The Kennedy Detail
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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Roberts Details

Photo by David Trumpie.

by Chris Andrews

Doug Roberts, as do millions like him, remembers vividly where he was on Friday, November 22, 1963.

The Montgomery County, Maryland, high school junior with designs on college and a successful future to come had just taken his seat in chemistry class at the beginning of the last period of the school day.

In the next few moments, the Wheaton High School principal would interrupt classes — a rare occurrence — to announce over the public address system that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. Texas Governor John Connally had been shot. A U.S. Secret Service agent was also dead.

The memory is so crystal clear, yet some details are fogged by the singular event so shocking to history and stunning to the young teen. An anguished Roberts leaped from his desk and ran for a pay phone (no cell phones then). His fingers dialed one number after another until the phone on the other end rang and his mother’s sheltering voice answered.

Roberts could only find the simple words to ask: “Is Dad okay?”

Betty Roberts, then at work, would hesitate not a moment to assure her oldest son: “He’s fine.”

For it was in those few unknowing moments, when pandemonium broke out in his classroom, that Roberts was left to believe he had lost not only a president but also his own dad. His father was U.S. Secret Service Agent Emory Roberts, shift leader of the president’s protective detail in Dallas, who sat in the front passenger seat of the backup car, just behind Kennedy’s limousine.

Emory Roberts was a former county sheriff’s deputy and motorcycle cop whose career had led him from his parents’ farm house to the nation’s White House. He was a father who would guard five presidents and the grandson of a sixth, willing to undertake even the “diaper detail” assignments protecting presidential children and grandchildren.

PhotoEmory Roberts would put his farm upbringing to work riding horses alongside accomplished horsewoman First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and, earlier, establish his heroism standing between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and the angry passions of rioting protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, in May 1958.

There was never any doubt for Doug Roberts, who grew up to serve as a policy advisor for four Michigan governors and the president of Michigan State University: “My father would have taken a bullet for the president.”

But it was not his father’s fate that day in Texas. A Dallas police officer was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who, after all the reports, the debates and the investigations, is remembered as the singular gunman who shot an American president in his prime.

Breaking the silence
Roberts and his family had lived mostly silently with those memories until he and his brother, Stephen, a retired U.S. Navy pilot, took time during recent visits together to delve into the boxes of photos and mementoes they had long kept sealed.

Also silent were the Secret Service agents, a contingent of 34 men, who guarded Kennedy and his family — until now. Two of those men, retired Secret Service agents Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill, with co-author and award-winning journalist Lisa McCubbin, are touring the country, with a stop at Michigan State University, as part of publication of a new book The Kennedy Detail. The book shares the agents’ deep devotion to duty, the heartrending memories of the day, and the time leading up to it.

“It was one of those rare moments in history when time stood still and people the world over remember where they were and what they were doing,” writes Blaine. He was not on the Dallas detail but culled the memories, the daily reports, expense accounts and family papers, like those of the Roberts, to assemble as clear and compelling a story as those on the frontlines could tell.

The book tour stop was made possible in part by MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, which Roberts now directs, and the Roberts family.

In another two years, a 50th anniversary will mark the assassination, and with it the realization that generations since born have no memory of a date so ground into the history of the men and women who came of age with the death of a president.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for the public to relive this sliver of American history,” said Doug Roberts. “Those who were personally tied to this moment in time will not be with us forever.”

Doug’s father, a Secret Service agent for nearly 30 years, screened appointments for President Lyndon Johnson in his final federal assignment. He passed away in 1973. He would never know his four grandchildren: Doug Roberts’ sons John, who worked in the White House as aide to President George W. Bush and is now state Republican House policy director, and Doug Jr., with a decade of experience in governmental affairs, now with Consumers Energy; and Steve’s son Michael, who just graduated from the University of Central Florida, and daughter Deborah at Florida State University.

Emory Roberts claims mention in more than three-score pages in The Kennedy Detail, which is in part based on research provided by Doug and Steve Roberts.

Doug Roberts describes his father as “Clint Eastwood before I knew who Clint Eastwood was. I only saw him cry twice — once when his mother died and another time coming out of church after the assassination. He stopped when he saw me.”

The younger Roberts walked home from school that clear November day in Maryland, where the family’s 900-square-foot home was a 10-mile drive to the White House. His seat to history on that tragic day was on the floor, in front of the family’s box television.

PhotoHis brother, six years his junior, arrived home from elementary school later, and his mother still later. While the older son stayed home to answer the legions of phone calls from a closely knit neighborhood, Betty and Steve picked up the returning Emory from the White House. His report would be written in the family’s tiled-and-paneled basement on what was then the staple communicator — an Underwood upright typewriter.

