The Bodyguard

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez () - April 10, 2012 - 12:00am

The latest book on the iconic Jacqueline Kennedy is written by someone who knew her up close and personal, someone who protected her, someone utterly devoted to her. And as USA Today suggests, someone who loved her.

Mrs. Kennedy and Me by retired Secret Service Clint Hill (published by Gallery Books, with Lisa McCubbin as co-author), the agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy in the three years she was first lady and in the year after she was widowed, recalls with reverence how it was like to shadow the fiercely private Jacqueline Kennedy. Historically, it was a rare privilege to be witness to the life of Jackie as first lady because after JFK’s death, she only gave three interviews to the press. And so she remains largely an enigma, and judging by the number of books written and still being written about her, the veil she covered herself with simply whetted the public’s thirst for more information about her.

Clint Hill is an authority on Jackie. And I like it that he didn’t cash in on his relationship with her as her protector (he doesn’t, however, suggest there was a relationship between them akin to that of the couple played by Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard). Though he was privy to what Jackie liked for breakfast, the cigarettes she smoked, the activities that made her happy (riding a horse topped the list followed by shopping and jetsetting), the people who annoyed her (the press mostly), the people who lit up her life (JFK and the children, of course) and some of her secrets (which he doesn’t spill). He waited respectfully to tell his story, sharing it after Caroline Kennedy herself shared her mother’s own oral account of her life with JFK. Many who once worked for Jackie (including Caroline’s nanny) wrote tell-all books even while she was alive.

* * *

How do we earn a person’s devotion?

In Jackie’s case, her mesmerizing persona and seeming fragility already got Hill hooked on her. He says that if she had made him walk on water, he would have. And she knew it.

John F. Kennedy was the love of Jackie’s life, the sun of her existence, but he belonged to a much bigger universe than that where she orbited. So she tolerated his absences, his indiscretions.

In terms of waking hours and days, Jacqueline Kennedy most likely spent more time with her bodyguard than with her husband when she was first lady. And Hill, who had two sons, spent more time with Jackie and her children Caroline and John, than with his own two boys. Her position and his job brought them together. So if you’re a Kennedy vulture looking for a credible description of Jackie Kennedy, Hill is one unimpeachable source about how she was really like.

It was Clint Hill the bodyguard who was outside the delivery room when John F. Kennedy Jr. was born in November 1960, as JFK was on a plane from Palm Beach to Washington DC. It was also Clint Hill who was outside the operating room when Jackie gave birth to her second son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy in August 1963, as the President was in the White House at the time. It was to Hill that Jackie’s obstetrician relayed the alarming news that Patrick, born prematurely, wasn’t breathing normally. The baby boy died three days later, making Hill all the more protective of the emotionally wounded first lady, who had lost two other babies before Patrick. “How much more can she bear?” he asked himself.

He describes her as childlike, spontaneous and shy. But she was headstrong when she made up her mind, as when she refused to leave JFK’s body at Parkland General Hospital in Dallas for a second till it was autopsied at the Bethesda Hospital in Maryland; how she refused to shed her bloodstained strawberry pink suit for cleaner clothes, saying, “I want the world to see what they have done.”

Hill reveals that Jackie knew even then little John would one day fly his own plane because he was so fixated with helicopters and planes, seeing his father the President in and out of them like they were cars.

* * *

The most exciting and revealing part of the book unfolds in Dallas, on JFK’s final motorcade. After the third shot rang out, Hill recalls seeing pieces of the President’s skull and brain flying out of his head. Since he lunged towards the presidential limo (he was in the backup car), the first agent to react after he heard the shooting, he saw everything; a scene too graphic to describe in detail here.

To those of us who have always wondered why Jackie climbed out of the limo on to the back of the car seconds after the shot that killed the President, Hill offers an explanation. He says she was trying to retrieve a piece of the President’s skull that had landed on top of the trunk.

He says he was just “five feet away” and facing the back of the President’s head when a bullet bore a wound the size of a man’s palm above his right ear. He spread-eagled over the mortally wounded President, who had fallen on his wife’s lap and gave him a precious gift — his privacy as a dying man. Thus, to this day, we have no photos of a disfigured JFK and he would be forever handsome in our memory.

Because he knew Jackie, Hill instinctively understood why she wouldn’t let go of JFK even when they reached the hospital. He knew she didn’t want the press to see him with his skull blown off. So without her asking, Hill took off his coat, handed it to her and she tenderly wrapped the President’s head with it. Only then did she let her husband go and be wheeled on a gurney to the ER. Hill doesn’t say if he was able to retrieve his blood-soaked suit, or if he ever wanted to.

He recalls, with much emotion as the printed word could muster, how touched he was when as her husband lay in a casket on a plane that was taking them from Dallas to DC, Jackie called for him and with a worried look in her eyes, asked, “What’s going to happen to you now, Mr. Hill?” She worried that with JFK gone and she no longer first lady, Hill would be jobless.

But his most prized memento of his years with Jackie is a thick album of photos of his years as her primary protector, with matching captions written by her. He shares some of those never-before published photos in his book. If only for those photos, the book is a must for those still in the former first lady’s spell.

Jackie returned Hill’s devotion to her with much appreciation. Not only did she recommend that he receive a special award, she also wrote a tribute to him that she hoped would help him advance in his career even after he left her security detail.

Of Hill and the other agents who were assigned to her children (the “Kiddie detail”), Jackie wrote: “They served the President as well as anyone in his government, by protecting his wife and children with such tact, devotion and unobtrusiveness that it made our White House years the happy ones they were.”

* * *

Hill is in his eighties now. He has outlived not just Jackie but also John Jr. He lived with guilt for a while and wallowed in depression after JFK’s assassination because he felt then he could have done something to prevent JFK’s death but was perhaps a second too late. He was willing to take a bullet for the President.

He was willing to do that — for country. For JFK.

For Jackie.

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com.)

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