JFK's secret service agent: "I still feel a sense of failure"

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill remembers his emotional interview with Mike Wallace in 1975

In December 1975, correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed Clint Hill, a secret service agent who was on the scene the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  In the pictures splashed across newspapers all over the country, it is Hill who is seen climbing atop the presidential limousine to push First Lady Jackie Kennedy out of the way to protect her life.

Twelve years later, Hill retired from the Secret Service and granted 60 Minutes his first interview. It would become one of the most famous interviews in 60 Minutes history. A tormented man, Agent Hill blamed himself for the death of a president, telling Wallace that if only he’d reacted “five-tenths of a second faster,” the president would be alive.

Today, 50 years since that day, Hill has done much to move forward. This week, Hill published the book "Five Days in November," a detailed account of the days leading up to the assassination and the days that followed.

In an interview with 60 Minutes Overtime, Hill discusses his emotional interview with Wallace and his memories of that tragic November day.

In your interview with Wallace, you spoke about the immeasurable guilt you felt as a result of the assassination.  Have your feelings changed over the years?

They have gotten less intense, because I went back to Dallas in 1990, some 15 years after that interview was done in 1975.

I walked the area of Dealey Plaza, I went up into the School Book Depository, I went up to the sixth floor, and I did everything I could to examine exactly the situation: the angles, the weather, all the conditions that existed that day.

I came away with the conclusion that on that particular day, all the advantages had gone to the shooter — we didn’t have any — and that I had done everything I could to try to prevent the assassination from happening. 

But I still feel today a sense of failure and responsibility because that was our job: to keep the president safe, to protect him at all costs. And on that particular day, we were unable to do that.

How have you managed to cope?

I just realized that I did everything I could and so I just have to live with knowing that we failed that day, and just go on with life as best I can.

The fact that I was able to relay all the information that I did to Lisa McCubbin in writing the book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me, and then in the book Five Days in November, but also going way back to helping Lisa McCubbin and Jerry Blaine in writing the book The Kennedy Detail — that really all together was a very cathartic experience for me and it has been very beneficial emotionally because I was able to release those feelings, to get them out.

Now I can talk about it to the general public, I can answer questions that they may have, and it just makes me feel a lot better to have released that emotional baggage that I had so built up, deep within me. 

I wish I had gone back to Dallas years before I did in 1990 to confront that situation. It would have been very helpful to me had I done so.

One of the most poignant sections of the book is when you detail the tearful goodbye between JFK and his son as he leaves for Texas — the last time he would ever see his son.  You said you’d never seen such a tearful goodbye.

That still is a memory I have that is very precious because the president said — it was one of the last remarks he made as he exited the helicopter and we got on Air Force 1 — he turned to the agent who was there with young John and said, “Mr. Foster, will you take care of John until I get back?” and Agent Foster said, “Yes, Mr. President, I’d be glad to.” 

And we all knew what happened later, and he never did come back and never had the opportunity to spend more time with John.

On Air Force 1, back to the White House with JFK’s coffin in tow, you wrote that Jackie Kennedy pulled you aside to ask, “What’s going to happen to you now, Mr. Hill?”  Did her question surprise you after the day’s events?

She was very concerned about what my future was going to be and how I was reacting to what had happened that day in Dallas.

It surprised me that she thought of me in that way at the time because of the events that had just occurred. And that she was, in a few moments, going to have to stand there beside the then-vice president while he was sworn in to become the new President of the United States.  She took the time to tell me she cared and she was concerned about me. 

She really cared and I really appreciated it.

When did you finally allow yourself a moment to grieve?

Really, I don’t think that happened until months later because there was just no opportunity to do that.  We were just so involved in making sure everything was going right with Mrs. Kennedy and the children. 

She never came to me and cried. We talked about many things; one of the things we never talked about was the assassination.

At the end of the book, there’s a picture of a note Jackie wrote you, thanking you for your service.  Did her note provide you any comfort?

It provided some comfort, but it didn’t completely erase those feelings because I still had that feeling that we had the responsibility to protect the president and we failed to do so.  

You mention in your writings that your job required a lot of time away from home, from your wife Gwen and your sons Chris and Corey. What was it like transitioning back into your family life after your retirement?

I went through a very depressing period of time when I retired and I cut myself off from most of my friends, and somewhat from my family, during a period almost of six years after I retired because I was in such a depressed state.

So, it was very difficult until after I began to recover — beginning in about 1982 — that my relationship with my sons improved considerably. And I have a good relationship with them now. 

My wife and I, we are no longer together. I’m sure that the fact that I was gone so much and everything I went through contributed to the demise of that relationship.

What was life like during that six year battle with depression?

During that period of time, I spent most of my time in my basement, not wanting to talk to anyone. I drank heavily and I smoked a lot. It was the only thing that would relieve the pain and the anguish that I had, thinking about what had happened in Dallas in 1963.

A friend of mine was a doctor, came to me and said, “Look, Clint, if you don’t change what you’re doing, you’re going to die. You have a choice to make: live or die.” And I chose to live. And so it was those words from that doctor that made me realize life was too precious to give up on.

I quit drinking, quit smoking, started to work out to get myself back in better condition, improved my relationship with my friends, and my sons.

How do you keep yourself from going back to the gory moments of that day?

I remember it every day. There’s not a day that goes by that it doesn’t enter my memory and I think about it. It was such a devastating time, so it’s something that will never go away, I will always have that in my memory to think about each and every day.

When was the last time you spoke to Jackie Kennedy?

Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968. I never talked to her again after that. She got married that fall and then I found out later in 1990, just prior to her death, that she was extremely ill, but I never really had a chance to talk with her.

The problem was that I was always felt that I was really a reminder to her of what happened because I was there. And I didn’t want to remind her of that incident. She had enough problems to live with. She didn’t need my reminding her of what had happened.

Fifty years later, what is it like to still be remembered as the secret service agent who jumped on the back of the limo right after Kennedy was shot?

It’s something I certainly wish had never happened. I wish the event had never occurred. I became a subset of history unwillingly so I have to accept it and live with it and do the best I can with it. That’s what happens every year in November.

Editor’s Note: Clint Hill’s book, "Five Days in November," is published by Gallery Books, a company owned by CBS.