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Guest column | Jerry Blizin

JFK's humanity on a day of gloom

Forty-eight years ago I got my first interview with John F. Kennedy. He was wearing a gray pin-stripe suit jacket, foulard tie and white boxer shorts.

The late Bob Moreland and I, both St. Petersburg Times staffers, had flown to Miami on Oct. 18, 1960 to get a color photo (by Moreland) and interview of presidential candidate Kennedy.

It was to be a banner political day for Tampa Bay. Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Tampa later in the day, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, was slated to speak in St. Petersburg. It was the first time ever that two presidential candidates, stumping in Florida, were scheduled to speak on the same day in the Tampa Bay area.

Full color printing in a daily paper in the '60s was a difficult task, so the pictures had to be taken early in the day and flown back immediately for processing into color separations.

While Moreland and I flew to Miami in the morning, photographers Johnnie Evans and Jack Ramsdell flew to Jacksonville to intercept Nixon during his two-hour stop there. Photos of the presidential candidates eventually ran side-by-side on the Times front page Oct. 19.

When Moreland and I went to JFK's hotel room at the Miami Airport, he was running more than an hour late and complained that he didn't have time to stop for posed photos. He was, in fact, dressing to make a rally in North Miami. We proposed a solution: "Don't stop to put your pants on, Mr. Kennedy. Just put on your coat and tie and we'll take the picture from the waist up."

The deal was struck. Spontaneous, slightly silly grins were recorded on the faces of JFK, Sen. George A. Smathers and Fred O. Dickinson, the Florida Democratic campaign manager, who flanked the candidate and chortled over the idea that he had no pants on.

Kennedy cracked that he might adopt the outfit as his new "cool" campaign uniform for Florida. Then he quickly put on his pants and headed out the door for a rally. I followed in hot pursuit, throwing questions that got a few over-the-shoulder responses from JFK but very little worth printing.

My final personal contact with JFK that day in Miami took place when a surging crowd (Kennedy's fabled jumpers and screamers) knocked me into the candidate. But we had to get the film back, so Moreland and I boarded our chartered plane for St. Petersburg. A messenger picked up the exposed film at Albert Whitted Airport.

I continued on to Tampa, to cover Kennedy's speech a few hours later. He spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd from the steps of the courthouse. He sounded alarms about Cuba and Latin America, accusing the Republicans of lowering U.S. prestige in the hemisphere. This produced loud cheers from the Tampa crowds. The level of adulation actually outdid the enthusiasm he unleashed in Miami.

Three years later, it was all over. Shortly after he visited Tampa once more, this time as president, JFK went to his death in Dallas.

Where was I when Kennedy was shot? In the press gallery of the U.S. Senate. Pandemonium broke out on the floor of the Senate. Though reporters are usually not allowed on the floor, several of us who hadn't gone to Dallas rushed down there. I recall the elderly chaplain of the Senate, Frederick Brown Harris, so stunned he couldn't enunciate any words of consolation. But so were we stunned — muted and saddened, senators and reporters alike.

The next few days passed in a kind of fugue state. First, I rode with reporters to Andrews Air Force Base, where I saw Jacqueline Kennedy emerge from Air Force One in the now famous pink suit with the blood-stained skirt. I stood on the circular White House drive and watched the towering French leader Charles DeGaulle and tiny Emperor Hailie Selassie of Ethiopa, both in full military uniform, lead a funeral procession of world leaders.

It was television's biggest story ever, but as a print reporter on the scene, I was looking at it live. Utterly depressed, I seemed unable to react to the indelible images of the riderless black horse, the flickering eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery or the solemn ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda, where the young president lay in state.

I told myself to get a grip, after all, I had stories to file to the Times. Suddenly, a bizarre image entered my mind and temporarily drove out the sorrow and gloom. I saw him again as he was that day in 1960 when he posed in his coat, tie and boxer shorts, utterly at ease.

Jerry Blizin is a former Washington correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times. He is retired and lives in Tarpon Springs.

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JFK's humanity on a day of gloom 11/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 12:36pm]
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