Barring an event of Biblical proportions, Friday’s news coverage, on air, online, and on paper, will be all-JFK all the time. But my 50-year John Kennedy story is for today, which is 50 years out from the late president’s first full day of campaigning for the 1964 presidential race. It took place in Tampa. I was on hand for a chunk of it.
Presidential visits (and the traffic nightmares they bring with them) are almost routine for Tampa now, such is the importance of Florida’s 29 electoral votes. But JFK’s 1963 visit was the first time a president in office had come to Tampa. It was a big deal for what was then a sleepy Southern town of about 275,000 souls. There was a cover story for JFK’s visit, something about celebrating the anniversary of the first commercial flight, which took place between Tampa and St. Petersburg in 1914. But the real reason was politics. JFK had lost Florida in 1960 to Tricky Dick by fewer than 50,000 votes, and didn’t want to lose the Sunshine State again in 1964. He wanted to charm the locals, and he succeeded.
I wasn’t a reporter yet. There was still some college left, a couple of years as a member of the defense team (more than just suggested for young men back then), and a dreary year as a government school teacher before I got near my first reporter’s notebook. My best friend at the time and I were pleased enough to abandon our professors at Tampa’s University of South Florida that day (Auden described professors as people who talk in other people’s sleep — just so) in favor of getting a close-up look at our charismatic young president.
The Camelot myth was and is total moonshine, fabricated after JFK’s death by his widow, servile Kennedy courtiers, and press-agents masquerading as reporters. And campaigning, the Kennedy machine could be downright ruthless. But the JFK charm was real enough, as were the good looks, the intelligence, and the humor. At 21, I was fetched in, as was much of the nation (on the day of the Tampa visit, JFK enjoyed a 59 percent job approval rating). After the revered but stodgy Eisenhower, this guy was cool. He did not disappoint on the last Monday of his life.
Kennedy arrived in Air Force One that morning at about 11:45 at MacDill Air Force Base at the southern tip of Tampa. After reviewing the honor guard and touring Strike Command headquarters, Kennedy had lunch with high-ranking military officers and local political and civic swells. Then it was off to the only public appearance of the day, a speech at Al Lopez field, home of the Tampa Tarpons minor league baseball team. Seating capacity of Al Lopez was announced as eight thousand, probably a generous estimate. That afternoon the ball yard was over-capacity with a crowd that, shocking by today’s customs, encountered no metal detectors or visible screening of any kind. We just walked through the turnstiles and wrestled for seats in a crowd that remained good-natured for the duration.
At Al Lopez, Kennedy’s remarks were largely unremarkable — as they were at invitation-only presentations at the local National Guard armory, sponsored by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and at a local hotel, sponsored by a steel-workers union. The purpose of the day was not to persuade, but to charm. Kennedy hit cold war and economic themes in a way that current Democrats would call right-wing extremism, but that most Americans of the day considered the very soul of reasonableness. Stuff about how the United States and its allies (we had them back then) were the force which held back communism and its grotesqueries, and how the president’s most important mission was to help keep the balance of power on the side of freedom. He was repeatedly cheered. Nary a boo. No heckling. No snarky signs.
At the chamber event JFK took pains to stress that his administration was pro-business. He said corporate profits were at an all-time high and prices were stable. Then the Democratic president asked the local business community for support for — get ready for this — his proposed tax cut bill, which had stalled in Congress. Lower taxes, he said, would lead to economic expansion and full employment. Democratic supply-side economics? (See “JFK Conservative” in the October issue of TAS.)
The only marginally controversial moment of the day came at the armory when someone asked a question about why JFK was so keen on civil rights for blacks (actually, he wasn’t that hot for them if they hurt his electoral chances in Southern states — and Florida was Southern back then, Jim Crow by law and by etiquette). Kennedy bobbed and weaved a bit on that one and the crowd, which clearly wanted to like him, let him off easy.
In between stops, Kennedy’s motorcade covered almost 30 miles — through downtown, from Al Lopez to the West Shore business district, and then south down Dale Mabry Highway back to MacDill. Thousands lined the streets to see and cheer Kennedy, who stood up for most of the trip in the open Lincoln limousine he would be killed in four days later in Dallas. The main east-wet artery he traveled on the motorcade was later re-named Kennedy Boulevard.
Current Secret Service agents forced to watch film of JFK on that day would probably break out in hives. Kennedy not only rode in an open car, eschewing the bullet-proof bubble-top, but told the small Secret Service detail on hand that day that they should not ride on the back of his car, clinging to the special hand rails there for the purpose. At every opportunity, Kennedy walked up to crowds to visit, shake hands, and otherwise press the flesh. He spent the day surrounded by police officers from all the local law enforcement agencies, but also by thousands of unscreened admirers and gawkers, any one of whom could have been armed and meant the president harm.
Secret Service kept some locals who had sent threatening letters to the president or to local law enforcement under surveillance or detained. Other than this, Kennedy was on his own. He was a great one-on-one or one-on-a-small-group campaigner. He exuded an easy genuineness rare among politicians. He seemed to really enjoy these intimate rope-line encounters. This openness finally proved fatal to him.
The worst didn’t happen in Tampa, but it was likely one of the most tense days ever for local law enforcement officers. Years after the visit James P. Mullins, Tampa’s police chief in 1963, talked with me about the day and about Kennedy: “He was a man you couldn’t predict in a crowd. He would bust loose without warning and start shaking hands.” Mullins’ troops, augmented by Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies and officers from St. Petersburg PD, Clearwater PD, Plant City PD, and Florida Highway Patrol did the best they could that day with a glad-handing president not obviously concerned for his own safety. But these guys must have been the most relieved people in Tampa when Air Force One lifted off at 4:37 from MacDill, on the way to Miami where Kennedy gave a speech on foreign relations that evening.
The following Friday afternoon, Mullins received a letter from Agent Gerald S. Blaine, head of the Secret Service detail for Kennedy’s Tampa visit, thanking Mullins and his officers for “ a professional job well done” in helping protect the president. While Mullins was reading the letter, his wife called to tell him he had better turn on the radio.