Clint Hill may be the most famous Secret Service agent in history: he was the man who climbed onto the Kennedy limousine in Dallas and kept Jacqueline Kennedy from falling out of the vehicle after her husband's murder. With the exception of his testimony before the Warren Commission and an ill-conceived interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes in 1975 after his retirement from the Service, Hill had never spoken with anyone about that day in Dallas - not even with his wife. Hill first told his story in Gerald Blaine's excellent book  The Kennedy Detail [Blaine was also an agent on the Presidential Detail that day]. After finding his conversations with Blaine cathartic, he agreed to write about his days heading Mrs. Kennedy's security detail - with co-writer Lisa McCubbin. Hill and McCubbin teamed up on a second book - about the five days in November 1963. Five Presidents is their third effort, and deals with the five presidents under whom Hill worked from 1958-1975.
First, let me say, that one of the first conclusions you reach after reading Five Presidents is this: it's a small miracle that every president isn't assassinated. At least, it's a miracle that Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon did not have active attempts on their lives while in office. Time and again, Hill provides detailed stories of the Secret Service going to great effort to secure an area or route for a presidential visit, only to have that perimeter breached....by the president himself. Either demanding to ride in an open top car - and we are talking about after JFK in Dallas - to stopping a motorcade to get out of the car and press the flesh while frantic agents scramble to keep up.
Hill provides a brief history of the Secret Service. In one of the more ironic - tragically ironic - parts of Abraham Lincoln's last days, the legislation to establish the Secret Service Division of the United States Treasury was on Lincoln's desk, awaiting his signature, the night he was assassinated. That legislation, though, did not charge the Secret Service with presidential protection. That only occurred in 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley, when Congress assigned the duties of presidential protection to the Secret Service.
Hill's title is a bit misleading in that he did not directly serve on the Presidential Security Detail for all five presidents [Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford], although he served on either the First Lady [Mrs. Kennedy] or Vice Presidential Security Detail [Spiro Agnew] before being promoted to Secret Service headquarters in 1971.
Hill started on the protective detail of Eisenhower's mother-in-law, Elvira Doud, in September 1958. He was then transferred to the White House Detail on November 1, 1959. Hill's first foreign trip with Eisenhower was exhaustive: 22,000 miles in 19 days visiting 11 nations with Eisenhower appearing before tens of millions of people. Hill was stunned at how vulnerable the President was in such situations. For one thing, when in a foreign land, at that time the Secret Service relied heavily on the law enforcement forces of the home country.
That didn't always work. During this first trip, while in India, the Indian police lost control of the situation during the motorcade carrying Eisenhower and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As crowds of tens of thousands began swarming around the car, Hill writes, "the Indian security forces had completely lost control of the situation. Suddenly, Prime Minister Nehru got out of the car and started swinging a stick at the people. I could hardly believe my eyes. The Indian prime minister was hitting his own people!" But it did the trick - it cleared a path for the motorcade to continue. This was repeated more than a few times during the motorcade before Eisenhower and Nehru safely reached their destination. As humorous as the image of Nehru flailing away to clear a motorcade path is, the reality was that, most of the time, Ike's personal security was not guaranteed; he drove in open cars where the Secret Service would never be able to protect him if there had been a credible threat.
Upon the election of John F. Kennedy, Hill was shocked and disappointed when he was informed in November 1960 that he was to be assigned to the First Lady-elect's detail. As amazing as it is to think about today, in November 1960, Hill was one of just two agents on Jackie Kennedy's detail.
Still, Hill had great proximity to JFK during the many hours the president and Jackie were together - both public and private. Hill liked JFK right away, and noticed immediately that - unlike Eisenhower - JFK took it upon himself to learn the first names of every Secret Service agent responsible for guarding he and his family. Eisenhower had just called everyone, "Agent". Indeed, Hill writes, "There was no doubt that this administration was going to be entirely different from the last. Our job is to protect - we had no political allegiance - but from the very beginning, the courtesy and respect with which both Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy treated all of the agents set the groundwork for what would become one of the most memorable times in not only my life, but for my colleagues lives as well."
