Secret service agent recalls his ‘extraordinary journey’
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