Why I blame myself for JFK’s death

Fifty years ago JFK was shot in Dallas. The man assigned to protect the president’s wife, Jackie, tells Tim Teeman why he felt he failed in his duty.

President John F Kennedy slumps down in the back seat of a car after being fatally shot in Dallas in this Nov 22, 1963.

WHEN Clint Hill heard the first shot he leapt on to the back of the presidential limousine, seeing John F Kennedy grab at his throat. “My only thought was, ‘There are going to be more shots’,” Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy, recalls of November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated in Dallas. “I wasn’t thinking of my own safety. I thought, ‘I have to shield them’.”

In his memoir, ‘Mrs Kennedy and Me’, Hill, now 81, writes of the third shot: “The impact was like the sound of something hard hitting something hollow — like the sound of a melon shattering into cement ... In the same instant, blood, brain matter and bone fragments exploded from the back of the president’s head ... and splattered all over me — on my face, my clothes, in my hair.”

Mrs Kennedy scrambled out of her seat, “because there were bits of the president’s brain, blood and bone on the car’s right rear and she was trying to retrieve them. I grabbed her and put her back in the seat, the president’s body fell into her lap. I could see the wound in his skull. A large portion of his brain was missing. I could see it was fatal.” Mrs Kennedy was saying, “Jack, Jack, what have they done to you,” and screamed, “My God! They have shot his head off!”

Today Hill says: “I completely failed in my responsibilities. The president was killed on my duty.” He “never” felt he deserved to be awarded the highest bravery medal after the assassination. Nearly 30 years of guilt about this “failure” contributed to a period of destructive drinking and “cutting myself off” from loved ones, leading to “almost complete seclusion”. He considered suicide.

Hill, who was assigned to Mrs Kennedy between 1960 and 1964, recalls games of touch-football at the Kennedy “compound” at Hyannis Port and the sketch-pad on which Jackie Kennedy plotted state dinners. To him she was “Mrs Kennedy”; to her he was “Mr Hill”. He accompanied her on trips to India, Pakistan and Greece. Hill didn’t like Aristotle Onassis — “to say the least” — when Mrs Kennedy holidayed on board his yacht, Christina, in 1963. “He was very arrogant, a dictator.”

Mrs Kennedy was a free spirit, yet demanded as much privacy as possible. “I don’t want us to feel like animals in a zoo,” she told Hill at their first meeting in 1960. Already with three-year-old daughter Caroline and pregnant with John Jr, she told him that “as soon as the baby is born, the press will be overbearing”. A former journalist, she noted: “I’m well aware of how they operate.”

Planning a state trip to France, Mrs Kennedy complained: “When I was in Paris in college I was carefree. I could stay out till three in the morning and sleep till noon; I could sit at a café along the Rive Gauche without worrying about a gaggle of photographers sneaking up to snap a photo. I suppose those days are long gone.” In Ravello in 1962, on Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli’s yacht, Mrs Kennedy advised Caroline of the paparazzi: “Just ignore them. They’ll tire of us soon enough.”

Hill went clothes-shopping for her in Palm Beach and Capri (under the guiding hand of her friend, Princess Irene Galitzine). Hill remembers the Kennedy apartment in New York’s Carlyle Hotel, whose “majesty ... was almost overwhelming”, with two terraces overlooking Central Park. She cadged cigarettes from Hill in the back of her limousine and beat him at tennis: “Mr Hill, the object is to hit the ball to me so I can return it.”

Did he love her beyond the call of duty? “I’ve been accused of that. It’s a little too strong. I really admired her with the utmost respect. As a friend I loved her. But I knew my place.” Did she flirt with him? “She used flirtation considerably, not just with me. She was very intelligent. She knew how to get people to do what she wanted.”

Hill recalls the births of John Jr and his brother Patrick Bouvier (who died at two days old, after being born prematurely in 1963). “I was there for her children, but I wasn’t there for the birth of either of my sons [Chris and Corey, now 56 and 51 respectively]. They grew up without a father. My wife Gwen raised them herself.” (They separated, “emotionally”, years ago, but have not divorced.) The loss of Patrick and seeing Jackie’s grief affected Hill hugely.

