Retired U.S. Secret Service agents tell tales of protecting JFK's family
By Melanie Jackson, Special to the Sun
The Kenedy Detail
By Gerald Blaine with Lisa McCubbin
Simon and Schuster, 448 pages, $32
The U.S. Secret Service agents saw right away that their new president was going to be trouble. His predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had acknowledged crowds with a mere nod. John F. Kennedy waded right into them.
After the 1960 U.S. election, an agent urged Kennedy to come away from an impromptu crush of well-wishers.
"Either Kennedy didn't hear him over the noise of the crowd or he was choosing to ignore his strong suggestion . . . Kennedy seemed as if he truly wanted to meet the people and greet each one of them directly."
As retired agent Gerald Blaine recounts in The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, the charismatic, outgoing president was particularly eager to be accessible in 1963, with a close election looming the next year. "If I don't mingle with people, I couldn't get elected dogcatcher," he told the U.S. Secret Service a week before the fatal trip to Dallas. During motorcades, JFK became impatient with agents' practice of standing on the running boards and on specially attached steps at the back of his limo. In a much-quoted directive, he ordered the "Ivy League charlatans" to drop back to the car behind.
Clint Hill was the agent of Zapruder-video fame who jumped on the presidential limo after JFK was shot on Nov. 22, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy was crawling over the trunk, dazedly trying to retrieve part of her husband's skull. Hill pushed Jackie back into the seat and shielded both her and the dying president -- admittedly after the fact, and this is what haunts him. "If I had reacted just a little bit quicker," he agonized in a 1975 interview with 60 Minutes.
But, as anyone reading The Kennedy Detail can't help thinking, there was little Hill or anyone else could have done, given JFK's instructions. Blaine relates how Hill, assigned to protect Jackie, felt uneasy being stuck in the car behind:
"He moved his head constantly: his eyes scanning along the left side of the road, up ahead, and then back again, the pink hat always within his gaze. She was no more than five yards ahead of him, but she might as well have been on the other side of Dallas. I shouldn't be this far away. I should be on the back of that limousine."
The conspiracy theorists, or CTs as they refer to themselves online, have seized on the revelation about JFK's keep-your-distance directive. Blaine is lying, they claim. The agents were in on the assassination! It's all part of the decades-long coverup by: the Central Intelligence Agency; Lyndon Johnson, JFK's vice-president who succeeded him; or any number of other evil plotters. If you're of a masochistic bent, Google the name "Vince Palamara" and be blog-hectored on the "deceit" contained in The Kennedy Detail.
If you're interested in John F. Kennedy and his family, though, read Blaine's engagingly written book for the agents' memories. Jackie, for example, loved smoking, but felt it inappropriate for the public to see her puffing away. So, when she and Hill were driving somewhere, she would hand him the cigarette as soon as they reached their destination. And she was not amused the day loud crunching sounds reached her ears: Hill had run over a turtle.
Another time, an agent let young Caroline and her buddies wander away from a park playground. The kids thought it'd be fun to overturn a rock -- only to discover a diamondback rattlesnake coiling for a strike. The agent briskly shot it.
The children were thrilled, but the agent was convinced Jackie would have him fired. Enter Caroline's nanny. Maud Shaw quietly convinced Caroline it would be better not to upset her parents by telling them. The little girl stayed mum -- one can only wish the CTs would do the same.
Melanie Jackson keeps her own evil plotters fictional. Her latest novel, for young adults, is Fast Slide, published by Orca.