to the AP, “Billy telephoned news outlets and begged them not to mention his name, his address or ‘anything about me.’” He might have succeeded in protecting his privacy, but he had worked on Mr. Milk‘s campaign.
Mr. Milk knew Billy’s secret, and he saw this as a great PR opportunity, Billy‘s wishes be damned. Author Randy Shilts (among the first journalists to write about AIDS) quoted Mr. Milk: “It’s too good an opportunity. For once, we can show that gays do heroic things…” So he called a gossip columnist and outed Billy to the world.
Billy‘s parents and siblings disowned him. When he withdrew from the spotlight, Mr. Milk jumped into it, happy to exploit his friend to advance the cause, to speculate — without evidence — that Mr. Ford would have been more grateful if his savior had been straight.
Asked about this, Mr. Ford said, “I didn’t learn until sometime later … he was gay. I don’t know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays.”
Billy filed a $15 million invasion of privacy lawsuit against several newspapers but lost; it was downhill from there. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, fitted with a pacemaker, and slid into alcoholism.
When he died in 1989 at just 47, he was broke, alone, obese, and depressed, crumpled on the floor of a threadbare apartment. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels for a pillow. A framed letter of commendation signed by Mr. Ford on the wall.
George Sipple described the bitterness of his brother’s final years. “[Billy] said life would have been so much simpler if he hadn’t have done it,” or if maybe Harvey Milk had kept his mouth shut.
Mr. Milk never expressed regret for using a friend as a prop, yet his name adorns a ship. Do we remove it because of this single merciless act, or do we recognize that just as nobody puts up a statue of Washington to celebrate slavery, nobody painted MILK on that steel bow to honor ruining his friend’s life?
A better solution isn’t to erase people who fail from history but to honor those who they wronged.
USNS Billy Sipple has a nice ring to it. Not only is it appropriate for a Marine, but it could sail proudly alongside the U.S. Navy‘s latest aircraft carrier, set to deploy next year.
After all, what better ship to protect CVN 78: The USS Gerald R. Ford?
• Dean Karayanis is a producer for the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show, longtime Rush Limbaugh staffer, and host of the History Author Show on iHeartRadio @HistoryDean.