Life in the Kennedy White House was never dull. One of the more amusing moments came when Hill was preparing for the Kennedy's 1961 trip to Europe which would conclude with Jackie having a solo vacation in Greece. Hill was surprised to be called to the Oval Office. When he entered, he found not just President Kennedy but Attorney General Robert Kennedy as well. President Kennedy looked directly at Hill and said, "The Attorney General and I want to make one thing clear [to you]… And that is: whatever you do in Greece, do not let Mrs. Kennedy cross paths with Aristotle Onassis."
This was not the only time that such instructions came from the president. When Hill was preparing for Jackie Kennedy's vacation in early 1962 on the Amalfi coast in Italy, President Kennedy again called Hill into the Oval Office with the following orders: "I don't want to see photos of her at luncheons with eight different wines in full view or jet-set types lolling around in bikinis." Hill writes of JFK, "He told me do what you can to remind her to be aware of that. And above all, no nightclub pictures."
In the heated environment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, being a Secret Service agent - and the sacrifices that entailed in terms of their own families - came with a key reminder of what it would mean to 'sacrifice'. As Hill writes, "The Secret Service was on heightened alert for whatever might happen. We were braced for the evacuation of key personnel by helicopter, and knew exactly who would go in which helicopters. We all knew that in the event of a nuclear attack there would be people scrambling to get on board helicopters. If people who were not authorized tried to get on, as an absolute last resort, we would have no choice but to shoot them. It was a sickening thought, but this was the reality of the situation we faced.... The worst part for all the agents was that we could not discuss the situation with our own families, and if something happened - if there were a nuclear attack - we would go with the president and his family to an underground facility, and our families would most likely perish. It was truly unthinkable."
Hill has written extensively about November 22, 1963, in his two previous works. Still, there are new remembrances in Five Presidents. For example, Hill reveals that - on that day - it actually would have been a more direct route for them to drive JFK and his entourage directly from Fort Worth to the Trade Mart in Dallas. Hill writes, "Instead we drove from the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth to Carswell Air Force Base, boarded Air Force One, flew into Love Field, then drove through downtown Dallas toward the speech site. All of this to get a photo of President and Mrs. Kennedy coming off Air Force One in Dallas and to have a motorcade for maximum exposure."
Hill's remembrances of the events are chilling. He writes, "It would be nearly 50 years before I could recount the details of what happened in Dallas - not because I was sworn to secrecy or because I had anything to hide. The reason is simple: the memories were just too damn painful. To this day, every moment is still vivid in my mind."
Although the week before - during an open procession in Florida - Kennedy had ordered the Secret Service not to ride on the car in which he was riding, because the crowds were so large in Dallas, Hill made the decision to disobey the edict and jump out of the follow-up car and jump onto the rear step of the president's car, and then alternated between that and the backup car. He hoped JFK wouldn't notice him if he moved back and forth.
As they turned onto Dealey Plaza, because the crowds had thinned, Hill left the back of the president's car and returned to the backup car. After hearing a loud noise and realizing that it was a gunshot, Hill writes, "I jumped off the running board [of the backup car], hit the pavement, and ran. My sole intention was to get onto the SS 100 X [the president's car] and place myself between the shooter and the president and Mrs. Kennedy. My adrenaline was flowing, as the [president's] car kept moving forward, I raced with all my might to catch up." Hill heard a second shot that he believes is the one that hit Governor John Connally. Then, when he heard the third shot, "I heard it and felt it. The impact was like the sound of something hard hitting something hollow - like the sound of a melon shattering onto concrete. In the same instant, an eruption of blood, brain matter, and bone fragments exploded from the president's head, showering over Mrs. Kennedy, the car, and me."
