- Historic Sites
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
So as soon as Moley had completed his reports, Roosevelt and his party moved from the yacht to the three automobiles that had been drawn up on the dock. Roosevelt entered the lead car, a touring car with its top down, and seated himself beside his official host, the mayor of Miami. With him also rode Marvin Mclntyre, who was slated to be the President’s appointments secretary; Gus Gennerich, Roosevelt’s personal bodyguard; and a Secret Service man. The second car, also open, carried only Secret Service men. The third and last car was a sedan, not a limousine (it seemed to Moley “rather small”), and in it rode Moley, Vincent Astor, Justice Frederick Kernochan of New York, and Kermit Roosevelt, T.R.’s son, who had been one of the five guests aboard the Nourmahal .
The journey to the park began a few minutes after nine o’clock. Leaving the dock, the small cavalcade turned into a boulevard lined with palm trees running along the bay—an almost empty boulevard which was lit only at wide intervals, and then dimly. The palm trees, their fronds clashing in a stiff ocean breeze, traced black patterns against a dark sky, and there was, evidently, in the night, some of the soft sensuous quality that had struck Eleanor Roosevelt as somehow eerie and sinister when she visited Florida in the 1920’s. At any rate, to Astor this night seemed, all at once, full of menace. It occurred to him, disturbingly—and he said aloud—that any man bent on assassinating the President-elect might do so without difficulty “in such a place as this. ” Roosevelt was clad in a light-colored suit. He rode in an open car driven at a very moderate speed (he disliked high-speed travel). He would be an easy target for any gunman lurking in the shadows.
Nor did the danger seem to Astor any less when the cavalcade reached Bay Front Park. Quite the contrary. For though the park was brightly lighted it was also densely crowded with people along the route taken by the three cars. The motorcade slowed to the pace of a walking man as it moved down a narrow lane cleared through the throng. Here an assassin might come within an arm’s length of the President-elect. And again, as they came in sight of the bandstand, Astor spoke aloud of the danger. Moley replied that the danger, though real, was also an accustomed one and should be somewhat less acute now than it had been on scores of occasions during the presidential campaign: the candidate had relied wholly on local police for his protection, “and their security measures were never very adequate,” whereas the President-elect was guarded by highly trained Secret Service men especially chosen for the job.
But now the lead car, having come abreast of the bandstand, halted, with the car bearing Secret Service men not far behind and that in which Moley and Astor rode about seventy-five feet back. The night grew loud with cheers and applause of a crowd which was now standing, though some hundreds of people theretofore had been sitting in rows of flimsy chairs and benches facing the bandstand. Then quiet descended. Roosevelt was hoisted up onto the top of the back seat (this was done so swiftly, so expertly that most of the crowd didn’t realize it was made necessary by almost totally crippled legs), was introduced by Miami’s mayor with the brevity (the simple unadorned naming of title) proper for a President-elect of the United States, and was handed a loudspeaker.
“I am not a stranger here because for a great many years I used to come down here,” he said, referring to the many weeks he had spent each winter, from 1923 through 1926, on a houseboat (first the rented Weona II , then the purchased Larooco ) in Florida waters, swimming and sunning and doing special exercises to strengthen his withered legs. “I haven’t been here for seven years, but I am coming back. I am firmly resolved not to make this the last time. I have had a very wonderful twelve days fishing in these Florida and Bahama waters. It has been a wonderful rest and we caught a great many fish. I am not going to … tell you any fish stories [the crowd laughed on cue] and the only fly in the ointment… is that I put on about ten pounds [more cued laughter]. I hope very much to come down here next winter and see all of you and to have another ten days or two weeks in Florida waters. Many thanks. ”