In a brief but busy visit to South Florida the week of his death, President John F. Kennedy shook hands with supporters and sipped scotch with newspaper editors. And he promised to return.
“I’ll come back next year and make a longer speech,” he said to a crowd of 4,000 gathered 50 years ago at Miami International Airport.
The day was Monday, Nov. 18, 1963, and it would be his final visit to Miami-Dade County.
Kennedy had spent the morning in Tampa and the previous day in West Palm Beach, where he attended Sunday Mass at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church.
Kennedy was no stranger to South Florida. He spent time growing up at his family’s Palm Beach compound. As president, he made seven stops in Miami-Dade.
It was a much smaller Dade in the 1960s. The county was then home to fewer than 1 million people. Today, more than 2.5 million live here.
Kennedy also was a frequent visitor to the Orange Bowl, attending the 1961 Missouri-Navy game as president-elect, and again in January 1963 for the Oklahoma-Alabama game.
He made his most-famous appearance at the stadium in December 1962, addressing 35,000 Cuban exiles, including war prisoners from Brigade 2506 who led the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion and whom Kennedy fought to free from Fidel Castro’s jails. They presented him with their battle flag, which Kennedy vowed to return one day to a free Cuba.
“I remember seeing him from the bleachers I was sitting in with my family,” said Teresita Rodriguez Amandi, 60. She was 10 at the time, having fled from Cuba to Miami with her parents the year before.
“It was a very important day for us. It was the first time I would see the president before my very eyes.”
Eleven months later, when Kennedy’s presidential jet touched down about dusk at MIA that Monday in 1963, an advance team was well prepared for his visit. A bomb threat had prompted an extra 250 Metro and Miami police officers to be assigned to presidential detail. Kennedy was not told of the bomb threat.
Secret Service agents scoured the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour for a week before Kennedy’s arrival, securing a block of $35-a-night rooms on a lower floor instead of the harder-to-protect penthouse suite. They had hotel workers take sledgehammers through a wall to create a secure doorway for the president.
When it came time to eat, agents selected for Kennedy a random plate of roast beef from among dozens, reducing the chance of someone poisoning the president’s food.
Despite the precautions, Kennedy’s final visit to Miami showed holes in his protection.
He made a few remarks at the airport’s Delta terminal and then walked into the throng, glad-handing with dozens of eager people.
The pulse of the crowd caused a perimeter security fence to begin to give way. A Secret Service agent reached toward the president, guiding him away from the fence that police officers struggled to keep from falling. Kennedy stayed his course.
“Give me a minute,” he told the agent. “I want to talk to these people.”
After more hand-shaking, Kennedy and his entourage left for Miami Beach. The purpose of his visit: to give a speech to the Inter-American Press Association. One of tablemates at the banquet was Lee Hills, an IAPA member and executive editor of the Miami Herald at the time.
Kennedy cracked wise with the Latin American journalists in attendance. He pointed out that two former Peruvian prime ministers had become newspaper publishers.
“This bears out the saying in this country that if you can’t beat them, join them,” the president joked.
Kennedy talked to the 1,000-person group about keeping Communism out of Latin America. Three times in the 25-minute speech, Kennedy referred to Castro’s eventual downfall; each time, the crowd broke out in sustained applause.
The president met in private for a few minutes before the banquet with four Cuban men who were Bay of Pigs veterans.
Kennedy took a helicopter from Miami Beach back to the airport, just more than three hours after touching down in South Florida. Air Force One was wheels up at 9:14 p.m., headed to Washington.
It was his last flight out of Florida.