Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine

I don't recall when I first became interested in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  My parents had a hardcover book called 4 Days in Dallas that I remember reading when I was probably in junior high.  But I do know what has sustained my interest - the conspiracy theories.  In college, the wife (before she was the wife) and I attended a lecture by the author of a book claiming hanky panky involving the president's body and autopsy.  Since then I've watched most of the TV shows (including the audio clues of a 4th shot found on a recording released in Hustler magazine) and read many of the books (magic bullet, 3rd shot was accidental discharge of a Secret Service weapon, organized crime involvement with 3 gunmen leaving Oswald as the patsy, Cuba, LBJ, KBG, etc.).  Then there's the internet, a forum for every crackpot theory imaginable.

That's not to say that I believe the conspiracy theories.  (OK, perhaps I wanted to believe them, especially in the beginning.)  In fact, the simple existence of so many of them means they all can't be true.  But they are enticing, especially to the young or those new to this historical event.

So when I learned a couple months ago that a new book had been published by the Secret Service agents who had served on Kennedy's protection detail, I immediately purchased it.  Now, with the assistance of a couple of snow days off from work, I've finished reading The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine.  Blaine is a retired agent who protected three presidents during his career before going to work for IBM.  Blaine may be the author, but the book is the result of the collective memories of many agents and their personal notes that have survived to this day.

Let's cut right to the chase.  Oswald was the lone shooter, was not involved with any third parties on the plot, and fired three shots all of which found their marks (Kennedy, Connally, Kennedy).

But this really isn't the point of the book which is truly about the personal guilt carried by the agents over this professional failure and their frustration over all the mostly unchallenged conspiracy theories, many of which make the agents directly and explicitly responsible.  For decades, the agents' professional code of silence meant they simply had to take it.

This guilt is personified by Mrs. Kennedy's lead agent Clint Hill, the agent most closely associated with the assassination because of his sprint from the follow-up car to the president's limo as the shots, including the fatal shot, were fired.

And now we're getting closer to the core of Blaine's book.  Agent Hill suffered for decades, blaming himself for not getting to the limo a half second or second faster.  If he had, he might've been able to absorb the third and fatal shot himself.  (Kennedy's throat wound was deemed survivable.)

So why wasn't Agent Hill able to get to JFK and Mrs. Kennedy faster?  He was riding on the front left running board of the follow-up car and that seems pretty close.  However, if you watch the films of him climbing onto the limo he steps up on a rear running board and pulls himself up with a raised handle.  These devices allow agents to ride on the rear of the limo.  And that's where Agent Hill wanted to be riding.  Most agents immediately recognized the first shot for what it was.  Hill himself saw the president in distress after the first shot which motivated him to leap off the follow-up car and race for the limo.  (The agent on the front right side running board had the same thought but due to the orientation of the cars would likely have been run over or greatly delayed had he jumped off.)  If Clint Hill had been on the limo's rear running board there's a good likelihood he could've covered the president and first lady before the fatal shot was fired.

So why wasn't Clint Hill riding on the rear of the limo?  Four days earlier during a motorcade in Tampa, the president had asked the agents to stay off the rear running boards of the limo.  JFK was campaigning and didn't want agents coming between him and the people.  This didn't prevent Agent Hill from riding on the rear of the limo during at least part of the Dallas motorcade on Main Street where the crowds were very heavy.  But by the time the motorcade turned right onto Houston Street followed by the sharp left onto Elm the crowds had thinned and Hill had fallen back to the follow-up car.  To be very clear, the agents are not blaming JFK but are illustrating the ongoing compromises between protecting the president and allowing the people open access.  Of course, you don't see the president riding in open-top cars anymore either.

The Kennedy Detail is not a shocker, doesn't point fingers, doesn't make outrageous claims.  It is a sober, factual recollection of dedicated professionals who suffered a great loss and have carried the guilt of that loss for decades.  I consider it to be one of the definitive works on the subject.

One thing bothered me about the book, however.  Blaine refers to himself in the third person throughout the book.  Instead of "I" he writes "Jerry" or "Agent Blaine."  Maybe this is an attempt to make the story appear to be more of a collective effort of all the agents.  But I don't think writing "I did this" and "I recall that" would've detracted from the tale.


Francis Shivone said...

I agree on the third person by the author. It's uncomfortable.

I loved listening to the conspiracy theories and have absolutely no idea if there is any truth to any of them. If I forced to bet on a theory I would bet the mob was the behind it somehow, only because they had motive and, back then, they had the ability to carry it out.

Sounds like a good book.

John said...

Yes, I'd definitely classify it in the "good" category. It may also have finally satiated my appetite on the subject because I'm no longer interested in reading more about the event. I will, however, probably watch the TV specials which are due in 2013 on the 50th anniversary.

Vince Palamara said...

Blaine's book is propaganda and was written to attempt to counter my research. Not ego---the truth.

John said...

Vince: thanks for your comment.