Hill had just reached the president's car when the driver began to speed up. Hill recalls, "Somehow - I honestly don't know how - I lunged and pulled my body onto the car, and my foot found the step. In that same instant, Mrs. Kennedy rose up out of her seat and started climbing onto the trunk. The car was really beginning to pick up speed, and I figured she was going to go flying off the back of the car or, God forbid, be shot by the next round. Her eyes were filled with fear as she reached out and grabbed a piece of the president's head that had flown onto the trunk. I realized she didn't even know I was there. She was in complete shock. Her husband's head had just exploded inches from her face. I thrust myself onto the trunk, grabbed her arm, and pushed her back into the seat. When I did this, the president's body fell to the left onto her lap.' My God! They have shot his head off!', Mrs. Kennedy screamed. Blood was everywhere. The floor was covered in blood and brain tissue and skull fragments. The president's head was in Mrs. Kennedy's lap, his eyes fixed, and a gaping hole in the back of his skull. 'Get us to a hospital! Get us to a hospital!', I screamed at the driver, Bill Greer. Gripping the left door frame with my left hand, I wedged myself between the left and right sides of the vehicle on top of the rear seat trying to keep my body as high as possible to shield the car's occupants from whatever shots might still be coming as we raced down Stemmons Freeway. The time between the moment I heard the first shot and the impact of the fatal third shot was less than six seconds. Six seconds to change the course of history. Six seconds I would relive more than anyone can imagine. Not a day would go by, for the rest of my life, that something would remind me of President Kennedy and that day in Dallas. One gunman. Three shots. Six seconds."
When they arrived at the emergency room, initially Jackie Kennedy would not let go of JFK's body. Hill looked her in the eye and gently said, "Mrs. Kennedy, please let us help the president." But still Mrs. Kennedy wouldn't move. Hill recalls, "Knowing her as well as I did, I finally realized that she knew. She knew he was dead. She would not let go [of his body] because she didn't want anyone else to see him like this. I took off my suit coat and placed it over his head and upper torso and as I looked at her sad, hollow eyes, she finally let him go."
Once inside the emergency room, as doctors worked frantically on JFK, Hill found himself called to the phone. It was the Attorney General. "What's going on down there?!" Robert Kennedy asked. Hill told him, "'Both the president and the governor have been shot', I began. 'We are in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.' And then the president's brother asked me something that haunts me still. 'Well, how bad is it?' I did not have the courage to tell Robert Kennedy that his brother was dead. So I simply said, 'It's as bad as it can get'."
As the group returned to Air Force One and the somber flight back to Washington, just before the swearing-in ceremony of Lyndon Johnson, Hill writes, "I was notified that Mrs. Kennedy wanted to see me in the presidential cabin. I walked through the aircraft, past President Johnson and his staff, and into the compartment. 'Yes Mrs. Kennedy, what can I do for you?' Still in her pink suit, encrusted with blood, she walked toward me and grasped my hands. 'What's going to happen to you now, Mr. Hill?' I clenched my jaw and swallowed hard. How could she be thinking about me? 'I'll be OK, Mrs. Kennedy'. I said 'I'll be OK'."
In the aftermath of the assassination, Johnson requested Secret Service protection for Jackie Kennedy and the children. Jackie specifically requested Hill. He was now in charge of the Kennedy Protective Detail, not the White House Detail.
Hill is clear about what the assassination did to him. He writes, "In hindsight, there is no doubt I was suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I'm sure Mrs. Kennedy, along with everyone else in the presidential limousine and in the follow-up car - the other Secret Service agents, Governor and Mrs. Connally, Dave Powers, and Ken O'Donnell - were all suffering the same mental distress I was. But none of us talked about it - certainly not with each other. There was no counseling. We each just went on with our lives the best we could." And although the Warren Commission report exonerated the Secret Service - in fact it praised them - Hill writes, "For those of us on the White House Detail, the Report didn't change anything. President Kennedy was dead. We had failed. I had failed. And I would have to live with that for the rest of my life."
After a year protecting Mrs. Kennedy after the assassination, Hill was transferred to the President's Detail in November 1964. Johnson at first, though, didn't like Hill because he considered him loyal to the Kennedys. In fact, LBJ initially wanted Hill transferred immediately. After the Secret Service chief talked to Johnson in detail about Hill and his loyalty to the United States, LBJ relented. Hill recalls, "I was surprised that President Johnson had agreed to allow me to stay on his detail, but I also knew that all it would take was one minor mistake and I'd be transferred to a field office far from Washington, D.C."
