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Published: Friday, 11/21/2003

Kennedy presidency almost ended before he was inaugurated

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

On a bright Sunday morning nearly 43 years ago, a ramshackle Buick crept through the posh streets of Palm Beach, Fla., toward a sprawling, Mediterranean-style mansion.

At the wheel was a disheveled, silver-haired madman. His aged right hand rested near a switch wired to seven sticks of dynamite.

Inside the two-story stucco home was his target - president-elect John F. Kennedy - readying for morning Mass.

Richard Pavlick stopped a short distance from the house and waited, unnoticed by U.S. Secret Service agents outside.

It was decades before today s proliferation of suicide bombers, but Pavlick s plan on Dec. 11, 1960, was as simple: ram the president-elect s car and detonate the dynamite.

Pavlick s suicide note had been written to the people of the United States, reading in part: “it is hoped by my actions that a better country ... has resulted.”

The mansion s door opened. Mr. Kennedy emerged.

But the 73-year-old Pavlick hesitated, then relaxed his fingers.

Richard Pavlick Richard Pavlick
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What saved the future president from assassination that day was neither the intervention of law enforcement nor a malfunction of Pavlick s device - a bomb that the Secret Service chief later said would have “blown up a small mountain.”

It was timing and perhaps a moment of conscience for Pavlick.

Just steps behind the president, Jacqueline Kennedy appeared with toddler Caroline and newborn John, Jr.

“I did not wish to harm her or the children,” Pavlick would later explain. “I decided to get him at the church or someplace later.”

Pavlick never got the chance: He was arrested the following Thursday by authorities acting on information about his deep hatred for Kennedy. Sticks of dynamite were found in his vehicle.

Word of the assassination attempt was quickly hushed at the time - apparently by the White House and a press corps warned of the national security threat from potential copycats.

But tomorrow, as the nation marks the 40th anniversary of president Kennedy s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the outcome of the Pavlick case raises questions as interesting as the continuing debate over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Had Pavlick been successful, Oswald and his murder by Jack Ruby would never have occurred.

Had Mr. Kennedy been killed, Lyndon B. Johnson would have been sworn in as president in January, 1961. How would he have handled U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, or the civil-rights movement in the South?

The Peace Corps might never have happened. And Camelot would have never materialized.

“It shows you how history can turn on a dime, and how the world can change in an instant,” said Robert Dallek author of the recently-released book, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.

But like many other Kennedy scholars and biographers, Mr. Dallek had never heard of Richard Pavlick s assassination attempt until contacted by The Blade.

Two years after the Palm Beach incident, the U.S. Secret Service Chief U.E. Baughman would begin his memoirs, in part, with Pavlick s assassination attempt.

“The closeness of the call was appalling,” Mr. Baughman wrote in Secret Service Chief. “Hardly anybody realized just how near we came one bright December morning to losing our president-elect to a madman.”

eThe story of Richard Paul Pavlick is a historical anomaly of sorts.

Though his disjointed, meandering thoughts have been well documented through his prolific letters to politicians, courts, and newspapers, very little is known about his actual life until he surfaced in the 1950s as a crusty, often incoherent man with no family.

Reportedly a former postal worker, he made himself a common fixture at the Belmont, N.H., post office and at public meetings in this town with no stoplight and a single full-time police officer.

He ranted when he felt the American flag was not displayed appropriately, complained about government, and frequently swore about Catholics and the Kennedy family s wealth.

“He didn t trust anybody,” said Doralyn Harper, then a young mother and today the chairman of Belmont s Board of Selectmen. “You never knew what made him tick.”

During one dispute over a water bill, the supervisor of the water company appeared at Pavlick s house. Pavlick met him with a gun, recalled then-Police Sgt. Earl Sweeney.

Pavlick forfeited his gun after police were called. Other than that, he was not judged terribly dangerous, Mr. Sweeney said.

But after Mr. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon for the presidency that November, Pavlick became more virulent, more animated, authorities said.

For Pavlick, Kennedy represented twin evils: He was Catholic and, in Pavlick s mind, had won the presidency because of the influence and money of his father, Joseph Kennedy.

