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The scariest moment of a presidential transition: Six gunshots fired at FDR

President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks in Miami on Feb. 15, 1933, just before an attempt on his life. Seated in the car is Miami Mayor Redmond Gautier. (AP)
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The president-elect had just finished speaking to 25,000 cheering people in Miami from the back of an open green Buick convertible.

It was Feb. 15, 1933, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was less than three weeks from being inaugurated as the nation’s 32nd president at the height of the Great Depression.

Moments after he sat down, “I heard what I thought was a firecracker, then several more,” Roosevelt said later.

Instead, it was the sound of six gunshots fired from 25 feet away by a would-be assassin. One bullet hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was standing next to Roosevelt’s car. Roosevelt was uninjured.

“I’m all right. I’m all right,” he shouted as police and angry people in the crowd shoved the shooter to the ground.

It was the most harrowing moment ever during a U.S. presidential transition. The shooting nearly ended Roosevelt’s historic four terms in office before they had even started.

The most contentious transition before Trump and Biden: Herbert Hoover and FDR

Roosevelt, the Democratic governor of New York, had won election by a landslide in 1932 over President Herbert Hoover. He was promising a “New Deal” to end the Great Depression that had devastated the economy and the lives of millions of Americans.

The president-elect had gone on a 12-day cruise off South Florida on the yacht Nourmahal, owned by multimillionaire Vincent Astor. The yacht sailed into Miami’s Biscayne Bay on Feb. 15 just as the sun was setting. After dinner, Roosevelt headed to board a 10 p.m. train to New York. On the way, he stopped for a 9 p.m. rally in Miami’s picturesque Bayfront Park.

The open car in which he was riding rolled up to the steps of the band shell under a bright floodlight. Roosevelt, his legs paralyzed by polio, pulled himself up to sit on the lowered car top. He gave a short speech to the overflow crowd.

“I have had a wonderful rest and caught a great many fish; however, I will not attempt to tell you a fish story,” he promised.

As he sat down next to Miami Mayor Redmond Gautier, Roosevelt noticed Cermak standing nearby. The Chicago mayor was visiting Miami.

“Hello, Tony,” Roosevelt called and waved Cermak over. The two men shook hands, then Cermak moved to join several other officials behind the car.

At that moment, a short, stocky man wearing brown slacks and a brown print shirt stood on top of a wobbly folding chair and began firing a .32-caliber revolver. A woman standing on a bench next to him grabbed the shooter’s arm. So did a nearby man.

In a flash, several police officers pounced on the shooter, knocking his gun to the ground. Many in the crowd joined in pummeling the man. People screamed. There were shouts of “Kill him.”

At Roosevelt’s car, Secret Service agents leaped on the president-elect, shielding him with their bodies. They ordered the driver to drive off. Five people beside the car, including Cermak, had been shot.

“I looked around and saw Mayor Cermak doubled up” on the ground, Roosevelt said later. “I told the chauffeur to stop. He did,” but the Secret Service agents shouted to him to “get out of the crowd.”

“The chauffeur started again, and I stopped him again,” Roosevelt said. “Looking back, I saw Cermak being carried along, and we put him in our car. He was alive, but I was afraid he wouldn’t last. I held him all the way” to Jackson Memorial Hospital, “and his pulse consistently improved. It seemed like 25 miles to the hospital.”

Meantime, the other wounded people were put in a Secret Service car. As the auto pulled away, three police officers jumped on the back and threw the apprehended shooter over the trunk rack as they clung to the rear bumper.

As the car raced to the hospital, one officer asked the man if he had intended to shoot the president-elect. He said, “Yes, and I would be glad if I had killed the president-elect.”

The shooter was Giuseppe “Joe” Zangara, a 32-year-old Italian immigrant.

Zangara was a single, unemployed bricklayer who had lived in the United States for nine years. He’d moved to Miami from Hackensack, N.J., six weeks earlier and said he acted alone. He hated capitalism, he said, and rich and powerful people “who oppress the working man.”

He said he originally planned to kill Hoover. Then he read in a newspaper that Roosevelt was in town. So he went to a pawnshop and bought a gun for $8. “I like Roosevelt personally, but I don’t like presidents,” he said.

The shooting made headlines across the world. Hoover said: “I am deeply shocked at the news. It is a dastardly act.” World leaders expressed their relief, including Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Eleanor Roosevelt had just returned to the couple’s mansion on 65th Street in New York City when her butler gave her the news. Her face turned white and her hands trembled. Told her husband was safe, she said: “Phew. That’s great.” The next day she went ahead with her planned train trip to Ithaca, N.Y., to take part in a Farm and Home Week at Cornell University.

Roosevelt’s vice president-elect, John Nance Garner, didn’t hear about the shooting until the next day because of his standing order not be disturbed at night. He sent Roosevelt a telegram saying, “Infinitely rejoiced at your escape.”

Roosevelt went to the hospital the next day to visit the wounded. Cermak told him: “I am mighty glad it was me instead of you. ... The country needs you.”

On Feb. 20, Zangara pleaded guilty to attempted murder, and a judge sentenced him to 80 years in jail. As he was leaving the courtroom, he said: “Oh, judge, don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years.”

On March 6, Cermak died, and Zangara’s conviction was upped to murder. On March 20 — just one month and five days after the shooting — Zangara was electrocuted. His final words were: “Go ahead. Push the button."

Roosevelt was sworn in as president on March 4, 1933. Public sympathy for him following the shooting may have helped build support for the New Deal. After escaping assassination, Roosevelt was reelected for three more terms. On April 12, 1945, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 63 while sitting for his portrait in Warm Springs, Ga.

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