Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Can’t Afford Mar-A-Lago? Here are some of Florida's more satisfying Presidential road trips

Richard Nixon golfing with Jackie Gleason- Miami Beach 1969.

I’m a writer and an educator, I can’t afford to go to Mar-A-Lago. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life teaching college English to soldiers and veterans at MacDill Airforce Base and organizing community writing classes and literary arts events, so obviously I am not rich or important enough to be allowed inside President Trump’s Palm Beach resort. They save that sort of privilege for hedge fund managers, weapons manufacturers, and international oligarchs, you know, those real down-to-earth Americans the President says he likes so much—not urban coastal elite academic nerds like myself. Since I’m not allowed in Mar-A-Lago, I’ve put together a list of some of the other, more legitimately presidential, places to visit in Florida.

Andrew Jackson and the beginnings of Statehood-

After his victory in the war of 1812, General Jackson was ordered to take his armies to South Georgia to crush an alliance between Native American tribes and former slaves- who were raiding plantations in South Georgia, freeing enslaved people, then crossing back over the border to Spanish Florida. This conflict later became known as the First Seminole War (though that name is misleading, as is much of what we learned about it in school). Jackson was ordered to quell the uprising- but specifically not to follow the raiding parties across the border and risk war with Spain. Jackson, of course, crossed the border anyway- sending President Monroe and Congress to scramble up the money to buy the Florida Territory from Spain to avoid war. The place where Jackson crossed that border is now part of Torreya State Park. (Note: The park itself is beautiful far beyond any historical interest, the hills and bluffs make for excellent hiking, and there are some great camping options, including the only yurts for rent in the Florida State Parks system.)
After three years of conflict and negotiations, the official handover of the Florida Territory from Spain to the United States happened in 1821, in Pensacola’s Plaza Ferdinand VII; a ceremony was held, the Spanish Flag was lowered, the American flag was raised, and Jackson was inaugurated as the territorial governor of Florida. This flag raising and lowering ceremony is re-enacted in the plaza at high noon on the first Saturday of every month. I haven't been to the ceremony, and it makes me wonder about the context that it's put in, do people know what the hand-over was about? Is there any indication that the moment being portrayed is the result of a brutal military campaign against former slaves and native people? Or that the First Seminole War was primarily about preventing enslaved people from seeking safe haven in Florida? (I want to know!)
(Side Note: U.S. History, of course, is a complicated and often troubling thing, and if any U.S. President earned the right to be called straight-up evil, it was Andrew Jackson (seriously, read up on the guy, almost nobody comes close to Jackson's awfulness- not yet anyway). It’s a valid question as to whether we should memorialize or celebrate anything to do with Jackson (There's an excellent PBS Documentary on the subject called Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil & The Presidency). Still, I find that the convenient shuffling of historical figures into categories of hero or villain is an oversimplification that can cause us to omit a lot of important information- and that our cultural tendency to want to see our ancestors as either totally heroic or totally awful, ends up distorting our view. That said, context matters, getting the full story matters. (We’ll tackle this more soon; I’m planning an article on Florida and the Civil War- and yes, about those monuments.))

One of the infamous Palm Beach County 'Butterfly Ballots' from the 2000 Election.

Relics of the 2000 Recount-

For about a decade I couldn’t tell anyone I was from Florida without them mentioning the 2000 election, usually with a sneer in their voice. Everything hinged on Florida, and when the counting stopped, George W. Bush had won Florida by only 537 votes. That tiny sliver of a margin resulted in a storm of recounts, controversies, butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and a supreme court case. While the madness of this moment engulfed most of the state, there are some specific places with especially dramatic history- or relics of that strange moment.
The 19th floor of Miami’s Stephen P. Clark Government Center was the site of the infamous Brooks Brothers Riot- where paid GOP operatives stormed into government offices to disrupt had recounts of 11,000 ballots that were not correctly read by vote counting machines. Hundreds of people, many of them Republican Party staffers and consultants blocked hallways, pounded on doors, physically assaulted government officials, and kept out official recount observers and members of the press.
The Tampa Bay History Center keeps a display case of relics from that disputed election- including one of the famously confusing Palm Beach County ‘Butterfly Ballots’ (That, according to the American Political Science Review cost Al Gore the election), a suitcase-style voting booth, and some of the infamous ‘chads’ the paper tab remnants of punch-card ballots. The Center also displays a large wood and papier-mache puppet of Mitt Romney that was used during protests at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

John Kennedy in Tampa, four days before he was assassinated in Dallas.

