This week, Homicide Detective Hussey takes a brief detour from his usual law enforcement duties and gives us a behind the scenes peek at a presidential visit.
In 1980, the city fathers learned of an event that would make national news and allow the city some much sought after celebrity. The 39th President of the United States, Democrat Jimmy Carter, was to visit the city on a southern sweep in his re-election bid for the White House. This was good news for the current Mayor of Lakeland, Candy Ormond who was also a Democrat.
The city was no stranger to brushes with famous people. In 1956, Elvis Presley played a concert at the Polk Theater on South Florida Avenue and spent the night at the then lavish Lakeland Terrace Hotel. The old hotel was a fleabag transient hotel in the 70’s and 80’s, was closed and condemned, and has since been remodeled and restored to its original grandeur.
U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles was born and raised in Lakeland.
The city has been used on a number of occasions as backdrops for hit Hollywood movies and television shows, including the movies “Long Gone” and "Edward Scissorhands," and the "Miss USA” Beauty Pageant.
This was different. It was a big responsibility and honor to receive a visit from the President of the United States.
Mayor Ormond was the current sitting Mayor. She had been elected by the city district in which she lived, as a commissioner and had served two four-year terms. In Lakeland, the Mayor is merely a figurehead position under the city manager plan.
Each commissioner has an opportunity to serve as Mayor. Being a very popular representative of the northwest district, it was exciting that not only was she the first black, female Mayor, but she would also be the first to welcome the President of the United States to our fair city.
In the days prior to the President’s visit, much preparation was made. The Secret Service visited the Police Department and met with the Chief and his representatives. Several officers would be used in the concourse area of the Lakeland Civic Center to look for unusual situations and individuals. This is common as the Presidential detail feels that local cops have a better feel for the local crowds and bad guys and anything that might be out of place.
The motorcade route was planned, re-planned, and then reversed. It was run numerous times with cars and motorcycles. The time was calculated to the second. The airport was checked for any possible breaches of security. Any locations where possible ambushes could occur were locked, secured and noted. Two days prior to the visit, cops were working around the clock with the Secret Service to ensure that the President’s 72 minute visit, including speech, would be uneventful as far as we were concerned.
Finally, the eve of President Carter’s visit arrived. A Presidential aircraft flew in and unloaded two limousines. One was the President’s car, and one was a Secret Service chase car. Both were driven to the Lakeland Police Department and parked in the covered garage. An officer was assigned to guard the vehicles until the next day. One of the officers on guard was a former Secret Service Agent, now Lakeland Police Officer, Dennis Calcegno. Dennis delighted in showing us how everything in the vehicle worked, including phones, televisions and machine guns. The windshield of the President’s car has two-inch thick, bullet-proofed glass. If the car is driven for long distances, the drivers must be switched every three hours to avoid headaches due to vision distortion.
Mayor Ormond had been in contact with the President’s advance team, and an agreement was made for her to meet Air Force One on the tarmac and ride in the limo with the President. This would certainly be a red-letter day for the Mayor and the city, and it wouldn’t hurt Jimmy Carter’s image either, considering the Mayor was black and female, both vote categories in which the was lacking. How politically correct was that?
At 4:13 p.m., the specially equipped Boeing 737 carrying President Carter and his entourage touched down at Drane Field at the Lakeland Municipal Airport. A small throng of reporters, V.I.P. well-wishers, including the Mayor, met the plane. The Lakeland Police Motorcycle Squad (all four of them) was set up to lead the motorcade and run traffic interference for the President.
When the gangway was extended, two Secret Servicemen exited first, ear pieces and dark glasses in place. They were followed by the President himself, hand waving high in the air, smiling his famous toothy smile. Mr. Carter walked along the cordoned off crowd, shaking hands and talking to the group.
Next to the limo door stood Mayor Ormond. She was wearing a beautiful bright red dress, matching shoes, and a white orchid corsage on the left side of her lapel. On the other side was a “re-elect Carter” campaign button. She had spent hours in preparation for this moment, including a trip to the hair and nail salon, not to mention the time and money altering the new dress. This was a huge moment for the city as well as for the Mayor personally. No one in her family had ever been this close to a President of the United States, let alone, ride and talk with him.
What would they talk about? she wondered.
As the President approached, Candy Ormond felt her stomach tighten. She put on the biggest smile she knew how.
This was her big moment. He was only inches away now. She saw the Secret Service man whisper something to the President. She imagined that he was telling him that the woman in the red dress was the Mayor. What he actually said was that if they were to stay on schedule, he would have to wrap it up and leave for the Civic Center where he was to give his speech.
One Secret Service Agent hurried fotward, opening the rear door of the Presidential limousine. With one roundhouse wave, Jimmy Carter disappeared into the darkness of the back seat. Mayor Ormond stepped forward, holding on to the door frame and attempted to enter the car with the President. Agent Walters, who had been with ATF since the Kennedy Administration, saw the encroachment as a threat. He spun around, yelling something to the limo driver as he slammed the back door. The door frame was jerked from the startled Mayor’s hand as the limo sped away. Agent Walters pushed the Mayor ever so slightly, causing her to lose her balance and fall backward, sitting down hard on the concrete runway. All this happened as the news cameras rolled.
The President arrived at the Civic Center several minutes later. He dismayed the Secret Service guys by climbing up on the roof of his limousine and waving to the crowd.
“Jesus, we can’t protect him up there,” one agent muttered. “He’s always doing crazy shit.”
The speech lasted 22 minutes. Some additional hand-shaking took place, and the President was whisked away to the airport and the next city on his tour.
Mayor Ormond with bruised pride and buttocks, was crying in her car on the way back to her home in north Lakeland. She’d missed the ride, she’d missed the speech. It was all over. Somewhere along North Florida Avenue, she ripped the campaign button from her dress and chucked it out the window. She even thought about becoming a Republican. Well that was a bit drastic. Nothing could make her join the Ford Campaign.
The news media had a field day. They interviewed the Mayor as well as other city officials and citizens. The visit was a total loss and the President’s affront to the lady Mayor would cost him dearly in votes statewide.
A letter of apology was sent to the City and to Mayor Ormond and her family.
“We regret any embarrassment this incident may have caused,” it said. “The President found it necessary to discuss matters of national security with advisors, en route to the speaking engagement, and was unable to accommodate the Mayor.”
We knew that was crap, there weren’t any advisors present.
Candy Ormond was re-elected to a third term on the City Commission by a landslide. President Jimmy Carter was sent home to his family peanut farm by something of the same margin. It was the last time a Presidential candidate visited the city. Funny how politics works.