Clint Hill: My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy

Retired Secret Service Agent Clint Hill has a unique place in history. He provided protection for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald R. Ford, was also in charge of protection for Vice President Spiro Agnew. He was with President Kennedy in Dallas, and can be seen in the Zapruder film jumping onto the President’s limousine after the shots were fired.

In popular culture, the Clint Eastwood character in In the Line of Fire was somewhat based on Hill.

Hill has written extensively about his Secret Service career, the assassination, and his time providing protection for Jacqueline Kennedy and her children. Mrs. Kennedy and Me (2012) describes the four years that Hill was assigned to the Kennedys. My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy (2022), is more specific, focusing on Hill’s various travels with her to points around the globe, and to her homes in Virginia and New York.

The public’s fascination with the Jacqueline Kennedy is quite apparent in both of these books, co-written with Lisa McCubbin Hill. What is also apparent is the deep trust and respect between Hill and the First Lady. By the end of My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy, the special bond between them is evident. Not only did he protect her, travel with her, and see her more than his own family, they shared the experience of that horrific day in Dallas.

Of all of Hill’s books, My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy feels the most personal, and his most vulnerable feelings and experiences being shared. The book is very much the result of an archeological dig, through long neglected and forgotten boxes and trunks in his old house. Hill and his wife, Lisa McCubbin Hill, were getting the house ready to sell, and came upon the decades packed and stored away items. Many of the pictures, and the memories, are shared in the book.

Hill has written about Jacqueline Kennedy before, but not like this. The impact she had on those trips to France, Italy, Greece, Latin America, Mexico, India, Pakistan and other stops, reveal the connection she had with the people of those countries. She spoke fluent French and Spanish, understood history, art and their cultures. She was not just a pretty and fashionable dignitary to be paraded and photographed, her appeal was disarming and spoke to the heart and aspirations of the person on the sidewalk watching the motorcade drive by. Her appeal even transcended that of her husband, which he recognized and spoke of.

“What she took away from this short visit to Paris had a tremendous influence on her and how she saw her role as first lady over the next two and a half years. I don’t think Mrs. Kennedy fully realized the impact she had made – it wasn’t natural for her to focus on her own importance – but over the course of those three dazzling days, I knew I was witnessing the beginning of diplomatic magic.” – Hill describing what he learned on a trip to France with the President and First Lady.

“I gained a new level of respect for her. I saw her authentic curiosity about the treatments being used in a children’s hospital; how she moved effortlessly from charming André Malraux, the minister of culture, to mesmerizing President Charles de Gaulle with her deep knowledge of French history; to handling the press with the confidence of a seasoned politician. Almost from the moment she met de Gaulle, his respect for her was unmistakable. Her confidence grew with each interaction and she realized the importance her position could have, as well as the responsibility that came with it.” – Hill continues his recollections of the France visit.

Contained in that truck and boxes were notes, letters, her sketchbook, awards, a scrapbook she made for him, and many long forgotten items. The memories flooded back.

“From that point on, everything was different with Mrs. Kennedy and me. I knew shed been the one to have Jeffries removed and me promoted to be the Special Agent in Charge of her detail. We had developed a good rapport, a bond based on trust and mutual respect. As time went on, that bond just grew stronger and stronger.” – Hill, reflecting on his promotion.

In the years he headed up her detail, Hill was a combination of protector, friend and her assistant. His duties included the travel, but also took on helping to organize her life. He handled many arrangements for her moves, navigating the federal bureaucracy for her family, serving as her “rock” as she emerged from public life to private citizen.

Jacqueline Kennedy eventually left Washington to live in New York City, where she felt more comfortable and not so much in the public eye. Hill oversaw her move, but was reassigned back to the presidential protection detail. She knew it was time for him to think of his career. He would eventually retire in 1975 as assistant director of the Secret Service. She only asked that he be allowed to informally watch over her protection detail after he was reassigned.

“Tears streamed down my checks, and as the cold water enveloped my legs, and then my chest, and up to my shoulders, the tears turned to sobs. I wanted the water to swallow me up, but the force of the waves slammed me back against the bulkhead and my shoes sunk into the sandy bottom, like wet cement. My chest heaved as I pounded the bulkhead with my fists, sobbing. Over the roar of the raging ocean, I heard someone calling my name, and the next thing I knew, a Palm Beach police officer, a motorcyele cop we worked with regularly, was dragging me back out of the water.” – Hill describing his suicide attempt, something he kept secret.

After Dallas, there was no down-time, no special process or treatment for him or the other agents on the detail. It was back to work. The guilt and anguish were suppressed. Cigarettes, liquor, work and silence were his crutches. Even after walking into the ocean, the incident was buried and he was eventually reassigned to protect President Johnson. That’s incredible to read. The man has PTSD and it was untreated. Hill said he never spoke of Dallas (outside of the Warren Commission) until Lisa McCubbin contacted him in 2009 to speak about the book she was working on with retired Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine on The Kennedy Detail (2010).

My Travels With Mrs. Kennedy is quite an engrossing read. Finding the buried treasures in his old house is ironic given how so many memories from the four years of his service to Jacqueline Kennedy were also tucked away inside. Clint Hill tells a moving and often funny set of remembrances. I am forever thankful for his service to the country, and glad that he found whatever peace was possible.

At one point, Lisa McCubbin Hill asks him if he was in love with Mrs. Kennedy. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

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