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Incident In Miami
On a warm Florida evening in 1933 a madman with a pistol and a personality profile now all too familiar—“unskilled, unfriendly, unmoneyed, and unwell”—came within inches of altering the course of American history in one of its most critical moments
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Such doubts were certainly not reduced by the holiday he had just completed aboard the yacht of one of America’s richest men. Thev miffht have been reduced at least somewhat, had the doubters been permitted to see and hear him on the night of February 3, the eve of his holiday. He had then journeyed by special train down from Warm Springs, Georgia, toward Jacksonville, Florida, where the Nourmahal awaited him. And as the miles of darkness clicked by outside his drawing-room window he had talked over with two of his most intimate advisers—Professor Raymond Moley of Columbia and “Boss” Edward J. Flynn of the Bronx Democracy—his ideas for his inaugural address. Moley took notes: “1. World is sick 2. America is sick. Because failure to recognize Eco. changes in time vast development of machine age in 20 years from point of view or replacing manpower [have] moved faster than in 100 years [before] producer capacity in agri—capacity in industry outrun consumption. … Time to face the facts and get away from idea we can return to conditions of 29–30 … what’s needed is action along … new lines. … Action … action. … [If necessary] I shall ask Cong for … broad executive powers to conduct a war against the world emergency just as great as the powers that would be given if we were invaded by a foreign foe. …” Roosevelt’s two companions had had no doubts about his seriousness of purpose or his personal force that night. He dominated them, who were both formidable men; he appeared in full command of himself and his situation.
Next morning, however, certain doubts had assailed Ed Flynn as he stood on Jacksonville’s municipal dock at Commodore Point watching the Nourmahal ’s departure. Vincent Astor and his five guests, all in holiday attire, were lined up at the rail, waving their farewells, and Flynn regarded them sourly. He was particularly struck by a gaudily striped blazer worn by Mr. George St. George of Tuxedo Park. “The Hasty Pudding Club puts out to sea,” said Flynn, with more than a hint of contempt in his voice. He wished, as others of Roosevelt’s political associates wished, that the Presidentelect had chosen, in this dark winter of discontent, a less ostentatiously privileged mode of relaxation; that his holiday companions had not all been of that social elite which leftists damned as the “exploiting class”; and especially that his host had not been scion of a family whose huge income derived in good part from Harlem tenements. On the latter fact, left-wing journalists could (and did) make acid comment.
Thus, as the cruise ended, doubts remained about Roosevelt even among his closest political associates. And no doubter could have been reassured by Roosevelt’s demeanor as witnessed by Ray Moley when he, come down from the North to report orally on progress made in negotiations with prospective cabinet appointees, boarded the Nourmahal shortly after its Miami docking.
An obviously festive farewell dinner had just been completed. Roosevelt still sat at the dinner table, which had the remains of a laree birthdav cake at its center, talking with a group of reporters who, having been denied all communication with him during the cruise, now interviewed him. He talked of his vacation, and of that (so he indicated, grinning mischievously) with some reservations: he had locked away the ship’s log, he said, to keep its contents from the reporters’ prying eyes. He did want them all to know that he had had a perfectly grand twelve days in the Caribbean sea and sun. He had done a lot of fishing, a good deal of swimming. “I didn’t even open the briefcase,” he went on, with the sly glee of a truant schoolboy. “We went to a different place each day. Usually we fished in the morning and came back to the yacht for lunch. One day we had an all-day trip to the middle bight of Andros Island after bone-fish. The only difficulty is that you can’t talk and fish for bonefish. … We only fished for bone-fish one day.” There had been an absolute “whale of a fish” which “took nearly all the line I had” and was lost when it “sounded and the line was broken on some coral at the bottom.”
When the press interview ended, Moley was left alone with Roosevelt to present his confidential reports. He did so swiftly and succinctly, since Roosevelt was scheduled to leave in a few minutes for a public appearance (a “sort of reception,” Moley later called it) in Miami’s Bay Front Park. A crowd of several thousand had been gathered in the park for some time; among the dignitaries seated in the bandstand was Mayor Anton J. Cermak of Chicago, who wanted to discuss with Roosevelt the possibility of easing Chicago’s continuing financial crisis (the city owed its schoolteachers some $20 million in back pay) with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (the previous summer, Hoover had approved a $90 million loan to a single Chicago bank).