Simply put, Lyndon Johnson was a bear for the Secret Service. Hill writes, "He believed surprise was the best form of defense against anyone who might try to harm him, and that included not informing his Secret Service agents of impending activity. We had to continually be on our toes, ready for movement by foot or car. President Johnson would be in the house [on the LBJ ranch] and suddenly decide to take a drive. He'd just go right out the back door, dressed in his tan gabardine ranch trousers and matching pocket jacket, a western style hat, and boots, headed for the carport, usually with several of his guests in tow. Rarely did he give advanced warning to the agents, so as soon as one of us saw what was going on, we would radio the command post and race for the Secret Service follow-up cars.... President Johnson refused to allow an agent to drive him around on his own ranch, and most times forbade any of us from being in the same car with him." Indeed, while trying to protect him at the ranch, "you could never predict where he would go or what he do next. The Hill Country of Texas was his backyard playground, and while he knew every inch of it, along with everyone who lived there, we did not. There were a number of ranches the president visited frequently, and sometimes we would get to a neighboring ranch by car only to find out he had changed his mind and went to go to a different ranch in the opposite direction, by helicopter. We'd have to hightail it to the new destination to get there before the helicopter arrived. He was constantly changing his plans at the last minute, which resulted in enormous and frustrating logistical problems."
LBJ's 1965 inauguration was the biggest operation for the Secret Service since the assassination in Dallas. Hill writes, "The two mile stretch between the Capitol and the White House was checked and rechecked multiple times, with every building on Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues inspected and every window along the route ordered to be closed. Manhole covers were sealed, agents would be flying in helicopters overhead, and for the first time a three sided barrier of bulletproof glass was installed around the podium were Johnson and his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, would take their oaths."
Hill further recalls, "Four years earlier, President and Mrs. Kennedy had ridden the entire length of the parade in an open top car as one million spectators waved and cheered. Now, for the first time in America's history, the president was relegated to riding in an enclosed vehicle, and although it may be hard to believe, the car in which president Johnson rode through the streets of Washington, D.C. on January 20, 1965, was the same car in which his predecessor had been assassinated. After being transported from Dallas back to Washington in a C-130, guarded continuously by Secret Service agents, the SS 100 EX had been scrupulously inspected for evidence and then sent back to the Hess and Eisenhart facility in Cincinnati to be refurbished. Because the Secret Service had a lack of vehicles, because it would've taken two or three years to design and build a brand-new car - at a much higher cost - the decision was made to take what we had and improve it. A non-removable roof made of bulletproof glass was installed, along with titanium plating in the trunk and around the backseat area; the floor was reconstructed of steel to withstand a grenade attack; and all the windows were replaced with thick bulletproof glass. The additional weight required a new more powerful engine, and an additional air conditioning unit was installed to compensate for the greenhouse effect of all the thick glass. Finally, at President Johnson's request, the exterior paint color was changed from midnight blue to black. The refurbished car had been put back into use in May 1964, But because I had been with Mrs. Kennedy up until November, this inaugural parade was the first time I had worked a motorcade with the car since that day in Dallas...By sheer coincidence or cruel irony, [as in Dallas] I had been assigned to the left rear of the car, next to the First Lady." The car would be used again in Richard Nixon's first inaugural parade, with Hill again trailing behind it.
As would be a common theme, however, the best security plans often went out the window in trying to protect Johnson. No sooner had the inaugural parade began, Hill writes, than, "there was a slowing of the pace, bringing the car almost to a complete stop, and the president spotted several band majorettes from South Texas State College, his alma mater. I could hardly believe my eyes when the president opened the rear door, got out, and strolled over to the young ladies to shake their hands. We could have a full-proof security plan, but when the president himself chose to disregard it, all bets were off. Several of us rushed to surround him, urging him to get back into the car. Fortunately, he did as we asked and remained in the car for the rest of the parade."
