President John F. Kennedy riding in motorcade with his wife Jacqueline Kenndy before he was shot in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963 (AP Photo, file)
First aired on Q (7/8/12)
The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. Those images are burned into our collective memory: the youthful president being shot, his wife Jackie lurching in the back seat, and the secret service agent jumping on the car towards her that sunny day in Dallas. But it's unlikely that anybody remembers those images as vividly as Clint Hill. Hill was the secret service agent assigned to the president's wife and he was the man who leaped to protect her on that fateful day. He's recalled that experience, and the rest of his four years protecting Mrs. Kennedy and her children, in a new book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me.
When JFK was elected in 1960, Hill was an experienced secret service agent, having previously served Eisenhower. So he was surprised -- and disappointed -- to learn that his assignment during the Kennedy administration would be the the president's wife, not the president. "I was devastated. it was like somebody hit me in the gut. I wanted to be where the action was, and that was with the president," he told Q guest host Terry O'Reilly. "I felt that I really had been demoted when I got this new assignment."
Hill quickly got over that initial disappointment when he realized how vivacious and lively Mrs. Kennedy (and she was always Mrs. Kennedy to Hill) was. While previous first ladies favoured tea parties and fashion shows, Mrs. Kennedy "loved to be active all the time, whether it was riding horses, playing tennis, water-skiing, playing golf or just walking," Hill said. Mrs. Kennedy was determined to be a hands-on mother to her young children, and this posed unique challenges as well.
Hill reveled in the challenges of protecting her and did everything he could to provide opportunities for her to pursue her hobbies and passions safely. He disagreed with those who believed the president's wife shouldn't do anything that might compromise her safety. "I had the job of creating an environment in which she could do the things she wanted to do safely, and to do things that kept her happy," he said. On one occasion, Hill even did Mrs. Kennedy's Christmas shopping for her when Hill was unable to make a shopping mall as safe as he wanted. This approach to his work resulted in a strong bond between the two. Mrs. Kennedy even called Hill "Mr. Hill," unlike her husband who called him by his first name. "I really appreciated that."
It was Hill's job to protect Mrs. Kennedy at all costs. So during the presidential motorcade on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, when Hill heard the first gunshot and "saw the president grab at his throat and lurch to his left," he did what any good agent would do: he ran towards the president. "I jumped and I started to run with the objective of getting to the back of the presidential vehicle to form a shield between the president and Mrs. Kennedy and whoever was trying to do them harm."
Hill was climbing on the car when the third shot -- the one that would kill the president -- rang out. "It was explosive enough that it caused an eruption in the president's skull, causing blood and brain matter and bone matter to come out onto myself and onto the back of the car," Hill said. He pulled Mrs. Kennedy to the floor of the car and they sped to the hospital. "I really thought there were going to be many more shots coming." Immediately, Hill knew the worst. "His eyes were fixed and i could see into his skull, into his brain, and there was a great deal of brain matter missing," Hill said. "I knew he was dead."
Hill's horrid day continued. He had to convince Mrs. Kennedy to let go of her husband's head so he could be taken into the emergency room. He was tasked with telling the chief of security, which turned into a direct conversation with Bobby Kennedy. The attorney general at the time, Bobby Kennedy learned his brother was dead from Hill.
But the worst for Hill was yet to come. He was assigned to Mrs. Kennedy and her children throughout 1964, and had to face the family every day. "Looking into the eyes of those two children and Mrs. Kennedy, knowing we had failed to provide adequate protection for their father and her husband, really hit me hard," he said. He was later transferred back to the presidential team and his work kept his mind off that fateful day until he was assigned a desk job in 1970. "That gave me the opportunity to think. And one of the things I thought about was what happened in Dallas, why, what could we have done differently, and all those kinds of things. It just ate at me, day and night."
Hill finally retired in 1975, when the stress of reliving the assassination over and over took too much of a toll on his body and his mind. He last saw Mrs. Kennedy in 1968, at Robert Kennedy's funeral. When he heard she was gravely ill in 1994, he debated calling her. But he didn't. Thirty years after he stopped officially protecting her, Hill still put Mrs. Kennedy's interests first. "I realized that my voice was going to bring back those memories in 1963, and that was not in her best interest, and I decided not to."
Mrs. Kennedy and Me is coming out almost 50 years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Originally, Hill had no intention of sharing his story with the world. But he did so for two reasons. He realized his story was part of American history and should be shared. But he also wanted the world to know the real Jackie Kennedy, the active, intelligent and devoted mother and wife. "[I wanted] to show what she really was like," he said. "There had been other books written, but they were written by people who were friends of friends of friends. They didn't really know her."
"During that four-year period, I was as close to her as anybody and I knew exactly what she was like."