Secret Service agent talks about his time with ‘Five Presidents’

“Five Presidents” by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin is a non-fiction book written as a page turning historical novel. People might not recognize the author, but the photo of him jumping on the presidential car is engrained in most everyone’s mind. He is the Secret Service agent that heroically leaped onto the Kennedy car in Dallas after the president was shot in 1963.

This book illuminates the lives of each leader in an insightful way. Hill has allowed readers to take the memory journey with him as he opens up about the private world he observed. He succeeds in allowing readers to have a rare glimpse into the personalities and characters of the five uniquely different presidents, from Eisenhower to Ford. This book is an incredible inside account.

Elise Cooper: Can you give us a short description of your view of each president?

Clint Hill: All the presidents were special to me. Each man had his own idiosyncrasies.

EISENHOWER: He was very well organized. Because he was a general, he interacted with us much the same way he did with the troops. He did not deal with them on a personal level, which is why he referred to us as “hey agent.” But it did not reflect on us, since we all had the utmost respect for him.

KENNEDY: Very charismatic and friendly. He treated us like family, forming a close personal relationship. President Kennedy always called us by our first name, while Mrs. Kennedy always referred to us as “Mr. Hill,” and had the children do so as well.

JOHNSON: He was a professional politician and always active, sometimes a little uncouth and unpredictable. Over the years with him I would see “the Johnson treatment,” where he would berate someone because things did not go exactly as he wanted. Yet, even though he rarely apologized, before he left office, he did apologize to the agents. I thought it was very considerate of him.

NIXON: He was a split personality between his public and personal side. He demanded loyalty from those around him. Because I was with Kennedy and Johnson, initially he requested I not be put on his detail, but that eventually changed.

EC: Since you were the agent assigned to Jackie Kennedy, how would you describe her relationship with you?

CH: I always called her Mrs. Kennedy. She was a very strong person, although in a state of shock after the assassination. We never talked about the event in Dallas. She was extremely intelligent, a dedicated wife and mother. She was very athletic. Her talents included speaking French, Italian and Spanish as well as playing tennis, golf and riding horses. As I say in the book, “Mrs. Kennedy was soft-spoken, refined, and empathetic.” The last time we spoke was in 1968 when I saw her in person on the train that was carrying the body of RFK.

EC: A similarity with those in the military is that many times you cannot discuss the mission with your families. Explain.

CH: I write about that in my book, specifically during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The worst part for all the agents was knowing, in the case of a nuclear attack or a possible missile launch from Cuba, we would have gone with the president and his family to a relocation site while our families would most likely perish. If someone tried to get aboard the helicopter that was not authorized, it may come to the point of causing bodily harm to protect those we were guarding. Our obligation is to complete the mission and perform our job, which ultimately means we would have to leave our families to fend for themselves. Anyone wanting to be an agent has to be extremely devoted, dedicated and willing to sacrifice.

EC: People have played Monday morning quarterback for decades regarding JFK’s assassination. Would you have done things differently? Let’s start with the search of the building.

CH: We checked every area. In that building we noticed three windows open with three men taking a lunch break. We did not notice anything else. In almost every major city people were cheering, hanging out of windows, on balconies and rooftops. So in Dallas, it was not an unusual situation.

EC: Since Oswald was on the FBI’s radar list, should you have vetted him more?

CH: I don’t think what the FBI knew would have made a difference. Nothing indicated Lee Harvey Oswald had a grievance against President Kennedy. There was no conspiracy because no one would have utilized a guy like Oswald, who was not intelligent or capable enough for anyone to put trust in him. He was a failure: his wife split up with him, unable to become a Marine and could not hold down a job. Even his defection to the Soviet Union did not work out. He came back to the US and was extremely upset because no one honored him. He did the assassination in an attempt to seek recognition.

EC: Why didn’t other agents rush to the car, especially since you were assigned to Jackie Kennedy?

CH: We operate as a team when the first lady and the president are in the same vehicle. In this particular incident it was based on the way everyone was situated. I was on the running board of the follow up car in the left side front. The shooter was to our rear on the right side. After the first shot was fired, I began to turn toward that noise. In doing so my eyes passed across the presidential vehicle. I saw the president react to the first shot. The agents on the right running board turned away from the president and did not realize he had been hit. For the other agent on my side, I had somewhat blocked his view so I was the only one who really had a chance to do something.

EC: Why didn’t the agent driving speed up?

CH: At the moment of the first shot he apparently heard and thought perhaps the noise was a blown tire. I know he tapped the break pedal ever so briefly because I saw the brake lights come on momentarily. After that he did begin to accelerate, which was about the time I reached the car. Understand, this is a big heavy car, so acceleration did not happen instantaneously.

EC: In the book you have a chapter on the “60 Minutes” interview where the interviewer attempted to spin that Jackie Kennedy was trying to “climb out of the car.” Your response.

CH: She was just trying to reach part of her husband’s head that was shot off. I expected that negative reaction from many in the media. The media does not always report what the facts are, but run with what they want to. I actually told the Warren Commission in 1964 what really happened.

EC: What about bulletproof presidential vehicles?

CH: There was no armament on any of the cars. After the assassination the entire process was changed and reorganized. We were loaned the only bulletproof car, the one used by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, until we got our own vehicles.

EC: You write you had PTSD from the incident. What helped you?

CH: You never completely overcome it. I am better off today than I was. Talking about it with my co-author Lisa, writing about it and talking to the public about it was very therapeutic. What also helped was going back to Dealey Plaza in Dallas and spending time there, examining the situation. I looked at everything, the angles, location of the shooter, the motorcade, weather conditions and the type of transportation we were using. I realize now I had done everything I could have done that day. All the advantages went to the shooter and we did not have any.

EC: Like with a terrorist attack, it seems even if you are right 99.99 percent of the time, it is just that one time. Please explain.

CH: Yes. It was the same situation. We can be as vigilant as possible, but it only takes that one moment when someone has the intent to do something. They have some kind of advantage since we do not have any knowledge of them. There is always the concern about the lone wolf individual like Oswald, or the person who shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, then Governor George Wallace, or President Reagan. They all had a similar style: acting alone and unknown to law enforcement.

EC: Can you comment on the Secret Service today?

CH: The publicity is not very good. Only a handful used extremely poor judgment. When I heard about stuff I was very upset and disappointed. A bad apple tends to make the whole barrel look bad.

I do think they are on the road to recovery, especially since the new director is getting the organization back to the prestigious position it previously had. There are more challenges for an agent today and it is a much more difficult job. We did not have modern technology, something that can be used for bad purposes. They need additional manpower, which has been denied. When there’s a problem and it’s evident the problem is caused by the lack of manpower, Congress is not going to take the blame but instead, it is going to point the finger. Americans should understand most agents get satisfaction from knowing they made it possible for a president to work in a secure environment so they can do their job. Agents never get the credit for doing something good, but get an awful lot of publicity when things go wrong even though the scale will so heavily weigh toward the good. Most of their hard work and effort go unnoticed.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.