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Commentary: Clint Hill's leap into history

 

In this Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy slumps down in the back seat of the Presidential limousine as it speeds along Elm Street toward the Stemmons Freeway overpass in Dallas after being fatally shot. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president as Secret Service agent Clint Hill pushes her back to her seat. “She’s going to go flying off the back of the car,” Hill thought as he tried to secure the first lady.

 

George Hazard

 

We use the term "dramatic irony" in plays when the audience learns from one character something that another character does not know, usually to his detriment. In the field of history, the reader always knows more than the people he's reading about. He knows how the whole thing turns out -- something the historical figures cannot know. I don't know if this anticipatory knowledge has a name, but it is a powerful force streaming between the history reader's mind and the page. 

 

And it is a powerful force as you read "Mrs. Kennedy and Me," the 2012 memoir by Clint Hill, Jackie Kennedy's main and favorite Secret Service agent. The Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi says that, of the 189 million Americans living in 1963, about 117 million are alive now. Many of them will remember seeing Hill leap from anonymity into history 50 years ago today, when two of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle shots killed President Kennedy as his wife sat next to him. 

 

Hill occasionally acknowledges in retrospect this irony of knowledge: 

 

  • "...you had to be on the lookout for that one lone lunatic...." 

     

  • "All it takes is one lucky shot -- and that first shot is free."  

     

  • And he recalls saying to the president's son, "We'll be back in a few days" as the JFK party leaves for Dallas. 

     

    This 343-page book starts when Agent Hill meets Mrs. Kennedy in November 1960 and ends when President Clinton kindly invites the retired Hill to visit the White House about 12 hours before her death in May 1994. The reader's own foreknowledge strikes him on every page as he reads of Jackie's trips and glamour (Hill uses "stunning" a lot). He reads of the growing affection and respect she and Hill have for each other -- all under a tighter and tighter chill as he gets closer to Chapter 23, "That Day in Dallas." 

     

    He knows this history's outcome, which is that the worst thing that could happen to two people within their relationship did happen. (The death of Mrs. Kennedy would have been less grievous to Clint Hill than the death of her husband, since his death was the worst thing that could happen to her.) 

     

    This increasing cold horror is the main impact of "Mrs. Kennedy and Me." Most of Hill's recollections are well known from the glamorous Kennedy side. Then the world witnessed Jackie's astounding conduct right after the president's death. She was, Hill writes of Nov. 24, "in control, and clearly capable of making decisions, but her spirit was gone." 

     

    What was not well known to me was, first, the contrast between the First Lady's extreme luxury on "the little trips I take" and the scrimping lives of the agents: she had six first-class seats to herself on the way to Greece in 1963, while on a per-diem of $12, Hill stayed at Woody's Motel when the Kennedys were in Palm Beach; and, second, the life-consuming nature of Secret Service work: fogbound in Newport, Hill missed the birth of his second son. Then at 6 p.m. one Florida day, Hill learns he's expected to participate in a 50-mile hike that starts in four hours -- midnight. 

     

     

     

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    But well known or not, Hill's Dallas narrative shows us a man operating -- compelled to operate, as Mrs. Kennedy was -- in a setting turned from joyful to ghastly in Oswald's five seconds; from crowds "everywhere -- yelling, cheering, clapping" on Friday to "dead silence, somber faces, and tears" on Sunday. 

     

    On Nov. 22 came Hill's race from the back-up car to the president's car at 12:30 p.m. By 2:47, he had covered Kennedy's exploded head with his coat, ordered "the best damn coffin you have" from Vernon Oneal and helped muscle it up the steps onto Air Force One (to find its handles just too wide for the plane's door) before takeoff with the new president Hill had seen take the oath. 

     

    Outside of war, few people have endured a greater physical and mental strain than Clint Hill. But those two hours were just the front door of the "dungeon" he would now inhabit. 

     

    Back in Washington that Friday night, Hill writes, "There was nothing anyone could do to relieve the pain, the anguish, the sense of failure and guilt I felt." Yet Mrs. Kennedy wanted him to stay with the family -- though that meant the unhealing wound of believing "that we were the cause of their anguish." Hill did stay another year and retired from the Secret service in 1975. 

     

    Pages 290-292 describe Hill's five-foot leaping sprint from the back-up car to his encounter with Jackie and the president's brains and bone on the back of the limousine. With driver Bill Greer accelerating with a jolt toward Parkland Hospital, Hill's feet slipped back onto the Elm Street pavement: 

     

     

     

    I was gripping (the car's handhold) with all my strength, my feet now back on the pavement. My legs kept moving, as I held on, trying to keep up with the rapidly accelerating car. Somehow -- I honestly don't know how ­-- I lunged and pulled my body onto the car, and my foot found the step. In that same instant, Mrs. Kennedy rose up out of her seat and started climbing onto the trunk. 

     

     

     

    The Orville Nix film seems to confirm Hill's statement that the gap between the Kennedy car and the Secret Service back-up car "was never more than five feet." The Abraham Zapruder film shows his footwork, and shows how close Hill came to beating Oswald's final shot. 

     

     

     

    From then until he wrote this book with journalist Lisa McCubbin, Hill, now 81, lived in an "emotional prison." How often he must have tortured himself with the hypothesis he states twice in this book: "If only I had run faster, reacted a little quicker." The book has a photo showing that earlier, on Main Street, Hill had been in a seat attached to the back end of the presidential car. He says he got off when the crowd got smaller, less than two blocks from Oswald's building. 

     

    The measure of this man is that, if he had reacted quicker, Oswald might have killed him. 

     

     

     

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    Near the end at Arlington on Nov. 25, Hill saw something that ought to be on television a lot this weekend. It's a sight remembered by every American who leaned in to his television in that twilight that was cold in every way -- a ceremonial flicker of decency in a terrible time. Fighter jets flew over the grave. Then: 

     

     

     

    ...another roar, but this time the sound seemed familiar to me, that high-pitched whine of a perfectly tuned set of jet engines. It was Air Force One flying very low with Colonel Jim Swindal at the controls and the crew on board that knew and served President Kennedy so well. As Swindal dipped the wings of Air Force One in salute, I clenched my jaw. Swallowed hard. 

     

     

     

    For some years after Kennedy died in Parkland's Trauma Room 1, the nurses on Nov. 22 put flowers on the door to remember his death. But that room is no more, its space part of a waiting area. "The area has been renovated several times since 1963," Parkland spokeswoman April Foran told me. And the country had another national trauma in 2001. Time changes gashes to scars, wrote Lydia Polgreen, thinking about the 2001 attacks. But for millions this weekend, the gash reopens. We would do well to have a thought for Clint Hill.

     

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