Most of us who lived through 1963 can tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing on Nov. 22 when we heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That memory ranks as a signal moment in any lifetime.
Clint Hill’s memory is more vivid than that of almost anyone alive, and it has troubled him deeply. As a Secret Service agent assigned to protect first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Hill was only a few yards away from the president when the first shot rang out.
You’ve probably seen the dramatic picture taken by an Associated Press photographer moments after the shooting. It shows an agent scrambling to climb onto the back of the presidential convertible. That was Clint Hill.
He told his story Oct. 30 at Arkansas State University’s Fowler Center, appearing with Lisa McCubbin, an award-winning television journalist who has co-authored two books with him.
The first, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” was a New York Times No. 1 best-seller. The second, “Five Days in November,” will be released this month in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
A pre-publication supply of 100 copies of the hard-cover book just in time for Thursday’s event.
Hill’s efforts that day, because he failed to stop the assassination, would trouble him so much that he fell into deep depression and didn’t discuss the events of that day for many years.
For Thursday’s program, though, the story he told in a question-and-answer format with McCubbin, was detailed and fascinating. Their first interview was the first time, she said, that he really had ever talked about the assassination in detail except for the required legal testimony, and he had great difficulty in getting through parts of the story at first.
There was no hesitancy this time, but for many in the audience, including me, the emotions and angst of that day now so long ago returned.
Much of the program was devoted to Hill’s assignment to protect Mrs. Kennedy from shortly after the election of 1960 to a year after the assassination. Having served in the Secret Service detail guarding President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he considered it a demotion when he was assigned to the new first lady.
But he soon warmed to the task as she became one of the most popular first ladies in American history. While the president had a detail of 34 or 35 agents, the first lady had only two so Hill became a valuable and well-known asset to the Kennedy family.
As McCubbin said, in much of the photographic history of the Kennedy years, she could play “Where’s Waldo” in looking for Hill, who always seemed to be in the background of every photo and video. And the audience Thursday was able to relive the years through many of those images on a large screen.
Hill went on the many trips, foreign and domestic, made by Mrs. Kennedy during her husband’s administration, as she became an American ambassador who drew huge crowds everywhere.
That was also the case for the trip to Texas in 1963. According to Hill, Mrs. Kennedy had determined that she would help more in her husband’s second presidential campaign, and that’s why she joined him for the fateful last journey. She had been pregnant with John F. Kennedy Jr. during most of the 1960 campaign.
On the motorcade through downtown Dallas Hill and other agents rode in a car dubbed “Halfback” right behind the presidential car. He mostly stayed on a running board on Halfback, along with three other agents. But as the crowd situations changed along the way, he sometimes jumped off the running board and onto a foothold on the back of the presidential car.
Hill says in his new book that he felt better able to protect the first lady from there, but the president didn’t like the agents to stay there because it looked like there was a barrier between him and the people.
Since the crowd had thinned out, Hill was on the Halfback running board when he heard the first shot ring out from over his right shoulder. He saw the president grasp his throat and move violently to the left. That’s when Hill jumped off the running board and ran to the presidential car, but another shot hit the president before he could get there.
Mrs. Kennedy, he said, was trying to retrieve parts of her husband’s head that had been shattered, but he got her back into the seat and balanced himself over them as the car sped toward Parkland Hospital.
In the introduction to his book, Hill, who became assistant director of the Secret Service before he retired at age 43, reflects on that day and what the experience did to him:
“I was thrust onto the pages of history, and I have spent the majority of my life keeping silent about what I witnessed. Recently, however, I have come to realize that the grief I’ve held inside for half a century is shared by nearly everyone who was alive at that time, and that those days marked a defining period not just for me but for all of us.”
As to the myriad theories of a conspiracy, Hill is positive of these basic facts: There were three shots fired from the same rifle and by the same person. Everything else is just theory.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.