In prehistoric days – I speak of the 1980s – Tampa, desperate to be someplace significant, coined itself a name: America’s Next Great City. This tag begged the question of when Tampa would be great, of course, so moneyed men set about answering it. Keeping with Florida tradition, their minds immediately went to smoke and mirrors. If Tampa got enough good PR, these men believed, outsiders would just be so plain knocked over by Tampa’s wonderfulness, they would come here like flocks of birds in the fall.
The phrase “world class” was thrown around a lot. So said men, who had their eyes on TV coverage, went after the Super Bowl and snagged four over the next 25 years. There was a campaign to land the 2012 Olympics, as if Tampa was in the same class – make that world class – as London. Instead of the Olympics, we got the Republicans. You remember the highlight of their convention in August – that very strange, very rich old man talking to a chair?
In this way at least, Jill Kelley had a great deal in common with the city she adopted as her home, when she moved to Tampa a decade ago. Like Tampa, she was striving, striving, striving to get noticed. She got what she wanted all right and is now proof of why you really should be careful what you wish for. She wanted to be special, but she has rendered herself so ordinary – a poseur, broke in a Bayshore Boulevard mansion. Her story unfolds in the grand tradition of so many others who come to Florida, their eyes glittering a little too much. They gamble that the locals are fools.
Kelley is now the subject not only of derision but, I suspect, anger. For she managed, in the name of her own boundless need for attention and influence, to get the world laughing not just at Tampa – we made it onto Saturday Night Live – but a place people in the region are especially proud of, MacDill Air Force Base. Until Jill Kelley got emails from an equally strange woman, Paula Broadwell, that brought down a star-festooned, love-struck general (maybe two of them), few people outside of town knew that the U.S. Central and Special Operations Commands are headquartered in Tampa. Say what you want about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – important work happens on that base. The takedown of Osama Bin Laden was almost certainly planned there.
Tampa has big dreams but medium-size geography. It is small enough that it is hard to believe now that the moneyed men and their wives, who live in the same leafy part of town with the waterfront views where Jill Kelley decamped, weren’t on to her and thus could warn off David Petraeus. It is harder still to believe that the strongest military leaders on the planet, with drones, Navy seals and Black Hawk helicopters at their disposal had such lousy intelligence that she fooled them, too. But fool them she did.
The lesson, as Jill Kelley knows, is that those who live by PR must also die by it. At the moment, to borrow lightly from the New York Daily News, America’s next great city is America’s next great booty trap. But time heels all wounds. David Petraeus has met disgrace; Paula Broadwall has disappeared; and Jill Kelley may need the federal witness protection program. Tampa will one day smile about the recent craziness. Just not now.
Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the St. Petersburg Times, is a writer in Tampa.