What Harvey Milk Hoped For
A year before his murder, Harvey Milk — the most visible LGBTQ+ politician in the country at the time — delivered his last stump speech as a will and testament, in front of a lawyer and his tape recorder.
Like most of his remarks, it started off stilted. Milk would begin his speeches by reading from a notepad, shoulders tensed and arms at his sides, occasionally breaking eye contact. But — always, eventually, and inevitably — Milk would get comfortable. His shoulders would relax. The notepad would fall to his side, his other hand raised into a fist. By the end, he and the audience would be one, bound by the rousing cadences of the stump speech that became his calling card:
“You’ve got to give them hope.”
In the transcript of his political will, it’s no different. It’s easy to imagine the places where Milk paused for dramatic effect, or how he scaled his pitch to emphasize the parallel structure of each phrase. Or even his gravelly voice cracking under the weight of his charge:
“You’ve got to give them hope!”
Hope, if not one of the oldest tropes in political speech, is certainly one of the most used. Hope can bring comfort; hope can galvanize a movement; and most importantly, hope can define the speaker’s role in that movement. Who are they? What do they want from us? Are they our leader in the proverbial fight, or are they our equal?
To answer these questions, look at the call to action. When one invokes hope, they can ask their audience to have hope themselves — or give it to others. So when we consider “hope” and how it’s used — by Milk and those who came after him — we can see how, even with the same words, politicians can ask for different things.
Milk’s hope was for a wide-ranging, populist progressive platform. Tenant rights. Police reform. Mental health access. All of this, and more, for one purpose: to see queer people live. “You’ve got to give them hope” — an unfussy phrase, shouted out, sharpened by its urgency — was a call for the queer community to occupy every political space in the fight for their issues.
Hope was the natural conclusion to his stump; “I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you” was a cheeky allusion to the right-wing fear mongering around the “gay agenda.” Perhaps, he thought, that hope could reach a young closeted kid. Maybe then they could overcome their fear, come out, and join the fight for gay rights. Maybe then they’d run for office themselves, championing the same progressive causes. He had them in mind.
In effect, Milk wanted to transform the mechanisms of electoral politics, and rebuild it in the image of the community he championed. He positioned himself as an equal in a fight that was bigger than he was, and this was the hope he offered: A call to action, to join the fight. And a hope that, if others joined, the work of the movement would continue after he died.
But after Milk’s assassination, his conservative opponents sold a different version of hope.
Over idyllic imagery of happy, white, straight Americans — men and women getting married, children raising the American flag, families moving into new homes — a soothing voice asked: “It’s morning again in America. And, under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger, and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”
The ad was a dog whistle for American “family values,” inverting Milk’s narrative of hope. Instead of hope being something to fight for, it offered its audience the image of hope fulfilled. It sold, above all, comfort: Comfort to Milk’s nemeses, the Anita Bryants and John Briggses and Jerry Falwells of the world, who railed against the moral turpitude of gay people existing. Comfort to the rest of the white flight population, too.
Today, “It’s Morning Again in America” is considered one of the most effective political ads in history; turns out, “hope fulfilled” sells. In the world Reagan proffered, there were no more marches, no more riots, no more talk of liberation and revolution. You were happy, and had things and jobs, and that was all. To keep it, you simply had to vote for Reagan one more time.
But to really understand the hope Reagan fulfilled, we have to remember what he promised. He won his first election in part by mobilizing conservative sentiment against the Democrats for courting the gay vote. Despite the fact that San Francisco mayor George Moscone had been shot alongside Harvey Milk, ads ran across the South warning, “The gays in San Francisco elected a Mayor. Now they’re going to elect a President.”
It was clear hope fulfilled did not include queer people. As the AIDS crisis began to take hold, their deaths became a subject of mockery: when President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked if the administration was tracking cases of the “gay plague,” he retorted, to a room full of laughter, “I don’t have it. Do you?”
And while Reagan would win 49 states in 1984, by the end of that election, 5,596 people would have died of complications from AIDS. It would be another year before Reagan would even utter the word “AIDS” in public.
Harvey Milk and Ronald Reagan offered two competing versions of hope — one of progress, and one of backlash; a hope to fight for and a hope fulfilled — and four decades later, as President Donald Trump faced re-election, those dynamics resurfaced in a surprising way.
Like Reagan, Trump rode a wave of moral conservatism into office, offering to uphold what Reagan fulfilled. Meanwhile, twenty-seven Democratic challengers offered their own variations on “hope” rhetoric — and one began to enjoy outsized success.
Today, he is the most visible LGBTQ+ politician in the country. And while Pete Buttigieg didn’t win the Democratic nomination, he — and his rhetoric — occupy a strange space in this conversation about “hope.”
Buttigieg ran as a small-town Midwestern mayor touting “heartland values.” His stump wove narratives of Christian conviction and American freedom to court back the disaffected, mostly white, mostly Rust Belt populations who voted for Trump. He called for “the freedom to live a life of our choosing.” He acknowledged that, “Sometimes, that means getting government out of the way.” And he asked his audience to imagine “the first day that the sun comes up,” of a hope fulfilled and Trump voted out of office.
It’s the language of the Reagan Democrat. The hope he says we’ve got to give each other isn’t of radical change — it’s a return to pre-Trump normalcy. Buttigieg was promising “Morning Again in America.”
As a queer person, the irony of this technique is not lost on me. Admittedly, it’s a clever inversion of traditional conservative rhetoric — but it also highlights the radically different trajectories of Buttigieg and Milk. Both were white military veterans, and both had started off in the closet of cushy corporate America; Milk had taken a job on Wall Street, while Buttigieg, rather notoriously, had come from McKinsey. But they ended up standing for different things, speaking to different audiences, using hope and its promise in fundamentally different ways — and you can see it in the call to action.
To Buttigieg, the 2020 election was a chance to “say no to the hopelessness […] and take it into our own hands.” But “our own hands” isn’t a reference to the hands of a young queer person demanding radical progress. It’s a wink and a nod to moderate caucus-goers in a predominantly older, whiter, rural state with one of the lowest queer populations in the country — and here, Buttigieg counts himself as one of them.
Certainly, this approach worked. Buttigieg would go on to win the Iowa caucuses, make history as the first LGBT+ person to win a Presidential primary contest, and catapult to the Cabinet. And in a sense, this was what Milk himself had hoped for; after all, he himself had won office on a stump speech that declared coming out to be the hope young people needed to run for office themselves.
But it’s hard not to hear the echoes of Reagan in Buttigieg’s campaign and wonder what Milk would think. For better or for worse, Buttigieg is now the inheritor of Milk’s legacy. And as he continues to shoulder the greatness thrust upon him, it’s my hope that he comes to terms with what hope really means — not just in terms of the rhetoric he employs, but also in terms of the values and people behind it.
— David Guirgis (WWW intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good. Each essay reflects the unique POV and opinions of its author, not West Wing Writers.
Read Harvey Milk’s “The Hope” speech here.
Follow West Wing Writers on Twitter.