By Helen Mondloch
Even for Americans too young to remember the watershed events of November 22, 1963, the images are familiar and poignant, forever etched in the national consciousness: the panorama of jubilant crowds, cheering as the motorcade whizzes by; the image of a dashing young president and his wife, clad in her famous pink suit, smiling as they embrace a nation’s adoration; then, the awful moment when everything changes—when the president grasps his neck and the image blurs.
Out of nowhere, a lanky man in a suit is seen sprinting, then leaping onto the rear of the limousine while a shell-shocked first lady mounts the car and inches desperately towards him.
That rapid succession of events, still surreal a half-century later, marked the beginning of a national tragedy. For then-Secret Service agent Clinton Hill, it also marked the beginning of a personal crucible, one he would suppress for years before the agonies of Dallas would boil over inside of him.
At 82, Hill looks back on the John F. Kennedy assassination with sadness that is ingrained and palpable. At the home office of Lisa McCubbin, his close confidante and the co-author of his books, Hill speaks in somber tones. His eyes have a drawn appearance brought on by age but also, it seems, from having been embattled.
For decades, Hill avoided any talk about that heartrending day. He pent up his memories and emotions even from Gwen, his wife of many years, and his sons, Chris and Corey, now in their fifties. Full disclosure was a task that required coaxing, mainly from his old friends in the Secret Service. In 2009, Gerald Blaine, a fellow agent from the Kennedy years, approached Hill and other members of their outfit with the idea of breaking their collective silence by composing a chronicle of the years leading up to the assassination. As Blaine explains in his 2010 book, “The Kennedy Detail,” he wanted to set the record straight, to dispel conspiracy theories and scandalous allegations that had taken root in the early sixties and were still flourishing decades later. Some of those theories impugned the agents themselves, a fact that deeply disturbed him.
At first, Hill wanted nothing to do with Blaine’s proposal. Having served five presidents—Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford—he was adamant about honoring the vow that every secret service agent takes, the life-long promise to refrain from divulging details about the president’s private life. He also feared opening old wounds. More than three decades had passed since he hit rock bottom in the late ‘70s, the result of an emotional freefall that had started on that fateful day. His prolonged agony—mirroring symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—stemmed from the insurmountable guilt he felt simply because he had lived and the president had died.
In the end, Hill’s friends convinced him to lend his voice to the annals of a pivotal era. He embraced the idea of paying tribute to both the fallen president and Jacqueline Kennedy, who had died of cancer in 1994. “When they said the word ‘tribute,’ that’s when I said yes,” he recalls.
Together with McCubbin, Hill contributed a chapter to Blaine’s book and shortly thereafter embarked on “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” a memoir about the four years he spent as the first lady’s personal protector. The book became a best-seller in 2012, leading to a second, “Five Days in November,” published in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
The First Lady Detail
Hill’s story with the Kennedys begins in November 1960, right after the presidential election that unseated the Republican Party from the White House and ushered in a whirlwind of change for the nation. Hill recalls that “even though I hadn’t met President-elect John F. Kennedy, it was obvious that protecting him was going to be a whole different ball game than it had been with Ike. We were going from a 70-year-old former general who ran the White House with military precision, to an energetic 43-year-old … with a lot of new ideas to take America into the 1960s.”
While the changes seemed exciting, one prospect did not: Hill’s assignment to the realm of the First Lady. After having traveled the world with the Eisenhower detail, the former varsity athlete felt as though he “had been demoted from the starting line-up to the bench.” He lamented that “while my buddies on the Presidential Detail would be right in the middle of the action, I knew where I was going to end up: fashion shows, afternoon tea parties and the ballet.”
Hill met Jacqueline Kennedy for the first time when he and another agent paid a visit to the Georgetown townhouse where the Kennedys lived before moving to the White House. He remembers the 31-year-old as “very attractive, very gracious and very pregnant.” (She gave birth to John Kennedy, Jr., a few weeks later.) After listening to the various security protocols that would require the agents’ presence in her every venture, the First Lady-elect’s smile wore off, says Hill. “It was clear that she wasn’t excited about having two Secret Service agents around, and I realized that if I were going to do my job effectively, I would have to earn her trust.”
