JFK’s Secret Service agents speak, at last

By compromising his own security, Kennedy made himself impossible to protect
JFK's Secret Service agents speak, at last
George S. Zimbel/Getty Images

For more than four decades, the forces of orthodoxy, from the 1964 Warren commission to Vincent Bugliosi’s 1,648-page Reclaiming History (2007), have insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, assassinated U.S. president John F. Kennedy. But Amazon now lists more than 1,200 titles on the events of Nov. 22, 1963, and the books keep on coming at such a rate that their number will one day (soon) exceed Bugliosi’s page count. The vast majority oppose the official version. In that regard, their authors are solidly in tune with U.S. popular opinion. Forty years of polling have consistently shown that more than two-thirds of Americans simply don’t believe the Warren report.

That alone is enough to make The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine, one of the 34 Secret Service agents on White House service during JFK’s administration, a stand-out assassination book: the surviving agents—speaking openly for the first time (and only because it was one of their own who asked)—are unanimous that it was Oswald, and Oswald alone. But there is also a wealth of detail about the most traumatic day of their lives, and Blaine’s convincing argument that a protective system that worked for Kennedy’s predecessor was stretched past the breaking point by Kennedy himself. Among the many legacies of JFK—the man who single-handedly retired hats from formal male attire—was a revolution in presidential security.

Dwight Eisenhower, supreme allied commander during the Second World War and president from 1953 to 1961, had lived in a protective bubble almost since Pearl Harbor, so much so that his Secret Service agents spent hours during the lame duck days before JFK’s inauguration teaching Ike how to drive a modern car. Eisenhower didn’t leave the White House often—except to play golf, accompanied by agent/caddies with submachine guns in their club bags—and he rarely drew a crowd or mixed with one. What the Secret Service called its “confidence factor” in protecting him was a sterling 95 per cent.

Kennedy was different. The first president born in the 20th century, he had children younger than any agent had ever had to protect. (Armed babysitting proved its value before the inauguration when three-year-old Caroline and her cousin, Christopher Lawford, 5, were playing in a Palm Beach park. Christopher flipped over a log, agitating an eastern diamondback rattler, which the agent on duty shot to death.)

Far worse than the dangers occasioned by the Kiddie Detail were those posed by the president himself. Having fissured the Democrats’ southern bastion with civil rights initiatives and a failed invasion of Cuba, by the fall of 1963 JFK was more reliant than ever on his personal charisma (and his enormously popular wife, Jackie), and he was determined to press the flesh in vote-rich Florida and Texas as often as possible. He never saw a crowd he didn’t plunge into (even after promising his minders that he wouldn’t), and he loved riding in an open-topped car in long motorcades. He had forbidden agents from riding on the back of his limo—a position from which they could, in the event of a missed first shot, throw themselves over the president before a second could be fired. The Secret Service’s confidence factor just before Kennedy’s death, Blaine notes, was a “totally unacceptable” 70 per cent.

In Dallas on Nov. 22, the 16 agents in the motorcade followed their training and their instincts—jumping out of their cars to hold people back when crowds slowed the limo, once flattening a teenager who came too close—while helplessly scanning the windows and rooftops that lined the 15-km route. They all knew, Blaine writes, that the worst could happen at any time. And then, five minutes from their destination, it did.

In 1963, the Secret Service had 300 agents nationwide and a budget of $4 million; today, its 4,000 agents are equipped with every high-tech security tool that an annual $1.6 billion can buy. There are no more open-topped presidental motorcades—the joint legacy, according to the agents of the Kennedy Detail, of Lee Harvey Oswald and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.