JFK in Tampa and the Presidential Fallout Shelter on Peanut Island

In November of 1963, just four days before he was assassinated in Dallas, John F. Kennedy became the first sitting President to visit Tampa. He took a whirlwind tour of the city, visiting MacDill, Al Lopez Field, Downtown Tampa, and the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory- riding through the city in the back of the same Lincoln convertible that he would die in only a few days later. Today there’s a stature commemorating that visit on the grounds of the University of Tampa, facing the what was once called Grand Central Boulevard, but was renamed John F. Kennedy Boulevard by unanimous decision of the city council early in 1964. (Kennedy’s Tampa connection doesn’t end there, the so-called ‘Family Jewels’ documents revealed that the Kennedy Administration’s ‘Operation Mongoose’ hired Tampa-born Mafia boss Santo Trafficante Jr. to attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro.)
Near Palm Beach, you can visit one of the most chilling relics of the Kennedy era. In the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Navy built a presidential fallout shelter on Peanut Island, an 88-acres man-made island off Florida’s Atlantic coast. The idea was, that in the case of a full-scale nuclear war, Peanut Island would serve as the home and command center of whatever remained of the executive branch of the U.S. Government. Kennedy visited the bunker multiple times during disaster drills, and Kennedy and his cabinet members used to hold meetings in the area on JFK’s yacht, the Honey Fitz. The bunker remained secret until 1990, when it opened as part of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum.

U.S. Car #1- The Ferdinand Magellan

Before Air Force One, presidents travelled primarily by railroad, often in luxurious specially designed rail cars. One of these presidential cars, known as the Ferdinand Magellan, sits in a museum in Miami.  Beginning as a standard luxury Pullman railcar, the Magellan was modified to be used by Franklin Roosevelt near the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. It was equipped with bullet-resistant glass, armor plating, bank-vault doors, secret escape hatches, air conditioning, multiple telephones, and a wheelchair lift. From 1943 until 1954, the Magellan was used by presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower as their primary means of travelling throughout the country, and Truman gave his famous ‘whistle stop’ campaign speeches from the rear of the presidential railcar. The car was acquired by the Gold Coast Railroad museum in 1958 and has been on display since—except for a few days in 1984, when the Ferdinand Magellan was briefly loaned to Ronald Reagan for a series of campaign events in Ohio.

Nixon's Winter White House on Key Biscayne.

The ‘Florida White Houses’ of Truman and Nixon

Trump is not the first, or even the second President to have a ‘Florida White House’. Both Harry Truman and Richard Nixon both frequently went to Florida to escape from D.C. Truman’s Little White House in the Old Town Section of Key West was built as an officer’s quarters for a Naval base (The first president to visit the house was William Howard Taft in 1912, who stayed there briefly before sailing to inspect the construction of the Panama Canal) -Truman first traveled to the Little White House in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, when he was ordered by his doctor to take a vacation somewhere warm, after that, President Truman began traveling to the Key West property every year, for weeks at a time. Ultimately, he spent 175 days of his presidency at the Little White House, and the letterhead from many of the documents from his presidency reads ‘The White House, U.S. Naval Station, Key West FL.’
Nixon’s so-called Winter White House was an unassuming 1950’s ranch-style home in the Key Biscayne Suburb of Miami. Nixon visited Key Biscayne over 50 times during his time in office, often arriving by helicopter under cover of darkness. Nixon spent his time in Florida fishing, golfing (and discussing UFO’s) with Jackie Gleason, and eating and drinking (always good wine, sometimes heavily) at Joe’s Stone Crab. This house was where, supposedly, the plans to for the Watergate Break-in were originally hatched, and where Nixon disappeared to as the Watergate scandal heated up and eventually ending his presidency. Unfortunately, Nixon’s historic Florida residence was demolished in 2004, to be replaced by a modern McMansion. Though the house is gone, you can still eat and drink like Nixon at Joe's Stone Crab on in South Beach.

I can’t afford to go to Mar-A-Lago, and I would probably be immediately ejected, and possibly 'disappeared' if I showed up, but Florida’s complicated history with the U.S. Presidency makes for some other, probably much more pleasant and educational experiences.

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