- 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
Almost before his last word was spoken—certainly before he could acknowledge the crowd’s applause in his accustomed manner (head high, wide smile on a face turned this way and that, right hand lifted in a little wave)—Roosevelt was accosted by a man who had clambered up on the car’s back, surprisingly unhindered in this by the Secret Service. The man was one of the “talking picture people,” as Roosevelt later put it, and he told the President-elect to turn around and repeat his little speech for the recording camera (Roosevelt had had his back to it). The gall of news photographers has always been notorious: they act on the assumption that great men and great events occur solely for the purpose of being photographed by them—indeed, cannot be said really to exist or occur unless photographed by them. But the gall of this particular specimen of the breed was almost beyond belief. He refused to take Roosevelt’s prompt, flat no for an answer. “But you’ve got to !” he protested. “We’ve come one thousand miles for this!” The smile faded from Roosevelt’s face. “I am very sorry but I can’t do it,” he said coldly, dismissingly, and slid down into the seat.
As he did so he saw Mayor Cermak approaching, hand outstretched, and he took that hand in a hearty shake. The two talked together for almost a minute, arranging to meet a little later for private talk in Roosevelt’s private railway car, which now waited at the Miami station to return him to New York. Cermak then moved off a few feet behind the car and stood there with a Secret Service man named Robert Clark beside him while someone else approached the President-elect, a man carrying what Roosevelt later described in typical hyperbole as “a telegram five or six feet long.”
Roosevelt was destined never to know what that curious telegram contained.
For just as the man carrying it had begun to explain its contents, he was interrupted by a sharp report which Roosevelt, leaning forward and to his left, interpreted as an exploding firecracker—which Moley, seventy-five feet away, interpreted as a car backfiring—and which initiated one of those moments that flash instantaneously through immediate experience but may become, in retrospect, longer than days of ordinary time, thick with simultaneous event, heavy with the significance of fatal might-have-beens.
Four more sharp reports followed the first in rapid succession. There were shouts, screams of pain and terror, a blur of violent action, and at the initiating center of it all sat Roosevelt, whose enforced immobility might have been expected to make him peculiarly vulnerable to flinching nervousness as he realized, all at once, that what he had heard was a gun and that he was almost certainly that gun’s intended target. He showed no excitement whatever. Only an alert attentiveness. Calmly, precisely observant (this fact comes clear in the account of the episode he dictated a few hours later), he acted with a commanding decisiveness in response to his swiftly accurate perceptions of what he saw. First, he saw the man with the telegram being pulled away, yanked away from the car, whose motor roared as the driver started it and shifted into gear—saw in that same instant that the back of one of Bob Clark’s hands had been deeply scratched and was bleeding—then saw that Cermak, his face marble white, was tottering, with blood on his shirt front, and was being held up by Clark—and instantaneously surmised that a bullet had creased Clark’s hand on its way into Cermak’s chest and that Cermak, not himself, had been the gunman’s intended victim. The car was now moving, gathering speed; immediately he ordered the driver to stop and, with forceful gestures, ordered the men beside Cermak to ease the wounded man into the car seat beside him.
“It was providential” as Roosevelt later said, that the car had moved some thirty feet beyond the spot where Roosevelt had spoken, for over that spot the excited crowd now closed in and “it would have been difficult to … get out.”
As it was, they were clear of the crowd in a few seconds.