Tuesday 20 March 2018

A life being one of the presidents' men

Memoir: Five Presidents, Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin, Gallery Books, hdbk, 464 pages, €23.99

Hilary White

The Secret Service agent who scrambled on to the back of JFK's car after he was assassinated reflects on a career protecting five different commander-in-chiefs.

Twelve years on, the trauma of that day was still visible in Clint Hill's eyes. Interviewed for CBS's 60 Minutes news show in November 1975, Hill was asked if Jackie Kennedy was trying to get out of the car when she scrambled towards the trunk.

"I still couldn't look at him," the former Secret Service man confides in the closing chapter of this memoir. "Shaking my head, I said, 'She was simply trying to reach that head… part of that head'." The footage of that interview clearly shows him breaking down when quizzed further as to whether more could have been done to protect President John F Kennedy that century-defining day in Dallas.

He may not expressly say it in this chunky volume about shadowing five successive US presidential administrations as a leading member of security detail, but joining the Secret Service meant giving your life to protect your president, in more ways than one. By the time ill physical health (stemming from the unresolved mental torment of Dallas) forced him to retire at 43, Hill was a severely depressed, basement-living alcoholic whose wife and children had long since got used to him being absent 90pc of the time. Only fleeting mentions of them are made here, and none adorn the acknowledgements or dedication.

They are of a breed, those taciturn, shades-wearing sentries who plan and coordinate minutiae details to ensure that a commander-in-chief sees through the tenure of their office in one piece. Even when promoted to Assistant Director of the Secret Service, it was the field work that Hill missed, the throbbing eternal stress that stopped him thinking about Dallas or his remote wife and children.

It is remarkable to think that of the US presidents that he served under, only his first, Eisenhower, had anything approaching a conventional term. All the rest - Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford - all came or went via extraordinary sets of circumstances.

It was his first detail with Eisenhower that perhaps lulled this North Dakota adopted son of an authoritarian Norwegian family into a false sense of security. The former WWII general was a symbol of peace in an era that was picking up the pieces following that conflict. In a largely unremarkable opening section, Hill details globetrotting jaunts with Eisenhower, a confetti-strewn parade of goodwill and vast adoring crowds which only the U-2 spy kerfuffle would eventually tarnish.

This is as close as it would come to a Secret Serviceman's halcyon era. By the time the grandfatherly nature of Eisenhower had given way to the Kennedys' megawatt brand, the world was a place of White House hate-mail, Cuban revolution and smouldering Soviet tension.

Hill loved the Kennedys (he detailed his time assigned to that First Lady in 2012's Mrs Kennedy and Me) and remembers them here with familial affection. This was a by-product of intimate proximity either during JFK's struggles with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the notorious Vienna Summit, or the couple's loss of stillborn daughter Arabella.

His description of the events inside the Dallas motorcade on November 22, 1963, make for chilling reading in places where a tone of acceptance and therapeutic externalising is detectable in mentions of "the sound of a melon shattering on to cement" and "an eruption of blood, brain matter and bone fragments". The story has been told a hundred times but rarely from this close to the point of impact.

Lyndon B Johnson was then of course fast-tracked into the office and a new president with his own "patterns of behaviour" had to be adjusted to. A world away from the Hollywood smiles and gentle manners of the Kennedys, Johnson was a workman-like operator, spontaneous in his movements (a huge frustration for those protecting him) and fond of venting his ire on Hill and his colleagues ("the Johnson Treatment", they called it).

Fiery Vietnam protests and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, each reopening the wounds of Dallas, singled 1968 (along with 1963 and the Watergate calamity 10 years later) out as one of the years Hill was particularly delighted to see the back of.

The stress and paranoia of the changing security landscape kept Hill sane, he insists today, and working at a slower speed under Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew lacked the white heat he thrived under.

Hill and co-author Lisa McCubbin build a useful timeline of events throughout these sections without a great deal in the way of political analysis, but the Nixon administration was a lesson in the muckier corners of power. When Tricky Dicky tried to assign an informant to Senator Edward Kennedy's security detail, it "sickened" Hill to have this brave and selfless agency used for political skulduggery. Hill would go on to watch from the White House lawn as Nixon departed the office via helicopter in disgrace.

Logistics of armed cars, foreign visits and guarded holiday retreats are perhaps not where Five Presidents hums the loudest. It is, predictably, in those aforementioned political crises that marked US history's most colourful and mythologised era.

There are, vitally, more candid insights into these Oval Office players that will fascinate students of that time: the bully-boy Johnson's love of hunting; Eisenhower's superhuman capacity for tirelessness, especially where a round of golf was on the cards; the bemusing mental images of Nixon and VP Agnew splitting sides at a Gridiron Club dinner with a piano duel, or "avid downhill skier" Gerald Ford zooming down a slope with Secret Servicemen trying to keep up.

Flawed, they may have been, Hill concludes here, but all, to a greater or lesser degree, played key roles in modern America. Each "faced challenges they could not have predicted or imagined", and had to "dig deeply into their past experiences and character to make critical decisions that affected the whole world".

With the November US elections looking increasingly perplexing, Hill departs this dry and slightly sombre chronicle with a reminder that whoever ends up occupying the 45th US Presidency will similarly be remembered most resoundingly for how they managed the unexpected.

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