Five Presidents: My Extra-ordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin (Gallery 2016)
You know a book is great when you can't stop talking about it. You know a book is great when you keep recommending it to other people as a worthy read. You know a book is great when you can't stop thinking about it. Five Presidents: My Extra-ordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin qualifies as a great read on all three of those measures of a great book.
For baby boomers, this auto-biography is a walk through a time of passion and pain, covering the president of our childhood, Dwight Eisenhower, as well as the youthful president of our coming of age, John F. Kennedy. Hill, a Secret Service agent assigned to the White House Detail, covered the president of our anger, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the president of our scorn, Richard M. Nixon. Hill's work as an agent concluded with the man who was never elected president, Gerald Ford. In describing what it was like to work for each of these men, with their triumphs and their glaring flaws. Hills' respect for the office of the President, which many Americans lost with the exposure of Richard Nixon, is refreshingly clear on every page. Baby boomers were raised to respect the office, if not necessarily the man. I do not believe that all Americans are taught that kind of respect for authority anymore. It is a lost art.
At the conclusion of the book Hill states, “The five presidents I had the privilege to serve could not have been more different; Eisenhower, the revered general; Kennedy, the charismatic, young intellect; Johnson, the unreserved, deal-making politician; Nixon, the calculating, opportunistic introvert; and Ford, the ordinary man thrust into power. Yet there was one thing they all had in common: an enormous ego.” (p. 430) It is the power of each of those egos wherein the fascinating story of Hill's career lies.
The recurring theme throughout Hill's book is the impact of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that Hill suffered from after the assassination of President Kennedy, although in his time as an agent, PTSD was not understood or treated. In fact, for thirteen years, Hill could not speak of the horror from which he suffered as he jumped on the back of the Presidential limousine to cover Mrs. Kennedy as she crawled onto the back of the car to retrieve a piece of the President's skull. Ultimately, in an interview with Mike Wallace on the iconic CBS news show Sixty Minutes, Wallace asked the question that opened Hill to making a painful revelation, even to himself.
In discussing the third shot that shattered Kennedy's head, Hill admitted that he regretted being unable to throw himself over Kennedy to protect him from the lethal bullet. Wallace countered Hill's regret by saying, “But you couldn't ---you got there in less than two seconds, Clint. You couldn't have gotten there. You don't ---surely you don't have a sense of guilt about that?”
“Yes, I certainly do,” I said wincing. “I have a great deal of guilt about that. I paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Had I turned in a different direction, I'd have made it. It was my fault.” (p. 428)
By Hill revealing the trauma of his unrelenting guilt in not being able to do what he was sworn to do, save the life of the leader of the free world, he opens his soul for the world to see. Throughout his story, Hill points out where many of the situations in which he served on protective detail, he would have flashbacks to that fateful day in Dallas that changed our country's course forever. Ultimately, the PTSD consumed him and forced him into a very early retirement from the Secret Service.
Although his failure to save Kennedy is a prevailing theme throughout the book, there are many stories about the other presidents that are entertaining and revealing about the personalities and leadership qualities of the five men whom he served.
The first section of the book is dedicated to Eisenhower, whom Hill revered as an able, no-nonsense, extremely organized leader. Of the great general of World War II, Hill states, “The American people trusted his judgment and leadership during a time when the threat of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was a very real fear for all of us.” (p. xi) Eisenhower ended the Korean War and led Americans into a time of prosperity. Hill reveals also that Eisenhower's successors, Kennedy and Johnson, would meet frequently with Eisenhower, sometimes without the knowledge of the press, to discuss war strategies during the Vietnam conflict, as well as how to handle other delicate diplomatic relations. Despite the fact that Eisenhower was a Republican and Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats, the two latter presidents were wise enough to confer with the general for his experience and expertise.
At the age of only 27, Hill had the opportunity to travel with President Eisenhower on a tour of eleven countries, including Italy, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Greece, France, Spain, and Morocco. Of this whirlwind tour, covering 22,000 miles in nineteen days, Hill observed, “There was no denying that President Eisenhower's effort had not only increased his personal popularity but also had raised the image of the United States in the eyes of all those we encountered. Diplomatically, he had strengthened relations with a number of countries, and there were high hopes that the East-West summit meeting in Paris scheduled for the spring could move the world closer to peace.” (p. 48) Hill admired President Eisenhower's indefatigable efforts to bring about a last global peace. From the details included in this fascinating volume, it is clear that Hill had the utmost of respect for President Dwight Eisenhower.