And then one day, Pavlick turned over his property - little more than a shack at the edge of town - to a local youth camp, loaded his few belongings into his Buick, and vanished.

It was the local postmaster, a 34-year-old father of six, who first became suspicious and was later credited with saving Kennedy s life.

Thomas Murphy had more than a few times been on the receiving end of Pavlick s rants about Kennedy. And in the days after Pavlick s disappearance, a succession of cryptic postcards arrived at the post office from the eccentric retiree, foreshadowing a disastrous event, and telling residents they would hear from Pavlick soon “in a big way.”

Mr. Murphy was startled to note that the postmarks on the postcards were from the same cities, dated the same day, as Kennedy s visits.

“So if Mr. Kennedy was in St. Louis giving a speech, someone would get a post card from Pavlick there,” Mr. Sweeney recalled. “And then if the president was in San Diego, the card would come from there.

“It was what we d call stalking him, though we didn t have that term in those days.”

Mr. Murphy called the local police, who contacted U.S. Secret Service. They interviewed locals, and the montage of a madman began to form.

Perhaps most terrifying, they learned he d been buying dynamite.

eIn his 1962 book, Secret Service Chief Baughman would note that Pavlick s most troubling quality was that he was not someone acting with “random impulse. He had planned the assassination with care.”

Pavlick, investigators would learn, had blended in with crowds across the country as he shadowed the president-elect. He d visited the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., coming within 10-20 feet of the senator, according to the Secret Service.

He d photographed the Kennedy home and observed his security guards.

In the days following his self-canceled Dec. 11 attempt on the president-elect, Pavlick had visited St. Edward Church to learn its interior, even while Kennedy was inside.

But by now, the Secret Service was tracking him and had delivered a warning message to Palm Beach police: Be on the lookout for a 1950 Buick, License B1 606.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, 1960, Patrol Officer Lester Free spotted Pavlick s car as he cruised into Palm Beach via the Royal Poinciana Bridge. Police immediately surrounded the car and took him into custody. The vehicle was still laden with dynamite.

Ironically, he d say in a later letter, he d been staying just a short distance from Secret Service agents.

Pavlick confessed, according to authorities and to Mr. Baughman. Ultimately found incompetent to stand trial, he was sent to a federal mental institution and later - after Kennedy was killed - to a New Hampshire facility.

Mr. Murphy, the postmaster, was honored for his work by the U.S. government, and wore the tiny pin of commendation to work and on his suit coat.

But the story of Pavlick did not end there. From his confinement, the septuagenarian continued his letter campaign: to Congress, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and to newspapers. By his own account, he d sent 10,000 letters and spent more than $12,000 trying to be freed, according to a letter on file at the National Archives.

A New Hampshire newspaper took up his cause and Pavlick was released in 1966, having never stood trial.

Though the national press never paid him attention after that, Pavlick continued to be a nuisance in town and turned his wrath toward the postmaster, whom years before had foiled his plans.

He stalked the family, sitting in his car on their street, staring at their home.

“Of course, he hadn t done anything illegal,” Police Sergeant Sweeney recalled recently, “so I d just have to park down the street and give him the hairy eyeball until he d move on.”

“It was terrifying, horrible,” Mr. Murphy s widow, Polly, recalled in an interview with The Blade.

At her home in Belmont, Mrs. Murphy still has a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and photos of the events. Her husband never doubted the he d done the right thing, “but he did wonder if it was worth all of the trouble afterward,” she said.

Mr. Kennedy was briefed on the Pavlick arrest, but paid it little attention, recalled Ted Sorensen, a long time friend of the Kennedys and a White House speechwriter.

“He told me about it and was ... bemused,” Mr. Sorensen told The Blade earlier this week in an interview from Rome, where he is attending ceremonies honoring the late president. “He wasn t panicked.”

For all their differences, Mr. Dallek said there is a common, frightening thread between Pavlick and Oswald, the man who four decades ago tomorrow ultimately succeeded in killing the president.

It s that they both illustrate the fragility of the presidency in the face of madmen and the fickle nature of fate, said the author.

“I think the public can t accept the idea that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as Kennedy,” Mr. Dallek said. “They don t want to believe the world is that chaotic. It is.”



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