While Hill and Mrs. Kennedy were nearly the same age—he was 28 at the time—they hailed from different places. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in Long Island, the daughter of a wealthy banking scion (who later lost his fortune). She attended elite schools and was once voted “Debutante of the Year.” Hill began life in a North Dakota orphanage. Adopted as an infant by loving parents, he grew up in the rural town of Washburn, in a modest home where he shared a room with his grandfather. He earned a history degree from a small college in Minnesota and did a three-year stint in the Army before entering the Secret Service in the Denver field office.
Hill concedes that in those early days of his assignment, he was clueless about what lay ahead: “Little did I know that life with Mrs. Kennedy was going to be anything but dull.”
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hill’s memoir is the frenetic pace with which he and Mrs. Kennedy traveled. Whether he was advancing a trip—doing the legwork to ensure that her every destination was secure—or accompanying her, as he almost always did, he was constantly fielding contingencies that could force him to change course on the spur of the moment. They made regular visits to Palm Beach and Hyannis Port and weekend road trips to Middleburg, where the First Lady indulged her equestrian passion. Then there were her illustrious forays around the globe to places like Paris, Greece, India and Pakistan where the challenges of providing protection were immense, especially since Mrs. Kennedy was an international superstar.
The photographs of their trips abroad are telling. There is Mrs. Kennedy poised in a stunning gown and full-length gloves next to President Charles de Gaulle or some other foreign dignitary. There are masses of people flooding the Grecian ports or the streets of Bengal, yearning to catch a glimpse of her (an impulse that inspired JFK’s famous remark, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”) In the background, there is a man with photogenic features, looking askance at the crowd; his dark eyes are brooding and stoic, a reminder that he is not there to have fun.
Hill also followed the first lady on her emotional journeys. He was present when her beloved father-in-law, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, suffered a debilitating stroke; and when the family endured the death of Baby Patrick, who was born five weeks premature in August 1963—three months before the president’s assassination.
Despite the demands of his job, Hill’s compensation was modest, even by the standards of the time. His annual salary in 1961 was $6,799, a fact he mentions incidentally, and which he says never prompted any grievance. His meager per diem for travel expenses ($12 a day) sometimes made it difficult to find decent lodging on the road. But nothing compared to the sacrifice of frequent and prolonged absences from his wife and young sons– especially the Christmases he spent in Palm Beach.
Nonetheless, Hill would develop a steadfast devotion to a family he saw more than his own. His story weaves glimpses of the Kennedys that are vivid, often breathtaking. In one scene, 3-year-old Caroline is seated with Hill on a sofa at the Kennedy’s Palm Beach residence. The date is January 20, 1961—the day of the presidential inauguration. Agent Hill stayed back to help with the children’s detail.
“’See your daddy, Caroline?’” Hill asks, pointing to the television.
Caroline watches for a brief moment, “her legs dangling from the sofa,” as her father places his left hand on the Bible and raises his right hand.
“I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear to …”
“’Where’s mommy?’” she asks.
“Mommy’s there, too. I’m sure they’ll show her on the television in a minute.”
Hill portrays President Kennedy as a genial family man, evidenced in an anecdote he heard from a fellow agent during the painful days following Joe Kennedy’s stroke. After a visit with the elder Kennedy, the family was passing through the hospital lobby, where Caroline spotted a gumball machine.
“’Can I please have a gumball?’” she asked her father.
“’Oh Buttons, I’m sorry; you need a penny for the gumball machine. I don’t have a penny.’”
Hill recalls his amusement when his colleague recounted the incident. “It was typical JFK. He never carried money. Here he was the President of the United States, and he didn’t have a penny for the gumball machine.”
There are images of John, Jr., a toddler who delighted in airplanes, who cried uncontrollably as his parents were departing for Dallas. His father’s funeral took place on the day he turned 3. In that iconic moment when John-John saluted the president’s casket, Hill reports that he and other steely-eyed agents could barely hold back tears.
Hill’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he formed an unbreakable bond, affirms her image of elegance and grace but also presents her as spontaneous, even mischievous at times. He recounts her sneaking cigarettes with him on their drives to Middleburg, starting in early 1961—“one of the many secrets we would keep with each other.”
Besides secrets, Hill would gain an insider’s perspective on the first lady’s personal tastes and peccadillos. When the crowds and paparazzi became oppressive, she sometimes sent him on shopping errands for gifts, cosmetics, even clothes. And while they always addressed each other in formal terms, they shared humanizing moments. He recalls that she would tease him for his stoic demeanor, like the time she was marveling over the sites they had seen on their trip to India, stopping short when he seemed less than enthused. “Doesn’t anything ever impress you, Mr. Hill?” she asked.
