Sunday, March 1, 2009

We know the scene all too well. It's November 1963, and John F. Kennedy, 46, America's handsome, charismatic president, rides in an open limousine, waving to crowds as his motorcade winds through the city's downtown streets.

This time, however, no shots would ring out.

The date is Monday, November 18, four days before the president would be gunned down in Dallas. This day, Kennedy basks in Florida's adulation as his motorcade cruises through the streets of Tampa.

Kennedy had just spent a relaxing weekend at his family's Palm Beach compound where he'd wintered every year since he was a teen. No one could have imagined this one-day visit to Tampa and Miami would be John Kennedy's farewell to Florida.

At 11:24 am on November 18, the President's personal Boeing 707--Air Force One--touched down at Tampa's MacDill AFB. As the MacGill band played Hail to the Chief, Kennedy was greeted on the tarmac by U.S. Senator George Smathers (who ten years prior had been best man at JFK's wedding) and U.S. Representative Claude Pepper.

After lunch at the Officer's Club with the base commander, Kennedy boarded a Marine helicopter bound for Al Lopez Field. There, in front of 10,000 partisans, JFK delivered a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of commercial air travel, which had begun in 1913 with a Tampa-to-St. Pete flight.

Kennedy's next stop, via white Lincoln convertible, was the International Inn Hotel (now the Wyndham Westshore Hotel on Kennedy Boulevard) where he met members of Tampa's United Steelworker's Union. The president--a renown cigar affecionado--was presented with a box of Cuban coronas, his favorite smokes.

Kennedy then entered his familiar blue Lincoln, sans bubbletop--license G6-300, the same vehicle he would ride in Dallas--for the trip through downtown Tampa; this was to be the longest domestic motorcade in the Kennedy presidency.

Photos taken along the route show the president standing in the vehicle, waving to crowds packed several deep. All along the route jubilant Tampans waved, cheered, and clicked pictures. Suddenly--thud!--an object landed on the roof of the secret service car. For an instant, it appeared it might be a small explosive; an agent immediately knocked it aside. The object--a candy bar--skidded onto the street amid laughter from the other agents.

But there were security breaches in Tampa that four days hence would prove no laughing matter. Normal motorcade procedure called for secret service agents to stand on the limo's running boards. But Kennedy, eager to connect with voters of a state that fell to Republican Richard Nixon in 1960, asked that no agents ride the boards, a mistake tragically repeated in Dallas.

The Tampa motorcade ended at Ft. Homer Hestery Armory, where JFK spoke to 2,500 members of the city's Chamber of Commerce. Then it was back to MacGill for the flight to Miami.

Kennedy arrived at Miami International Airport at 5 pm as 5,000 spectators lined a security fence hoping for a glimpse. JFK approached the crowd and began shaking the outstretched hands. The crowd surged forward, nearly toppling the fence, and an agent placed his hand on the president's shoulder to guide him away. "Give me a minute," the president replied, and turned back toward the crowd.

There would be no motorcade in Miami, however, a decision based on several death threats intercepted by the FBI. Instead, JFK helicoptered to the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour, a guest of the Inter American Press Association. In the hotel ballroom JFK dined on roast beef in periguex sauce and sipped burgundy before addressing the group.

It was to be JFK's last major speech.

The subject was Cuba, a topic of intense interest to South Floridians. Calling Cubans "victims of foreign imperialism," Kennedy encouraged the Cuban people to rebel against communist leader Fidel Castro. "We will never permit," JFK vowed, "another Cuba in our hemishphere."

The president concluded his remarks with an appeal to voters to support his reelection in 1964. "I promise to return next year," he said, "and make a longer speech."

Kennedy flew back to Miami International Airport via helicopter. At 9 pm he boarded Air Force One for his flight to Washington. As the big jet pointed its nose skyward, America's 35th president left his adoptive state for the last time.


Yesterday in Florida
magazine, Issue 19