“He went to work the next day,” Doug Roberts remembers.

For decades, the similarly stoic agents who felt they failed the president and the country wouldn’t talk about the assassination, much less write about it.

But after Blaine retired six years ago at age 73, his Internet research found an intolerable amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the assassination. He decided to reach out to his fellow agents and write the book.

“I started talking to agents, and I worked with the families of agents who had passed,” said Blaine, who was on the night shift in Dallas. “They started sharing the things that they had…That’s what started it. The one thing that we wanted to do is to make sure that the book was factual and that the events were laid out as they occurred, by the people who were there.”

The Kennedy Detail unveils an unspoken guilt that traumatized agents for years. No one felt more anguish than Hill, the agent who raced from the running board on the backup car to the presidential limousine, climbed on the trunk and pushed Jacqueline Kennedy back into the car, then lay on her and the president to shield them.

He would blame himself for not getting to the car a second faster, and in the book’s foreword writes of the “memories of that dreadful day in Dallas.” After retirement, he agreed to do a Sixty Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, but broke down while discussing the assassination.

When McCubbin, a former radio and television journalist who now makes her home in the Middle East, joined the project, she gently coaxed Hill into talking about the tragic events. Eventually, he found it therapeutic.

“Initially, I didn’t want to participate or have anything to do with it. I have been offered the opportunity to write a book or provide information for books, and it always turned out that somebody wanted to write some salacious information,” he says. “I always said no.”

“It has given me a better outlook on life,” Hill says. “I’ m glad we have the opportunity to really talk about what happened and present it to the people and get their feedback and questions and be able to answer them. I just feel better and better all the time since this came out. It’s been very helpful for me.”

The memories, however painful, made The Kennedy Detail authentic to publisher Simon & Schuster, says McCubbin. “He got to the point where he was just pouring things out to me. That became a big part of the book.”

Blame game
Some books and conspiracy theorists have, in fact, pointed fingers at Secret Service agents for failing to prevent the assassination. Some criticize Emory Roberts’ decisions and contend that he shifted security resources too quickly after the shooting from Kennedy to Johnson, even before Kennedy had been officially declared dead.

PhotoBlaine and Hill have only praise for Emory Roberts, describing him in the book as the “Mother Hen” of the detail for his support of new agents. “He had a quick mind and could make snap decisions in the height of chaos, barking clear and concise orders about what needed to be done.”

Recalls Hill: “When Emory looked at the back of the presidential vehicle and saw what condition the president was in, he realized at that moment that the situation had changed. He simply turned and said, ‘I’ m taking my men with Johnson.’ That was the correct thing to do, and he did it.”

Says Blaine: “To me, Emory and Clint Hill were the two heroes of that day. He was in charge and from the follow-up car saw all three rounds hit their marks. He recognized that the third shot was the fatal shot.”

The assassination also spurred a new industry of conspiracy theorists who have argued that multiple gunmen took part and that Oswald was part of a plot by someone else. The book asserts they are all nonsense.

Emory Roberts, in his initial report of the event, a report uncharacteristically shared with son Doug, wrote that “two or three shots were fired,” Doug recalls. “I asked him, ‘How come you don’ t know whether it’s two or three?’ And he answered me, ‘Because the brain is not a tape recorder.’”

Doug Roberts, a former Michigan state treasurer, could open a small museum with the photos, Christmas cards and presidential memorabilia collected from his father’s Secret Service days.

There are framed Christmas cards from the Eisenhowers (whose covers are copies of Ike’s paintings), the Nixons, the Kennedys and the Johnsons. There are personally inscribed notes from presidents and first ladies. There are photos of Emory Roberts with French President Charles de Gaulle, and his personal notes about experiences with the men he referred to as “Winnie and Joe” (Churchill and Stalin).

“This is my father with President Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. This is Dan Rather in the White House. Here’s father coming out of Mercury Control with John Glenn and President Kennedy. This is Truman on his train tour and my dad.” Doug Roberts knows the story behind many of them.

Of his mother, he recalls her dedication to family, her unfailing support of the husband for whom she would drive all the way to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, farm to retrieve after a work shift. With her were their two sons, bundled in pajamas and ready to see their father and be trundled to bed.

But it was past the initial upheaval of Kennedy’s assassination when Doug Roberts would ask his mother the weighing question he had puzzled over regarding his parents on that fateful and family-threatening day.

“Three days later, I asked the second question,” he recalled. “I asked her how she knew for sure that my father wasn’t lost. She said she didn’t know.” And if he had been lost, she said simply, “We would have dealt with it at that time.”

Chris Andrews is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. He is the award-winning former political editor of the Lansing State Journal.

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