The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination reminded me of my nascent political career in the 1970s as a young political operative (lower case). One of my jobs was an internship at the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party headquarters in Minneapolis.
I had a lot of different, small responsibilities there, mostly making copies, running errands and wearing one of several very natty blue suits. But the coolest ones were helping out when Vice President Walter Mondale came back to Minnesota to visit. One time, Mondale brought President Jimmy Carter along for the ride. And I got to drive one of the press buses.
In a presidential motorcade.
Now, imagine what that meant to a 17-year-old boy. I weighed 135 pounds. My face had not yet cleared up. I was wearing a blue polyester suit from Robert Hall.
The press bus on this particular 1978 trip to St. Paul was what I would call a church van – a 15-seater. A Ford. I was issued a small blue metal pin with the letter S on it, for Staff. I put it on my lapel like the Silver Star. I remember the president’s plane, a 707, pulled up to the motorcade, and it had the number 26000 on the tail.
This was the plane President John Kennedy used on Nov. 22, 1963.
President Carter came out. He waved, he smiled his big Jimmy Carter smile, and walked down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs he greeted local and state Democratic officeholders. I was sitting in the van at the very back of the motorcade. There were many Minnesota State Troopers, and one befriended me. He was tall, gray-haired and handsome in his maroon uniform and Smokey Bear hat. I’ll never forget what he said to me, ever.
“Jack, the most important thing for you to remember is to maintain the integrity of the motorcade.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means you stay 10 feet behind the bumper of the next vehicle. And, if something happens, you are out of the motorcade.”
OK. Got it. Ya sure, you betcha.
The president got into the car, which, oddly, was not the big flag-on-bumper monster one normally saw the president use. In fact, Carter often used the car Kennedy was killed in. The Secret Service had it rebuilt.
Now, why, in the name of God, they did that, I do not know. I am still puzzled why any president would want to ride in it, and why they felt that would be a good use of federal funds is a mystery to me.
The car Carter used that day was a light blue Chevrolet. Seriously. It had a little presidential seal on the door, I remember that.
The motorcade took off from the tarmac, and when we got on to Interstate 35E, I suddenly found myself driving 80 to 90 mph, bumper to bumper, five to 10 feet away from the rear of the next car, a Minnesota State Police cruiser driven by my friend. All along the motorcade were dozens of motorcycle police, weaving in and out of the motorcade, blocking exit ramps all along the way.
This is the only time in my life I have been allowed to go over the speed limit while freeway exits ramps were blocked, and I can assure you that’s the true dream of any 17-year-old boy.
Minutes later, having maintained the integrity of the motorcade, we pulled into the basement of the St. Paul Civic Center arena, where a big Democratic campaign rally was taking place. We got out, and I saw Carter get out of the car. He was smaller than I thought, and he was wearing a gray suit. The Secret Service was everywhere: very serious-looking men with earpieces and pins.
One of the Secret Service agents was named Jack Fox, who was, I believe, head of the PPD, the Presidential Protection Detail.
Jack Fox was a short man, with neat, combed dark hair. Jack Fox was not someone you wanted a disagreement with.
So Jack Fox and his colleagues took the president up the stairs and into the arena.
And I snuck away from the motorcade to watch.
Not maintaining the integrity of the motorcade.
The president gave a short speech extolling the virtues of all the Democratic candidates, and many, including Sen. Wendell Anderson and Gov. Rudy Perpich, went on to lose a few weeks later. After leaving the speech, I waited down by the president’s car to shake his hand, which I was unable to do.
Because Jack Fox saw me.
Jack Fox came up to me and asked me, in the way armed men convey sincerity, what the hell I was doing. I said I wanted to meet the president.
Jack Fox then said, very loudly, “YOU DO NOT LEAVE THE VEHICLE. YOU STAY WITH THE VEHICLE.”
Ya sure. You betcha.
I returned to the vehicle.
I remember nothing after that. Nothing.
Jack Fox, if you’re still alive, I am still with the vehicle, and I will never leave that vehicle.
I will maintain the integrity of the motorcade.