There were tense moments, too, often involving Mrs. Kennedy’s adamant desire to maintain a level of autonomy in a highly controlled White House environment. At the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hill recalls debriefing her about procedures for seeking shelter in the White House bunker in the event of a national emergency: “She pulled away from me in what can only be described as defiance, and said, ‘Mr. Hill, if the situation develops that requires the children and me to go to the shelter, let me tell you what you can expect. I will take Caroline and John and we will walk hand in hand out onto the south grounds. We will stand there like brave soldiers, and face the fate of every other American.’”
Five seconds in Dallas
Probing the fateful seconds that transformed a nation, Hill says he was standing on the running board of the car that was following the presidential limousine when he heard the first shot. The president immediately grabbed his neck and pitched forward, prompting Hill to leap from his position and run towards the car. Within five seconds of the first shot, a second shot erupted—one that Hill never heard because of the motorcycles surrounding him as he ran. Then came the third, fatal shot. In an instant, Mrs. Kennedy turned and mounted the car, desperately attempting to retrieve pieces of the president’s shattered head. In that same instant, Hill mounted from the rear, nearly losing his balance as the car accelerated. He then pushed Mrs. Kennedy back into her seat and jumped in after her, covering her and the president’s slumped body with his own. Only then did he realize that Governor Connally, seated up front with his wife, had suffered a nonfatal wound. He knew immediately that the president was dead. As the car sped towards Parkland Hospital, Mrs. Kennedy cried, “Oh Jack, Jack, what have they done to you?”
Descent And Catharsis
Hill spent one more year in charge of Mrs. Kennedy’s protection, following her and the children on their move to New York City, during which time they never discussed the assassination. He demurs from talking about her subsequent years, about how she married Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, a man Hill “never liked.” President Kennedy had issued Hill strict orders to keep his wife away from Onassis, a renowned womanizer, during their 1961 trip to Greece. Hill surmises that the marriage to Onassis was motivated by her heightened need for security in the wake of the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The last time Hill ever saw her was at Bobby’s funeral.
Following his time with Mrs. Kennedy, Hill returned to Washington, providing protection for three more presidents over the course of 11 years. During much of that time, he served on the front lines of firestorms ignited over civil rights and Vietnam. But despite the semblance of holding it all together, even earning a promotion to assistant director of the Secret Service, Hill was slowly unraveling on the inside. In 1975, as his troubles bubbled to the surface, his doctors deemed him unfit for the job, sending him into early retirement. Later that year, during a widely watched interview on “60 Minutes,” the embattled 43-year-old broke down before the cameras. Asked by Mike Wallace to recount details of the president’s assassination, Hill trembled and choked back tears while uttering his tortured conviction that he had failed that day.
Then came the former agent’s retreat into his “personal dungeon”—the basement of his Alexandria home, where he spent seven years drinking, smoking and growing increasingly estranged from his family. His marriage began to fall apart. He emerged in 1982, reaching out to his sons and giving up cigarettes and alcohol in order to avert what his doctor warned was an imminent death.
In 1990, Hill reached a major milestone in his journey towards healing when he returned to Dallas for the first time. As he traversed Dealey Plaza and the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, he made peace with the fact he had done the best he could to protect the president.
In recent years, Hill has found catharsis in his writing projects and speaking tours. He divides his time between Alexandria and San Francisco, home to McCubbin, with whom he is collaborating on a third book. Besides a compelling narrative about a day still shrouded in mystery and sadness, Hill shares his perspectives on the Kennedy years.
He has repeatedly backed the Warren Commission’s report of a lone gunman, decrying the multitude of conspiracy theories that have emerged over the years as “delusional.” He points out that most assassins share a similar profile: disaffected “loser” types who believe a spectacular act of violence will make them important. In a similar vein, Hill dismisses widely accepted notions about JFK’s alleged extramarital affairs with Marilyn Monroe and other women, maintaining all he ever saw was a president devoted to his wife and family.
Hill’s story begs questions: Did he love Jacqueline Kennedy? He’s been asked before. He denies it, but not vehemently. Was his time in the Kennedy White House worth the personal sacrifices? It was all worth it, he reflects. The only thing he regrets about his career as a Secret Service agent is that President Kennedy died that day.
Clint Hill’s anguish over the president’s fate, like his undying devotion to Jacqueline Kennedy, casts irony on the first lady’s teasing remark: “Doesn’t anything ever impress you, Mr. Hill?”