Hill's descriptions of serving Lyndon Johnson are probably the strongest and most interesting portion of the auto-biography. Although despised by most Americans by the time he announced that he would not seek a second term in office, there has been a shift in recent years to re-examining the legacy of the big, brash Texan who took the United States through the turbulent times of the Vietnam Era. Certainly All the Way, the bio-pic produced recently by HBO, shows Johnson in a new light, and there have been other works written about him that reveal his devotion to creating a safer world.
Hill writes of Johnson, “From the moment he took office on November 22, 1963, President Johnson was a man on a mission, determined to use his powerful position to create a better life for all Americans, in all aspects of their lives, and by the end of 1965 his administration would pass more transformative legislation than most presidents achieve in their entire terms.” (p. 181) Johnson had a vision for a Great Society and he fought wholeheartedly the War on Poverty. Having come from humble beginnings, Johnson had lived in poverty as a youngster and never failed to show visitors to the LBJ ranch the humble home in which he was born.
As a president, Johnson was the hardest man for Hill to work for since the man slept rarely and would frequently wake agents in the middle of the night to go on some mission. One mission that was particularly daunting for all close to the President was a trip to Australia to attend the funeral of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had drowned while swimming in rough surf. Johnson had been close friends with Holt and insisted on attending the funeral services. Following the services, Johnson decided that on the way home he wanted to “drop in” on the Pope, and along the way a stop in Cam Ranh Bay to visit American soldiers in Vietnam was added to the itinerary. After encouraging the young soldiers who fought under General Westmoreland, Johnson went out into the crowd to shake hands and speak directly to as many as our fighting men as he could.
The trip, which took four and a half days, covered 28,210 miles, more than half of which was spent in the air. Despite their exhaustion upon landing, Hill remembers, “I was exhausted, enormously relieved to be delivering the president back home safely after such a chaotic and harried adventure, and eager to crawl into my own bed. But it was Christmas Eve, and the president wanted to go to Mass with his daughter, Luci, and her husband, Patrick. So I accompanied President Johnson to the seven o'clock Mass at St. Dominic's Catholic Church in southwest Washington.” (p.268)
While Americans cooled toward Johnson for having to deal with the tough decisions that faced him, Hill imparts a story that shows President Johnson's warm heart. While on that grueling, four day journey, Air Force One landed on Christmas Eve in Lajes in the Azores for a refueling. The passengers aboard Air Force One decided to do some Christmas shopping at the PX, even though it was 1:35 in the morning. Suddenly, President Johnson appeared in the doorway of the plane and asked Hill why the plane was deserted. When Hill explained that everyone had gone shopping, the President threw on a trench coat over his pajamas and joined in the holiday shopping festivities. Hill reports, “You'd think Santa Claus himself had just walked in from all the double takes we got. The press would have loved it and fought over the photos. For me, the image in my mind still makes me chuckle. Only Lyndon Johnson. And that's how I happened to go shopping in the Azores in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve with the President of the United States in his pajamas.” (p. 207).
It is clear from all of the stories about Johnson included in Five Presidents that Clint Hill had the utmost respect and admiration for the President, who managed to get the Civil Rights Act passed, and who never stopped fighting for peace in Vietnam.
Things changed for Hill after President Nixon took the Oath of Office. Nixon shunned Hill from working the presidential detail because Hill had been close to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, both of whom Nixon despised. Therefore, Hill was assigned to cover Vice President Spiro Agnew. Despite Agnew's ultimate undoing due to tax evasion, Hill portrays Agnew and his wife as easy people to work for, and he enjoyed working with them. His attitudes toward President Nixon, however, are another matter.
Clint Hill and his writing partner, Lisa McCubbin, have co-authored three books together; Mrs. Kennedy and Me (2012), Five Days in November (2013), and Five Presidents: y Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Having read all three of these historical works which read with the ease of a novel, I can recommend each for fascinating glimpses into the life of a Secret Service agent. Ms. McCubbin's first book was co-authored with Gerald Blaine and is entitled The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence (2010).
For more information on Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin, you can visit their websites at ClintHillSecretService.com and LisaMcCubbin.com.