Johnson's edict that he was going to drive himself at the ranch - with no agents riding in the car - led to another scary moment on the day after Christmas,1965. After driving to and attending church, the Johnsons decided they wanted to visit the newly restored boyhood home of President Johnson. As Hill remembers, "The president drove slowly down Avenue F, and after crossing Main Street, just as he turned a corner, I heard a loud explosion of noise. It sounded like a firecracker. 'Oh God!' Across the street, a teenage boy was walking across the front yard of the home with a .30-.30 rifle in his hands. I jumped out of the car and ran towards the boy with my arms outstretched and waving above my head, yelling 'Put the gun down! Put the gun down!' The boy turned white as a starched shirt as he dropped the gun at his feet. Meanwhile the other agents, with guns drawn, raced just around the president's car as it moved out of sight.... As it turned out, the noise had indeed come from another direction - where a young girl had set off a firecracker. The teenage boy was from San Antonio and happened to be visiting his grandparents, who had known the Johnsons for nearly 30 years. It turned out to be a series of unfortunate coincidences; as the boy said, he picked the wrong time to go hunting. President Johnson was completely unfazed by the incident and carried on with his day as if nothing unusual had happened."
Diplomacy also negatively effected security. For Johnson's visit to Mexico in 1966, Hill had arranged to have the bulletproof limousine flown to Mexico to allow Johnson and Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz to ride together - under a closed roof -- down a route that would contain millions of people. But Mexican officials insisted that President Johnson ride with Ordaz in their convertible presidential limousine - with the top down. Hill writes, "Two vivid memories collided in my mind: the enormous crowds that turned out for President and Mrs. Kennedy's visit to Mexico City four years earlier - two million people along the motorcade route, storms of confetti so thick that by the end the open-top convertible was filled to the brim with the stuff - and the image of President Kennedy's head exploding in Dallas. There was no way we could allow President Johnson to ride through the streets of Mexico City in an open-top car. No way."
Except they had to. Johnson insisted. Hill recalls, "In the end, President Johnson and his staff decided that he would ride with President Diaz Ordaz in the Mexican presidential limousine, with the top down.…The decision was out of my hands, but the responsibility to keep everyone safe was entirely on my shoulders."
By December 1967, Hill had been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of President Johnson's Detail. When Johnson made a surprise visit to Vietnam in 1967, security was obviously extremely tight. After Johnson landed and began meeting the troops, a Secret Service agent took Hill aside and - pointing to a plane a short distance away - said, "See that aircraft sitting at the end of the runway over there? In the event of incoming missiles, you get yourself, the president, and [General] Westmoreland on board. The pilot has instructions to take off immediately and get you the hell out of here. They've got their engines running, Ready to go."
With the assassinations and violence of 1968, the last full year of the Johnson presidency was a nightmare for the Secret Service. A few hours after Bobby Kennedy was shot, President Johnson ordered Secret Service protection for all of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Hill writes, "One of the results of Robert Kennedy's death was that the Secret Service was now protecting major presidential candidates, and in order to meet the added responsibilities, the White House Detail...had been cannibalized. Because of the stamina required on the campaign trail, we had moved many of the experienced, younger agents to the candidates' details, and replaced the president's detail with older agents who had plenty of experience but weren't necessarily as fit or agile. The theory was that the new protective details would be much more active because they were constantly on the go, while the president, presumably, wouldn't be traveling so much. This was true, but it concerned me - especially as we headed into the Republican and Democratic conventions with a severe shortage of manpower."
With Nixon's ascension to the White House, Hill's role changed again. Nixon considered Hill a "Kennedy/LBJ Man" and demanded his removal from the Presidential Security Detail. Instead, he headed up the Vice Presidential Security Detail for Spiro Agnew, whom Hill enjoyed working with. Unlike LBJ, Agnew always abided by the Secret Service's wishes. Hill writes, "For me, personally, I got along very well with Vice President Agnew and his wife, Judy. They were genuinely kind, fun loving, and family-oriented, and they treated all the agents with a great deal of respect."
Hill may have been one of the first people in Washington to know that Richard Nixon had installed a voice-activated taping system. At the end of February 1971, Hill writes, "during my private conversations with fellow headquarters personnel, the most interesting information I learned was that a taping system has been installed in various locations, at the president's request, to capture conversations. Previous administrations had also taped conversations and telephone calls, but what was surprising was how elaborate the system was, especially the fact that most of it was voice-activated. That was new. I was one of the very few people who knew about the taping system, and, as with all types of similar privileged information, it was kept very private, limited to people on a need-to-know basis only."
