A Secret Service Agent Remembers

Five Presidents by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin is a nonfiction 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 who heroically leaped onto the Kennedy car in Dallas after the president was shot. American Thinker had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Hill.

In 2017, President Kennedy would have turned one hundred years of age. Knowing that people have played Monday morning quarterback for decades about the JFK assassination, Hill dispelled some of the rumors: “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. The reason I ran to the car and not the other agents was how we were situated. 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. The car did not initially speed up because the driver apparently heard and thought perhaps the noise was a blown tire. He eventually accelerated, but with a big heavy car acceleration does not happen instantaneously.”

Hill gives readers a rare glimpse into the personalities and characters of the five uniquely different presidents, from Eisenhower to Ford. As a Secret Service agent assigned to protect them, a witness to the historical decisions made by these men, he was able to view their strengths and weaknesses. He reflects on the tumultuous times involving the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. However, it is more a book about personalities and their human side; how the presidents spent their private time, treated people around them, and interacted with their families.

He gives a short description of those personalities he worked with:

“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. 

JFK:  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.

FORD:  Like a next-door neighbor.

JACKIE KENNEDY: 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.”

The best parts of the book are the well-written stories and anecdotes. Anyone wondering if there is anything new to be said, the answer is an unequivocal yes!

These include President Eisenhower traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan to adoring crowds, allowing readers to understand how times have changed; how Eisenhower was also revered for his trustworthiness, yet during the U2 spyplane incident with Francis Gary Powers he hedged the truth to the American people. Regarding the Kennedy presidency, Hill talks about his struggles with the personal demons of PTSD over the Kennedy assassination. Concerning President Johnson, the inauspicious humiliating first greeting with him in October 1964 as the president ignored Hill’s handshake, and instead blew his nose in a handkerchief. During the Nixon administration, Hill speaks of his decision to place the White House files under protection after a midnight phone call about Watergate, and Nixon’s attempt to put an informant on the Secret Service detail of Senator Ted Kennedy. Hill also touches on President Ford’s willingness to travel to five different countries even though there was no sitting vice-president.

There is also a reminder to Americans how Secret Service agents are a lot like those in the military and intelligence, where their personal lives must be sacrificed for the good of the nation. Hill witnessed the joy, triumphs, agony, disappointments, egos, and frailties of these five presidents, yet missed many of his own.

Hill gave the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “I write in my book that 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 go 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.”

Comparing today’s Secret Service agent to when he was on the job, Hill wants to remind Americans “As with a terrorist attack today, you have to be correct 100% of the time. It is 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.”

American Thinker asked him to reflect on the recent embarrassments that the Secret Service has suffered. Hill felt, “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. 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.”

Five Presidents 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. This book is an incredible inside account.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

Five Presidents by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin is a nonfiction 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 who heroically leaped onto the Kennedy car in Dallas after the president was shot. American Thinker had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Hill.

In 2017, President Kennedy would have turned one hundred years of age. Knowing that people have played Monday morning quarterback for decades about the JFK assassination, Hill dispelled some of the rumors: “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. The reason I ran to the car and not the other agents was how we were situated. 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. The car did not initially speed up because the driver apparently heard and thought perhaps the noise was a blown tire. He eventually accelerated, but with a big heavy car acceleration does not happen instantaneously.”

Hill gives readers a rare glimpse into the personalities and characters of the five uniquely different presidents, from Eisenhower to Ford. As a Secret Service agent assigned to protect them, a witness to the historical decisions made by these men, he was able to view their strengths and weaknesses. He reflects on the tumultuous times involving the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. However, it is more a book about personalities and their human side; how the presidents spent their private time, treated people around them, and interacted with their families.

He gives a short description of those personalities he worked with:

“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. 

JFK:  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.

FORD:  Like a next-door neighbor.

JACKIE KENNEDY: 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.”

The best parts of the book are the well-written stories and anecdotes. Anyone wondering if there is anything new to be said, the answer is an unequivocal yes!

These include President Eisenhower traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan to adoring crowds, allowing readers to understand how times have changed; how Eisenhower was also revered for his trustworthiness, yet during the U2 spyplane incident with Francis Gary Powers he hedged the truth to the American people. Regarding the Kennedy presidency, Hill talks about his struggles with the personal demons of PTSD over the Kennedy assassination. Concerning President Johnson, the inauspicious humiliating first greeting with him in October 1964 as the president ignored Hill’s handshake, and instead blew his nose in a handkerchief. During the Nixon administration, Hill speaks of his decision to place the White House files under protection after a midnight phone call about Watergate, and Nixon’s attempt to put an informant on the Secret Service detail of Senator Ted Kennedy. Hill also touches on President Ford’s willingness to travel to five different countries even though there was no sitting vice-president.

There is also a reminder to Americans how Secret Service agents are a lot like those in the military and intelligence, where their personal lives must be sacrificed for the good of the nation. Hill witnessed the joy, triumphs, agony, disappointments, egos, and frailties of these five presidents, yet missed many of his own.

Hill gave the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “I write in my book that 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 go 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.”

Comparing today’s Secret Service agent to when he was on the job, Hill wants to remind Americans “As with a terrorist attack today, you have to be correct 100% of the time. It is 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.”

American Thinker asked him to reflect on the recent embarrassments that the Secret Service has suffered. Hill felt, “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. 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.”

Five Presidents 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. This book is an incredible inside account.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.