Se­cret ser­vice agent re­calls his ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Muriel Dob­bin

The “ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney” of Se­cret Ser­vice agent Clint Hill be­gan on a note of un­likely melo­drama when he had to help smug­gle out the dead body of a nurse in at­ten­dance on Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower’s mother-in-law. That strange mo­ment as a bud­ding agent launched him into the sur­real world of the men who bear the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­tect­ing the pres­i­dent of the United States, where fail­ure to live up to that task can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

As Mr. Hill knows only too well. The most har­row­ing mo­ments of his life came in No­vem­ber 1962 when he flung him­self into the car where Pres­i­dent Kennedy was dy­ing from an as­sas­sin’s bul­lets and Jac­que­line Kennedy found her hus­band’s head in her lap. Mr. Hill never for­got that scene, and says he never will, es­pe­cially since he be­came con­vinced that he might have taken one of the fatal bul­lets had be reached the car a frac­tion of a minute faster.

He lapsed into melan­cholic si­lence for years af­ter the Kennedy tragedy, al­though his ca­reer as an agent flour­ished. He be­came a wit­ness to trau­matic events in Amer­i­can history. He trav­eled on the wave of pop­u­lar­ity that of­ten ac­com­pa­nied the World War II hero Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower, learned to cope with the fe­ro­ciously bad-tem­pered Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son in four hec­tic years at his Texas ranch, watched the po­lit­i­cal catas­tro­phe and res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon, and saw Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford’s elec­tion bid fail, prob­a­bly be­cause of his par­don­ing of Mr. Nixon. And he was fre­quently was warned by doc­tors that his own health was in too much de­cline to con­tinue his way of life.

Sadly he gave up the Se­cret Ser­vice work he loved, and recre­ated him­self as a man re­call­ing be­ing a wit­ness to history and learn­ing from it. That is the mes­sage of an un­usual book by an un­usual man who tran­scended a life gov­erned by bu­reau­cratic se­crecy to recreate his mem­o­ries. Work­ing with Lisa McCub­bin, a writer who ob­vi­ously knows how to lis­ten, he at last be­gan to talk about what he saw and what he could bear to re­mem­ber. He re­tains the re­serve that he learned as an agent. They are not noted for their ca­pac­ity to chat, es­pe­cially with the press. Yet they pos­sess a unique ca­pac­ity to watch and re­port al­though it never be­comes the kind of story that re­porters sought. Mr. Hill re­calls vividly the scene be­tween Mr. Eisen­hower and Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev which be­came a kind of shout­ing match when the Rus­sians sug­gested their sum­mit be post­poned un­til an­other Amer­i­can pres­i­dent was elected.

The author’s fond­ness for the Kennedys is ob­vi­ous. While not ev­ery­one would agree with his as­sess­ment of this as an “age of in­no­cence” he of­fers en­gag­ing ex­am­ples of JFK’s con­sid­er­a­tion for those who worked for him, giv­ing agents his own short-sleeved sport shirts to re­place the tai­lored tweeds they wore on the de­tail. And Mrs Kennedy was in a class by her­self as far as Mr. Hill was con­cerned, an af­fec­tion that he made clear in an ear­lier book “Mrs Kennedy and Me.” It was a re­la­tion­ship based on tragedy and built on re­spect. Al­most cer­tainly, nei­ther of them ever for­got the as­sas­si­na­tion and the soft-voiced agent with the cold and cour­te­ous man­ner pro­vided the kind of sup­port that the pres­i­dent’s widow des­per­ately needed.

Mr. Hill writes with bru­tal frank­ness about his four years as head of the LBJ de­tail, most of it spent on the Texas ranch. Mr. John­son’s man­ner and man­ners were coarse and dif­fi­cult to deal with, es­pe­cially for men who could not de­fend them­selves against his ver­bal on­slaughts. Mr. Hill re­calls how Lady Bird John­son in­ter­vened in her hus­band’s un­bri­dled be­hav­ior, and it is no sur­prise that the author re­jected LBJ’s in­vi­ta­tion to be­come his chief of the se­cret ser­vice de­tail on the Ped­er­nales River. Mr. Hill’s rec­ol­lec­tions of the Nixon pres­i­dency un­der­score the strange na­ture of the man and his be­hav­ior, as in his in­sis­tence on talk­ing to young demon­stra­tors at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial in the depths of the Viet­nam dis­as­ter. What Mr. Nixon was most de­ter­mined about on that bizarre night, was get­ting an early eggs and ba­con break­fast at a Wash­ing­ton Ho­tel, the author notes.

What be­comes clear in the book is Mr. Hill’s pride in his work. He saw his job as a priv­i­lege, and he lived up to his re­spon­si­bil­ity, per­haps be­yond its call­ing. He leaves the im­pres­sion that when agents be­lieve in their job, no­body is any bet­ter. His per­cep­tion takes the reader into an in­trigu­ing world where you had to be­lieve in the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of your work, or you could not do the job.

FIVE PRES­I­DENTS: MY EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY JOUR­NEY WITH EISEN­HOWER, KENNEDY, JOHN­SON, NIXON, AND FORD By Clint Hill with Lisa McCub­bin

Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for McClatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun

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