An interview with Clint Hill, author of FIVE PRESIDENTS

FIVE PRESIDENTS by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin is a non-fiction 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 ingrained in most everyone’s mind. He is the Secret Service Agent that heroically leaped onto the Kennedy car in Dallas after the President was shot.

This book 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. He succeeds in allowing readers to have a rare glimpse into the personalities and characters of the five uniquely different Presidents, from Eisenhower to Ford. This book is an incredible inside account. He discussed one of the greatest crimes of the 20th Century, JFK’s assassination.

EC: People have played Monday morning quarterback for decades regarding JFK’s assassination. Would you have done things differently? Let’s start with the search of the building?

CH: We checked every area. In that building we noticed three windows open with three men taking a lunch break. We did not notice anything else. In almost every major city people were cheering, hanging out of windows, on balconies, and rooftops. So in Dallas it was not an unusual situation.

EC: Since Oswald was on the FBI’s radar list should you have vetted him more?

CH: 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. He was a failure: his wife split up with him, unable to become a Marine, and could not hold down a job. Even his defection to the Soviet Union did not work out. He came back to the US and was extremely upset because no one honored him. He did the assassination in an attempt to seek recognition.

EC: Why didn’t other agents rush to the car, especially since you were assigned to Jackie Kennedy?

CH: We operate as a team when the First Lady and the President are in the same vehicle. In this particular incident it was based on the way everyone was situated. I was on the running board of the follow up car in the left side front. The shooter was to our rear on the right side. 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. For the other agent on my side, I had somewhat blocked his view so I was the only one who really had a chance to do something.

EC: Why didn’t the agent driving speed up?

CH: At the moment of the first shot he apparently heard and thought perhaps the noise was a blown tire. I know he tapped the break pedal ever so briefly because I saw the brake lights come on momentarily. After that he did begin to accelerate, which was about the time I reached the car. Understand, this is a big heavy car so acceleration did not happen instantaneously.

EC: In the book you have a chapter on the 60 Minutes interview where the interviewer attempted to spin that Jackie Kennedy was trying to ‘climb out of the car.’ Your response.

CH: She was just trying to reach part of her husband’s head that was shot off. I expected that negative reaction from many in the media. The media does not always report what the facts are, but run with what they want to. I actually told the Warren Commission in 1964 what really happened.

EC: What about bulletproof Presidential vehicles?

CH: There was no armament on any of the cars. After the assassination the entire process was changed and reorganized. We were loaned the only bulletproof car, the one used by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, until we got our own vehicles.

EC: You write you had PTSD from the incident. What helped you?

CH: You never completely overcome it. I am better off today than I was. Talking about it with my co-author Lisa, writing about it, and talking to the public about it was very therapeutic. What also helped was going back to Dealey Plaza in Dallas and spending time there, examining the situation. I looked at everything, the angles, location of the shooter, the motorcade, weather conditions, and the type of transportation we were using. I realize now I had done everything I could have done that day. All the advantages went to the shooter and we did not have any.

EC: Like with a terrorist attack it seems even if you are right 99.99% of the time, it is just that one time. Please explain.

CH: Yes. It was 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.

EC: What would you like Americans to understand about the Secret Service?

CH: 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. Congress is not going to take the blame but instead, it is going to point the finger. 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.