Five Days in November
1 Leaving the White House
The day we left for Texas begins like countless other presidential trips. People hustling through the halls to get last-minute changes to speeches typed; secretaries and press staff clamoring to be added to the manifest of authorized personnel; the presidential staff and assistants coordinating all the details for the president and the first lady. Everyone wants to make sure this trip goes without a hitch. Not only because this unofficial start to the 1964 campaign is critically important politically, but also because First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy will be accompanying her husband on the three-day swing through the Lone Star State. Mrs. Kennedy prefers to stay out of politics and, in the three years of the administration thus far, never before has she traveled with the president on a domestic political trip. This is a first. As the Special Agent in Charge of Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service Detail, it is my job to make sure nothing happens to her.
As with every trip the President of the United States takes, the schedule is planned to the minute. The political staff has designed the trip to maximize President Kennedy’s exposure to the press and the general public, while simultaneously adding funds to the campaign coffer: grand Air Force One arrivals with plenty of pomp and circumstance; multiple motorcades through the main streets of each city; and breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners reserved for deep-pocketed donors.
It was just yesterday that I returned to Washington with Mrs. Kennedy. She’s spent the past several days riding her beloved horse, Sardar, at the Kennedys’ newly finished residence near Middleburg, Virginia. After reviewing the typewritten schedule for the trip to Texas, she made some handwritten notes—both for her benefit and mine—about a couple of events she will not attend, and one in which she plans to make a short speech in Spanish. She uses her initials—JBK—for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. This is typical of the way she and I operate. We have been together for three years, day in and day out, and have developed a trusting and comfortable relationship. While she prefers to be spontaneous, she knows I don’t like surprises, and she knows that the more information she gives me in advance, the smoother things will go.
She also recognizes how important this trip is to her husband’s reelection bid and she is eager to make a good impression. But when I see the rigorous schedule that’s planned, I am concerned about her physical and emotional stamina.
It has been less than four months since Mrs. Kennedy gave birth to a baby boy—Patrick Bouvier Kennedy—who lived for just two days. The trauma of losing this son has taken its toll on both the president and Mrs. Kennedy. He, being President of the United States, has had no choice but to carry on—the world does not stop because of the death of a president’s son. She, on the other hand, after spiraling into a deep depression, has finally started to return to her normal activities. The three-week cruise in the Mediterranean on the yacht Christina, back in October, helped her immensely, and I must admit, it was nice for me, too.
The death of Patrick was hard on all of us who are close to the family. And while the president and Mrs. Kennedy appear to be much closer since the tragedy—going so far as to hold hands in public—I know how stressful campaigning can be, and I certainly don’t want anything to happen that might send her back to those dark days of depression. She’s only just begun to smile again.
This morning, I arrive at the White House at eight o’clock, drop off my luggage with the transportation department in the West Wing basement, and head straight to my office. It isn’t really an actual office, but a corner of the Map Room where I’ve set up a desk and a typewriter. Space in the White House is at a premium. Sitting at my desk, I have a clear view of the hallway and elevator that lead to the Kennedys’ private residence.
Looking over Mrs. Kennedy’s schedule, I realize there is a mistake. Her schedule indicates Air Force One will arrive at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, while my schedule, which is far more detailed with Secret Service agents’ assignments and hotel room numbers for everyone in the presidential party, indicates we land at San Antonio International Airport. I am almost certain that my schedule has the correct information, but to verify, I call Eve Dempsher. As the secretary to Jerry Behn, the Special Agent in Charge of the White House Secret Service Detail, Eve has every detail for the trip at her fingertips.
Sure enough, Eve says, we are landing at San Antonio International Airport. Whoever typed up Mrs. Kennedy’s schedule made an error. It happens. But at least now I feel comfortable with the schedule.
The buzzer system sounds three times, indicating the president is moving throughout the residence, and moments later, President Kennedy walks out of the elevator. Seeing me through the doorway, he calls out, “Good morning, Clint.”
“Good morning, Mr. President,” I answer, as I snuff my cigarette into the already full ashtray on my desk.
The president strides toward my open door and says, “Clint, just so you know, John will be riding with us to Andrews.”
