Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: Journey of secret service agent extraordinaire

Review of: Five Presidents – My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford
Authors: Clint Hill, with Lisa McCubbin
Publisher: Gallery Books
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

I first met Clint Hill in 2013 when he and co-author, Lisa McCubbin , visited Dallas for a book signing during commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Hill was famous as the Secret Service agent who had leaped onto the back of the presidential limousine on its breakneck journey to Parkland Hospital following the shooting that killed Kennedy, and he and McCubbin had written a book about his role and the days immediately following.

I had no idea that Hill had served as a secret service agent under four other presidents in addition to Kennedy, who form the basis of the most recent book by the Hill-McCubbin team, Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. I first listened to the audiobook version, then grabbed a hardcopy to enjoy the wealth of photos it included.

“I never had any intention of becoming a Secret Service agent.” Hill writes near the beginning of Five Presidents. Born and brought up in small town North Dakota, he was placed for adoption by his birth mother and raised by Chris and Jennie Hill, who gave him, by his account, “a wonderful childhood.” He was an all-round athlete and looked forward to a career as a high school history teacher and athletic coach following marriage to his college sweetheart and graduation from church-affiliated Concordia College.

Then life intervened, in the form of a draft notice during the Korean conflict and training as an Army counterintelligence agent. He happened to be conducting investigations in Aurora, Colorado, in early 1955 when President Eisenhower was hospitalized for a heart attack. There he met members of the president’s secret service and was impressed enough to apply for a job with the Secret Service after leaving the Army.

Five Presidents isn’t for anyone seeking out the dirty little secrets of presidential lives. There are no presidential assignations here, no tales about political in-fighting. Hill’s gentlemanly professionalism remains impeccable, even while noting Dwight Eisenhower’s golfing profanity (seldom heard off the greens), or Lyndon Johnson’s boisterous crudity. Although he never warmed up to Richard Nixon (or Nixon to him), he found Nixon’s disgraced first vice president, Spiro Agnew, personally affable, and sympathized with the decision of Nixon’s second vice president (and later president) Gerald Ford not to pursue legal charges against Nixon following his resignation.

Hill (l) and McCubbin
Hill recounts an array of anecdotes, hilarious, tragic, personal and profound. He was at the side of presidents during the U-2 spy plane incident that marred the end of Eisenhower’s administration; the Cuban missile crisis that was almost the undoing of Kennedy’s; Kennedy’s assassination and the turmoil of the civil rights movement and Vietnam war that marred Johnson’s terms; the Watergate investigation, and the resignations of both Nixon and Agnew.

“There is no doubt that the assassination of President Kennedy was a defining moment for me, and it would affect me on many levels for the rest of my life,” Hill writes in Five Presidents. “I was thrust onto the pages of history, but it has often bothered me that I would be remembered solely for my actions on that one day. For there was much that led up to that moment, and much that followed.”

Ultimately, the physical and psychological aftermath of the assassination, reawakened by a subsequent assassination attempt on President Ford, led Hill to retire. He remained, by his own account, “mired in depression,” until an interview with journalist Lisa McCubbin, and their subsequent coauthorship of their first book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me, and its followup, Five Days in November, exorcised the painful memories.

Now, Hill can write, “People often ask me, if I had it to do over again, would I become a Secret Service agent? Without hesitation, my answer is always the same. ‘I’d be working right now if they’d let me. It was the best damn job in the world.’”

(Coming up, from protecting the famous to defending the infamous – a review of John Henry Brown’s The Devil’s Defender: My Odyssey Through American Criminal Justice from Ted Bundy to the Kandahar Massacre.)

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