In 1971, there was another promotion, this time to Assistant Director of the Presidential Protective Division. But, psychologically, the year behind the desk had taken it's toll. Hill recalls, "What most people didn't know was that I had been having a difficult time concentrating on the job since being moved to headquarters. At some point after President Kennedy's assassination, the Secret Service had begun using the Zapruder film in training classes for new agents.… After I was promoted from the detail and moved to headquarters, every so often I would be asked to attend these training sessions. It was surreal for me to see myself on the film, to see the horror from a different perspective. And they played the film over and over, sometimes in slow motion, so I had to relive it over and over. It was excruciating. The events of November 22, 1963, were ever-present in my mind and affected everything I thought or did. The emotional trauma caused my body to react physically, so I was having physical problems as well. I was being referred to different doctors, and at that point I was seeing a gastroenterologist, a urologist, and an internist. Pills were prescribed, but nothing seemed to work or help. I was providing financially for my family, but emotionally I was not there as a husband or a father. There's no doubt about it now: I was going through post traumatic stress disorder - PTSD. But in the 1970s there was no such diagnosis. I was no longer on a protective detail, and I found that when I got home from the office, a scotch and soda helped me deal with the transition from problems at work to problems at home. I'm not proud of how I handled my issues. But that's how I dealt with it - and it only got worse over time."
In addition to learning about the tapes, Hill got another glimpse into the Nixon psyche after George Wallace was shot. The next day, President Nixon ordered Secret Service protection for Ted Kennedy. However, a few days later, Kennedy requested that the protection be terminated and it was. Then, in September 1972, Alexander Butterfield called Hill and said that Nixon was adamant that Kennedy have Secret Service protection and that he wanted a specific agent to be in charge - Robert Newbrand. Hill informed Butterfield that he already had a Kennedy team ready to go, one with a good rapport with the senator. Hill next heard from Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department, Eugene Rossides. After Hill again explained that Newbrand wasn't needed because the Kennedy team was set, Hill writes, "there was a slight pause, and then Rossides said, 'You apparently don't get the picture, Clint. This is not a request, it is in order'. It sickened me to realize that the president could sink so low as to insist that our organization, which was providing him with protection and enabling him to function as president, place an informant [Newbrand] on a protective detail. There was no question in my mind that this was what was happening. I had always held the Office of the President in extremely high regard. This request, although it did not come directly from the president, obviously emanated from him. It sullied the office and gave me an insight into the character of the man in it." Fortunately, as it turned out, Newbrand - who was close to some of the top Nixon staff - was furious at what Nixon was trying to do. He agreed to serve on Kennedy's detail, but fed the Nixon team false information about the senator.
Hill retired from the Secret Service due to health issues on July 31, 1975, at the age of 43. Shortly after, he made what he later considered to be a grave mistake. He agreed to sit for an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. He had been told the piece was on the Secret Service in general and no mention was made of the Kennedy assassination in Wallace's pitch meeting with Hill. Wallace, on camera, naturally asked Hill to recall what happened in Dallas. Hill broke down, after all of those years, on camera. The after-effects were chilling for Hill. He writes, "In the months following the airing of the 60 Minutes episode, I spiraled into a depression off the deep end as time went on. I cut off contact with friends and associates and spent the majority of my time in the basement of my home in Alexandria. I drank as a form of self-medication and smoked heavily. It wasn't until 1982 when a doctor friend told me I would have to change the way I was living, or I would die. I decided I wanted to live and so I quit drinking and quit smoking. Gradually I improved, but it wasn't easy and thoughts of the assassination were still prevalent in my mind."
In 1990, Hill returned to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, for the first time since November 22, 1963. He wanted to see the Book Depository, and re-walk the route of the motorcade. In some respects, it was cathartic - it allowed him to see that there was nothing he could have done to prevent JFK's death. Hill writes, "I wish I had returned to Dealey Plaza much sooner. I felt better, but instead of spending my retirement years traveling and enjoying life, I continued my reclusive existence, still mired in depression."
In many ways, Hill was as much a victim of what happened in Dallas as Governor Connally, Mrs. Kennedy, or anyone else who survived that motorcade. As a Secret Service agent his duty was to give his life to protect his 'client'. In Hill's case, he gave a lifetime.