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Secret Service agent Clint Hill on the back of John F. Kennedy's limo on Nov. 22, 1963, as it speeds away after the president was shot.Justin Newman/AP
On Friday morning, an ordinary-looking elderly gentleman will walk to a small white X painted in the middle of a street in downtown Dallas and wonder for the millionth time what difference a single second could have made in his life, the life of a president and the destiny of a presidency.
For him it’s absolutely personal. Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And that faded X marks the spot where the fatal bullet hit the president in the head as he rode by in his motorcade.
The elderly man is Clint Hill, the only Secret Service agent who sprinted toward John and Jackie Kennedy after the first shot was fired that day, reaching the back of the limousine just in time to see the final devastating shot.
For the last 50 years he has blamed himself, despairing that if he could have gotten there one — or even half of one — second faster, he could have taken the bullet for JFK.
“I was one of a group of agents who failed to fulfill our responsibility,” Hill, now 81, said. “He was killed on our watch, and we failed. That’s how I have always thought about it, and I always will. The 50th anniversary will be no resolution for me in that regard.”
Images of the Secret Service agent desperately hauling himself onto the back of the accelerating limousine as a panicking Jackie Kennedy scrambled out onto the trunk are indelible.
The experience tortured Hill to the point where he contemplated suicide at times over the years, he revealed to Al Jazeera in an interview this week.
“I thought about it, sure,” he said. “I sometimes thought it was not worth carrying on.”
The notion of leaving his two sons fatherless, like Kennedy’s children, combined with the influence of his Lutheran upbringing dissuaded him, he said.
'A sitting duck'
Ironically, Hill now can’t believe Kennedy even made it to Nov. 22, 1963, because his love of open-topped motorcades with minimal security from a thinly stretched Secret Service made him “a sitting duck.”
And while Hill has spent five decades unable to forgive himself, few realize that while he couldn’t save the president, he probably saved Jackie Kennedy’s life that day.
In his new book, “Five Days in November,” he narrates in the present tense the horror of seeing Jackie lunging toward him.
“Mrs. Kennedy, covered in her husband’s blood, her eyes filled with terror, is crawling out of her seat … she doesn’t see me, she doesn’t even know I’m there,” he writes. “Oh God, she’s reaching for some material that’s come out of the president’s head.”
The limo driver, realizing JFK had been shot, stepped on the gas.
“If I don’t get to her, she’s going to be thrown off the back of the car,” he writes.
It had taken astonishing speed and strength for Hill to reach the step at the back of the car, keep his grip on the rear grab-handle as it sped up, and climb forward, grabbing Mrs. Kennedy by her right arm and shoving her back into the car.
“My God, they have shot his head off,” he heard Jackie shriek.
Hill was also covered in blood and gore. It was in his hair and on his face. He managed to spread-eagle himself to shield the Kennedys from any more shots as the car accelerated to 80 mph. He could see a large hole in the president’s head, JFK’s famously twinkling eyes now fixed.
The limo was on its way to the hospital, but Hill knew Kennedy was dead.
'We buried it'
A native of North Dakota, Hill was actually Jackie Kennedy’s bodyguard. He’d worked with her for three years, from age 28. He had joined the Secret Service after serving in the Army upon graduating college.
Brought up to be reserved, he took that quality to the extreme after the assassination. Apart from addressing the Warren Commission inquiry and stating his belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was the mentally unbalanced lone assassin, he didn’t discuss intimate details of that day for 12 years.
He was repeatedly promoted to the highest ranks of the Secret Service, but by 1975 he was a wreck, and retired.
When he then agreed to appear on “60 Minutes” to talk about his career, he had a breakdown on camera when suddenly asked about the moments on the trunk of the limo.
He walked off camera into a hall and, weeping, revealed that he had never spoken about Jackie reaching for JFK’s brain matterto anyone before — not even his wife, Gwen, or his fellow agents.
“It was just too painful to talk about it,” he said. “Each of the agents hurt in our own way. We buried it.”
It’s as good a phrase as any to say he was a sitting duck. It happened in Dallas, but it could have happened anywhere, looking back.
former Secret Service agent
Hill suffered flashbacks and nightmares. He became deeply depressed and would numb his anguish with whiskey.
Today he would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and treated.
“We (the agents) were never offered counseling or any help, and we didn’t ask for it,” he said. “I have no question that counseling would have been very beneficial, and maybe I would not have gone through the long period of depression that I did.”
He eventually kicked the drink on doctor’s orders. But after more than 40 years of marriage and residence in Virginia, Hill and his wife separated recently, and he said the effects of the assassination “played a part.” He now lives near San Francisco.
One consolation is that Jackie Kennedy made it clear to the agents that she didn’t blame them for her husband’s death. In recent years, Hill has finally accepted that he did his best.
In turn, the agents have never — at least not explicitly — blamed the chronic short-staffing problems the Secret Service was suffering at the time, nor JFK’s love of motorcades and mingling with crowds.
But Hill said Kennedy constantly lived “on the risky side.”
The archives are full of pictures of JFK around the world sitting high up on a platform car seat or standing in a limo convertible, torso and head completely exposed to unscreened crowds 15 deep on the sidewalks — and hanging from the balconies and windows of high buildings. Kennedy would ask agents not to hover, and he was frequently mobbed like a celebrity. He would dive, off schedule, into the febrile crowds — unthinkable today.
Conspiracy or not, it would always have taken just one loser with a rifle in an upstairs window.
“It’s as good a phrase as any to say he was a sitting duck,” Hill said. “It happened in Dallas, but it could have happened anywhere, looking back.”
Hindsight is 20-20, of course. Had the president been explicitly warned how easily he could be assassinated? Hill said he was warned, but not so explicitly.
“In the past, all the presidential assassinations had been up close and personal,” Hill said.
Agents were least expecting the shot from above.
When it came at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, Hill saw Kennedy grab at his throat, so he sprang toward the car. Three shots were fired within six seconds, and it was never humanly possible for Hill to get onto the limo from his position and shield the president from the fatal shot.
But if he had been crouching on the step at the back of the limo throughout — as he had on and off earlier in the Dallas motorcade, against Kennedy’s explicit instructions — he believes he would have made it in time.
Would one second have made the difference?
“Yes,” he said.
Has he spent 50 years wishing he’d been killed instead of Kennedy?