Wednesday, August 26, 2009

FDR's Grassy Knoll

I used to believe that infamy was its own reward, that the grandiose madmen of our society enjoy a certain level of macabre immortality by committing acts so brazen that their names are forever burned into our subconscious. The Jack Ruby's and John Hinckley Jr's of our world will never be forgotten, their deeds will remain ingrained in the national psyche for generations to come.

There are those rare souls, however, who defy this rule. They are the Milli Vanilli's of infamy, those who shone for a brief moment only to be discarded and forgotten on the ash-heap of history. Can you still recall the name of the serial killer who murdered Versace? At the time everyone knew it was Andrew Cunanan, though not many people can recall the name now without taxing their memory. Such is also the case of FDR's would-be assassin, Guiseppe Zangara. Zangara, like Cunanan, is one of those odd historical figures who just didn't have staying power.

On Feb. 15th, 1933, at Miami's Bayfront Park, an unemployed Italian immigrant, armed with a .32 revolver, stood atop a wooden chair and fired 5 rounds at FDR, who was seated at the back of his convertible, talking with supporters and guests. Zangara - apparently a bad shot - managed to hit everyone and everything, but FDR. Three of the shots lodged into the car, the other two bullets hit flesh, seriously injuring the wife of a prominent Miami doctor, and fatally wounding Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.

Zangara was immediately tackled by secret service agents and brought in for questioning. The national media quickly descended on Miami to cover the story. Was it a communist plot? Was there a conspiracy bubbling beneath the surface? One paper submitted that mayor Cermak was the actual target of the shooting. Cermak was a fervant anti- prohibitionist who had made enemies with the Chicago mob. Another paper opined that it was the work of a renegade band of socialists. The actual motive would prove to be far less ulcer.

Hollywood itself could not have created a more colorful or bizarre character as the 5'2" Zangara. During the weeks that followed the shooting he would baffle the FBI and the local Sheriff’s Dept. with his blunt, and often times bizarre answers. Reading the transcripts and press accounts of Zangara's statements to the FBI is surreal and often times comic.

In one interview, Zangara is asked to explain his motivations for wanting to assassinate President-Elect Roosevelt. It would the first in number of times he would make reference to his stomach pains.

"I shoot kings and presidents, capitalists got all-a the money and I got bellyache all-a the time."

Trying to probe the mind of the mind of Zangara for further information on his background, his affiliations, and politics would also prove to be futile. Zangara hated anarchists, socialists, capitalists, and probably even puppies. He belonged to no special group, and seemed to have no friends. During his trial, he would defiantly shout to the judge;

"I kill capitalists because they kill me, stomach like drunk man. No point living. Give me electric chair."

Zangara would eventually get his wish. On May 6th Mayor Cermak died from his injuries and the presiding judge sentenced Zangara to death. 14 days later, he was strapped into the electric chair - a quick execution, even for the time. Bouncing into the chair like a hyperactive child, Zangara continued to display his trademark brand of defiance;

"Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Pusha da button!!"

All media interest and coverage of Zangara ended with his death. The press packed up and went home, Roosevelt was inaugurated, the doctor's wife recovered, and the scrawny, unemployed brick layer who had almost killed an American President over a tummy ache was quickly forgotten. The difficulty I encountered researching this article serves as a testament to Zangara's obscurity. Articles on the internet about the shooting were scant and often inaccurate, confusing dates and names. Many websites devoted to FDR made little, if any mention of the incident. Perhaps the fact we entered into a war shortly after, is the reason Zangara was so quickly forgotten. Perhaps it was simply because he missed his mark. Maybe his lack of a grander political motive doomed him to irrelevancy. In the end, I think Zangara's life can best be summed up in his own words;
"I don't like-a no peoples"



Editor's Note - I wrote this article nearly a decade ago and information about Zangara is much easier to come by these days with the dawning of such things as Wikipedia. Several new books have since been written about the incident, yet this failed presidential assassination attempt continues to remain an odd historical blind spot.

Reference material for this article was drawn from "The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara" by Blaise Picchi and "A Date Which Should Live in Infamy" by Florence King.

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