The flood of stories on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination dropped off dramatically this weekend, after nonstop coverage of the death and its aftermath. But for Clint Hill, the story never really goes away.
Hill was the Secret Service agent – famously caught in every image of those fatal moments in Dallas – who crawled onto the back of the presidential limousine after the shots rang out. It was the defining event of his life, replayed over and over for the past five decades.
Hill, 81, revisits the tragedy in “Five Days in November,” a memoir co-authored with Lisa McCubbin. The two headlined a private brunch Sunday at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, where Hill discussed his accidential role in history for a small group of VIPs including journalists Jim Lehrer and Wolf Blitzer, White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard and Hill’s friends and former colleagues. “He has the eyes,” said Cafe Milano owner Franco Nuschese, “that tell a long story.”
After serving President Eisenhower, Hill was one of two agents assigned to protect Jackie Kennedy in 1960. The new posting was “very disappointing,” he told the audience. “I felt like I was being demoted to the second team, to be honest with you.” But the two bonded over the next three years, and he was just feet behind the first lady in the follow-up car as the motorcade made its way through the Dallas streets.
After the first shot rang out, Hill sprinted for the limo and climbed onto the trunk, where a dazed Jackie (who Hill says didn’t even realize he was there) was trying to retrieve pieces of the president’s skull. He threw himself over her and the president as the car sped to Parkland Hospital, and was at her side for every moment of the next four days – which haunted him for decades.
“I felt guilty, I felt responsible,” he told us. “We had a job to do and we failed that day.” Hill spent the next year protecting Jackie and her two children, then served presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford before retiring in 1975. That’s when he hit bottom.
“I had a real difficult time for a number of years,” he said. “I went into a very deep depression. I cut off everyone – friends, family – and spent most of my time in my basement drinking. That went on for six years.”
Hill never really talked about the assassination until a few years ago, when McCubbin began interviewing him for a book she was writing on JFK’s security detail. “I kept it buried for so long,” said Hill. “I finally just told her everything. That unencumbered the emotional baggage I’d been holding in.” The two went on to co-author “Mrs. Kennedy and Me” and now the new memoir.
And this week’s coverage?
“It’s been very emotional,” he said. There were terrible memories and a few good ones of the president and first lady, who were thrilled with their reception on the Texas trip. He’s less happy by what he sees as the endless rehash of conspiracy speculation: “I don’t see the sense of that because they’re theories without any facts at all. I just don’t understand why people believe any of that stuff.”
Hill couldn’t bring himself to return to Dallas until 1990, 27 years after the assassination. He wanted to see what it was like. He walked the streets around Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository, checked all the angles, the weather, everything he could think of.
“I finally came away with the conclusion I had done everything I could that day,” said Hill. “The best thing I could have done for myself is go back. I should have done it years earlier.”