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President John Kennedy, riding in the back seat approximately one minute before he was shot and killed in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
President John Kennedy, riding in the back seat approximately one minute before he was shot and killed in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Kennedy assassination

Kennedy’s love for convertibles made him an easy target Add to ...

Why would they let an American president ride through crowded streets in an open car? The question occurs to everyone at some point, and the answer is simple: John F. Kennedy wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mr. Kennedy loved riding with the top down. He did it all his adult life, sometimes even in the rain, and when he became president saw no reason to end his wind-swept affair with the convertible.

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In 1937, after his first year at Harvard, he and a pal trekked through Europe in a Ford convertible Mr. Kennedy shipped over from the U.S.

When he briefly attended Stanford University in 1940, he drove around Palo Alto in a cactus green Buick convertible with red seats.

The bold colours may be significant: He loved the feel of top-down driving, but he also enjoyed being seen. In 1947, after winning a seat in the House of Representatives, he commuted from Capitol Hill to his house in Georgetown in a convertible, and continued to do so as a senator.

Broadcaster Larry King, while driving in Miami in 1958, lightly rear-ended an open car, and Mr. Kennedy jumped out of it. As Mr. King writes in his memoir My Remarkable Journey, the senator offered to waive any insurance hassle if Mr. King and his passengers promised to vote for him “in two years.”

In 1960, shortly after winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Kennedy attended a celebratory dinner at publisher Katherine Graham’s house in Washington D.C. “What still amazes me,” Ms. Graham recalled in her memoir Personal History, “is that Kennedy drove up our circular driveway alone, in a convertible with the top down.”

Even as president, Mr. Kennedy believed security and comfort should take a back seat to the political value of being seen by the people.

In Paris in 1961, he was determined to ride top-down along the Champs-Elysées with French president Charles de Gaulle, even though it was pouring rain.

“‘Let’s take the open car,’ Kennedy said, and de Gaulle ordered the top of the convertible Citroën limousine taken down,” writes Richard Reeves in President Kennedy: Profile of Power. “Kennedy was stripping off his raincoat; de Gaulle immediately did the same. The two presidents, soaking wet within moments, waved and smiled as their open car turned into a long alley of black umbrellas and cheering men and women.”

During a European visit in 1963, Mr. Kennedy rode in open cars through crowded city streets in Italy, Germany and Ireland. As Irish president Eamon de Valera saw Mr. Kennedy stand up in his limo to wave to crowds during a long parade in Dublin, he thought “what an easy target he would have been,” according to Larry J. Sabato’s The Kennedy Half-Century.

In the weeks leading up to Dallas, the president rode in an open limousine through Nashville and Tampa, in spite of at least two death threats against him, and did not want Secret Service agents standing on external footpads at the rear and sides of his car. “The whole point is for me to be accessible to the people,” he told one agent before the start of a 30-mile motorcade into downtown Tampa, according to Gerald Blaine’s The Kennedy Detail.

Mr. Kennedy’s limo for those trips, and for Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, was an unarmoured stretch Lincoln Continental with a detachable bubble-top that was seldom used and not bullet-proof.

Surprisingly, the car stayed in presidential service after Kennedy was killed. Reinforced with titanium, bullet-proof glass and a non-removable top, the repainted car carried Lyndon Johnson to his inauguration in 1964 and remained in the presidential fleet till 1977.

Mr. Kennedy wasn’t the only leading American politician of his generation to parade in open cars.

Richard Nixon did so during a tour of Latin America in 1958, though not for a notorious motorcade through Caracas, where a mob stopped his car and smashed the windows.

But Mr. Kennedy’s disdain for the risk represented by his open limo came in for delicate censure in the Warren Commission report, which noted that presidential security was necessarily dependent on “the activities and nature of the occupant of the Office of President and his willingness to conform to plans for his safety.”

The wonder may be not that Mr. Kennedy was killed, but that he lasted that long.

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