“It was very difficult for her and the president. She was devastated. The agents felt the loss of the baby as one of their own”.

He knew nothing of JFK and Jackie’s alleged affairs. “I was aware of the allegations of his, but never saw anything to back them up,” Hill says. “When I was with her, I can definitely say she was not having affairs. Anything anyone else says is a complete fabrication.”

Was Jackie aware of JFK’s affairs? “We never discussed it.” During the Cuban missile crisis, Hill told Mrs Kennedy she and the children would be taken to a special shelter “if a situation develops”. “If the situation develops,” she retorted, “I will take Caroline and John and we will walk hand in hand out on to the south grounds. We will stand there like brave soldiers, and face the fate of every other American.”

Before he left for Texas, Hill recalls the president saying farewell to his son John, who was crying: “John, like mummy said, we’ll be back in a few days.” Days later, Hill was speeding through the Dallas streets (“so fast my sunglasses blew off”), Jackie cradling her husband’s shattered head. When they reached Parkland Memorial Hospital, Hill said, “Let us help the president, Mrs Kennedy”, but realised “she didn’t want to stop cradling her husband because of how he looked, so I took my coat off and covered his head and upper back”. Hill was there as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in — Mrs Kennedy still in her blood-spattered suit — on Air Force One. “We tried to convince her to change her clothes, but she refused,” Hill writes. “Let them see what they have done,” she said.

“It was a very difficult year,” says Hill of their final 12 months together. “I had to look into the eyes of two children and Mrs Kennedy, living without a father and husband. Occasionally she cried, but she kept herself together pretty well: she tried not to show emotion in front of the children.” At Hill’s leaving party, Jackie presented him with a cutout of a Secret Service agent, with the inscription: “Muddy Gap Wyoming Welcomes its Newest Citizen”, joking he was about to be shunted off somewhere anonymous.

Mrs Kennedy showed Hill a letter she had written to the head of the Secret Service, calling Hill and his colleagues “such exceptional men ... Before we came to the White House, the thing I dreaded most was the Secret Service. How wrong I was; it turned out that they were the ones who made it possible for us to have the happy, close life that we did ... the qualities that they had to have to do this job so beautifully — so that I have two unspoiled children — and, so that I always felt free and unhindered myself, are really the most exceptional qualities ... they needed tact, adaptability, kindness, toughness, quick-wittedness, more than any other members of the Secret Service. And every one of them had it”. Next to Hill’s name she wrote: “He was so much better than the rather dense men the embassies sent when I went abroad, that I ended up having him handle all press and official details ... he could do everything.”

Under Johnson, Hill became the special agent “in charge of presidential protection”, then deputy assistant director of protective forces, then assistant director, “which gave me a great deal of time to think about what a failure I was”. From his retirement in 1976 to 1982 he smoked and drank Scotch “to sleep, forget. I thought about suicide, but it seemed too easy a way out”. A “big difference” came visiting Dallas in 1990: “I went to the sixth floor of the Book Depository and saw where [Lee Harvey] Oswald had shot the President from. I realised I did all I could given the circumstances, though still felt I failed.”

Hill expressed condolences to Mrs Kennedy at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral in 1968 and never spoke to her again. When she married Onassis he wanted to call her. “I was very disappointed, shocked. There were so many other people who could have met her standards. But it wouldn’t have been right to say anything.” He thought again about calling when he learnt she was dying from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, “to say how much I appreciated our time together and all she had done for me and all Americans. But I figured my voice would just bring back memories of that day in November 1963, so I didn’t”.

She died on May 19, 1994, aged 64.

Hill, who lives in Virginia, is “happier than I have ever been” with Lisa McCubbin, the journalist he co-wrote the memoir with. “The calendar says I’m 81 and she’s 48, but I feel 52.” In his book he credits McCubbin “for bringing me out of my dungeon, where I languished for years in my emotional prison ... you helped me find a reason to live, not just exist”.

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