“Yes, sir. I figured that might be the case. I’ll make sure Agent Foster is aware.” It has almost become routine for two-year-old John Jr. to ride along on the helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base whenever the president departs for a trip, and Agent Bob Foster is one of three agents on the Secret Service detail for the children—the Kiddie Detail. John loves helicopters. I mean, he really loves helicopters. Recently, Mrs. Kennedy told me she wouldn’t be at all surprised if John becomes a pilot when he grows up. His excitement is contagious, and no one gets a bigger kick out of it than his father. Due to the demands of the job, President Kennedy’s time with his son is often limited, and the short rides in the chopper together are precious.
President Kennedy’s schedule is light this morning, with just one official meeting in the Oval Office—five minutes allotted for the U.S. ambassadors to the African republics of Upper Volta and Gabon. White House photographer Cecil Stoughton is summoned to take a photo as a memento for the guests, and a visual document of the meeting. Who could imagine that this mundane photo of President Kennedy sitting so relaxed in his rocking chair, speaking with two ambassadors, would be the last image of him alive in the White House.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Providencia Paredes, Mrs. Kennedy’s personal assistant, scurries around to make sure Mrs. Kennedy has everything she needs. Normally, Provi, as everyone calls her, would be traveling with Mrs. Kennedy, but this weekend Provi’s son Gustavo is being confirmed into the Catholic Church. Not wanting Provi to miss such an important event, Mrs. Kennedy has asked her personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, to take Provi’s place. President Kennedy’s personal valet, George Thomas, will be in charge of the president’s clothing and belongings, and he, too, will be part of the entourage.
Being Thursday, it is a school day, so Caroline—who will turn six on November 27—has already said good-bye to her parents, and is settled into her normal routine with classmates in the small, private White House school on the third floor.
At around 10:40 A.M., the sound of the helicopter arriving on the South Lawn is the signal that it’s departure time. I slip the schedule into my briefcase, double-check my suit coat pockets to make sure I’ve got everything—sunglasses, wallet, and the leather bifold commission book that proves I’m a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service, “worthy of trust and confidence”—and stuff my .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver into the holster on my hip.
It is a select few who ride as passengers on the presidential helicopter—the president, Mrs. Kennedy, and John; top staff members like Ken O’Donnell, Dave Powers, and Evelyn Lincoln; a military aide; Roy Kellerman, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the White House Detail; myself; and Agent Bob Foster, who will accompany young John on the short flight, and then return with him to the White House when the rest of us transfer to Air Force One.
At exactly 10:50 A.M. we lift off the White House grounds and the trip to Texas begins.
John sits by the window, wriggly and animated, with a constant grin on his face throughout the entire six-minute flight. When the chopper lands gently on the tarmac alongside the presidential plane, however, his whole demeanor changes. He has been told he can’t go on the trip with Mummy and Daddy, and suddenly it hits him that now it’s time to say good-bye.
“Good-bye, John,” President Kennedy says as he gives John a hug.
“Can’t I come?” John begs with quivering lips, tears welling in his eyes. “I want to come.”
Mrs. Kennedy holds him close and says, “It’s just a few days, John. And when we come back, it will be your birthday.” On November 25, John will turn three years old. Both children have birthdays coming up in the busy week ahead.
But the promise of a birthday party does nothing to appease John. I feel sorry for him, and it hits me, too, because earlier this morning I said good-bye to my own two sons, Chris and Corey, who are nearly the same ages as John and Caroline. My job requires me to be with Mrs. Kennedy wherever she goes, and for the past three years that has meant I’ve spent more time with Caroline and John than with my own sons.
Finally, despite the tears, we can delay no longer. The president gives his son one
last hug and starts for the door of the chopper. He turns and looks at Agent Foster, who has slid into the seat next to John, and says something I will never forget.
“Take care of John for me, won’t you, Mr. Foster?”
I’ve witnessed many tearful good-byes between the president and his children, but he’s never said anything like this before.
“Yes, sir, Mr. President,” Foster replies. “I’ll be glad to do that.”
As I follow Mrs. Kennedy out of the chopper, I turn to John and, trying to sound as cheerful as possible, I say, “Bye-bye, John. You have fun with Mr. Foster, now, okay? We’ll be back in a few days.”
His sobs grow louder and louder as we walk toward the portable staircase leading to Air Force One. After all they’ve been through, I know John’s cries tug at President and Mrs. Kennedy’s hearts. Just before they enter the door of the plane, they each turn to their son, and wave.