Weekend Reader: <i>JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation Of A Man And The Emergence Of A Great President</i>
This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you JFK’s Last Hundred Days by American historian Thurston Clarke. The president’s last 100 days took place during a pivotal time in American history: Kennedy was in the process of implementing progressive policies domestically and internationally during the Cold War and Vietnam. In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Thurston describes the timeline of this period through a very personal look into the president’s policies and personal life. Thurston doesn’t entertain conspiracy theories, but focuses on what JFK did for America — improved immigration policy, focused on civil rights, moved to amend relations with the Soviet Union, and pushed for Medicare, among many other accomplishments.
You can purchase the book here.
Sunday, November 17-Monday, November 18
Palm Beach, Tampa, Miami
As they were driving to the West Palm Beach airport on Monday morning, Kennedy told Torby Macdonald that the weekend had been “really living,” and one he would never forget. The weather had been perfect, windless sunny days followed by clear nights. On Saturday afternoon they had sat on the patio in swimsuits watching the Navy-Duke football game. He had bet on Navy and after winning had insisted that Powers and Macdonald fetch their wallets and pay up. On Saturday evening he sang “September Song” and talked endlessly about von Braun’s prediction that the United States would beat the Russians to the moon. On Sunday they had gathered on the patio to watch the Bears play the Packers, and again he won the wager. The weekend reminded Macdonald of the months before the Second World War, “when there was nothing of moment on anybody’s mind.” The only jarring note came when he and Kennedy were swimming together and began discussing how they both feared being incapacitated by a stroke, as their fathers had been. Macdonald asked Kennedy how he would like to die. “Oh, a gun,” he said. “You never know what’s hit you. A gunshot is the perfect way.”
While Kennedy was enjoying the weekend pleasures of the average middle-aged, middle-class American male, his programs and initiatives were moving forward.
During a speech at the New York Economic Club, McNamara announced that a major cut in defense spending was “in the works,” calling it “a fundamental strategic shift…not just a temporary slash.”
The Associated Press reported that “the withdrawal of 1000 U.S. servicemen from South Vietnam will start Dec. 3, Major General Charles J. Timmes announced today. The men are to depart by the end of the year, leaving about 15,500 troops in the country.”
Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Anthony Celebrezze presented the administration’s case for Medicare to the House Ways and Means Committee, describing it as “legislation to provide health care for the elderly under the Social Security program.” It was necessary, he said, because “the best that private insurance has been able to do to solve the dilemma of high costs and low income is to offer either low-cost policies with inadequate protection or more adequate policies that are priced out of reach of most of the aged.” The committee was not expected to vote on Medicare that year, but as the hearing progressed, the prospects for favorable action appeared to be improving.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach announced that the administration was “hopeful” that the civil rights bill would reach the House floor by mid-December and be passed by Christmas. The New York Times editorialized that even if this timetable was not met, its postponement into 1964 “would not necessarily be fatal.”
Walter Heller received a memorandum from Under Secretary of Agriculture Charles Murphy responding to his request to provide recommendations for “Widening Prosperity,” the new title of the president’s antipoverty program. Murphy wrote that because of the difficulty of “proposing any dramatic new legislative program to attack poverty in a time of tight budgetary restrictions,” he suggested waiting to launch it until the fall of 1964.
Jim Bishop and Pierre Saligner happened to dine at the same Palm Beach restaurant on Saturday evening. Salinger told Bishop that Kennedy was eager to read his book. It struck Bishop as odd that he should be so insistent on seeing the manuscript but promised to rush it to the White House.
During his flight from West Palm Beach to Tampa on Monday morning, Kennedy stopped in the aisle to talk with Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring. Putting a hand on his shoulder, he said, “I have a feeling it’s going to be a great day.”
Agent Emory Roberts, who was also on Kennedy’s Secret Service detachment, had received a call that morning from Agent Gerald Blaine, who was in Tampa preparing for the president’s visit. Blaine had accompanied Kennedy on the previous summer’s motorcades in Dublin and Rome, and after witnessing crowds in those cities breaking through police lines and engulfing Kennedy’s limousine he was concerned it might happen in Tampa, where he would be riding in the longest motorcade of his presidency—a twenty-eight-mile drive from Al Lopez Field, the spring training home of the New York Yankees, through downtown to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. Blaine was also worried because Tampa had a large Cuban community with pro- and anti-Castro factions, and because a right-wing fanatic named Joseph Milteer had been recorded telling a police informant that the best way to kill the president would be “from an office building with a high-powered rifle.” The Secret Service had tracked Milteer to Georgia and placed him under surveillance, but the threat had unsettled Blaine enough that he called Roberts to recommend that he and Boring station two agents on the steps flanking the trunk of the president’s limousine. This would put them close enough to protect him from spectators dashing toward the car, and in a position where they could shield him from the kind of sniper threatened by Milteer.
Boring seized on his casual encounter with Kennedy on Air Force One to raise this sensitive subject. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Mr. President, we have a very long motorcade, so we’re going to have to stick to a tight time schedule. Two people have made threats against your life and even though we have them in custody, you might want to keep your stops during the motorcade to a minimum.”
Removing his hand from Boring’s shoulder, Kennedy said, “Floyd, this is a political trip. If I don’t mingle with the people, I couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” He was down the aisle before Boring could suggest positioning agents on the rear steps.
The Secret Service had not guarded candidates during the 1960 campaign, so Tampa would be the first time that it had protected Kennedy while he was in campaign mode. Not only would he be taking the longest motorcade of his presidency, but he would be making a record number of stops in a single day: arrival and departure ceremonies at MacDill Air Force Base, a visit to the military’s Strike Command headquarters, lunch at the officers’ club at the base, a speech at Al Lopez Field to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first flight from Tampa to St. Petersburg, another speech to members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce at the armory, and another to the United Steelworkers union at a downtown hotel. Blaine and the agents preparing for the visit had screened the reporters who would be covering him and the dignitaries who would be welcoming, dining, and sharing platforms with him. They had flown his black Lincoln Continental from Washington the night before and would guard it until he climbed inside. They had ordered policemen stationed on overpasses on his route and on catwalks inside the armory, and told the motorcycle policemen to drive straight ahead and run down unauthorized individuals approaching his limousine. They had put agents in the kitchen of the officers’ club who would choose at random which tray of food would be sent to his table, and posted an agent outside the home of a man overheard boasting that the Ku Klux Klan had authorized him to assassinate the president. But they did not have the manpower to run background checks on everyone who would get close to him, nor could they be certain that one of the 25,000 people attending these events would not be armed, perhaps explaining why an off-duty St. Petersburg policeman was able to carry a pistol into the armory while agents were confiscating a Brownie box camera from a fourteen-year-old boy.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Thurston Clarke, 2013.