From the opening scene of newly minted Secret Service agent Clint Hill sneaking the body of Mamie Eisenhower's mother's dead nurse out of her Denver home, Five Presidents is a page-turner. Abandoned as a baby, Hill was adopted into a North Dakota family. After a stint in the Army, he had a 1955 encounter that left him impressed by Secret Service agents. He decided to become one.
By 1959, Hill was part of the White House Detail, now called the Presidential Protective Division. By the end of his career, Agent Hill had protected five U.S. presidents and their families.
Former general Dwight D. Eisenhower remained a military-style leader. Hill says President Eisenhower was "cognizant of the clock and adamant about staying on schedule." He was all business, but some of that business took place on the golf course. Not long after the takeover of Cuba by Castro, Hill was with Eisenhower on a golf course when he was informed that a U-2 spy plane and its CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, were in Khrushchev's custody.
Shortly after the John F. Kennedy inauguration, Hill was asked during an internal interview whether he knew how to swim, ride horses, and play tennis. His affirmative responses landed him on the First Lady's protection detail. It felt like a demotion at the time but he later wrote a bestselling book about the experience, titled Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Hill is the agent known for jumping on the back of the limousine in Dallas on that horrible day in November of 1963.
At their first meeting, LBJ snubbed Hill's offered handshake. Hill describes the change from guarding Kennedy's widow and her two young children like this: "The transition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Lyndon Baines Johnson was like sailing on a magnificent yacht along the Amalfi Coast on a cloudless summer day, and suddenly being tossed overboard into an aluminum trough filled with ice-cold water."
Hill's description of LBJ touring guests around his ranch in his old fire truck is greatly amusing but his insider look at the toll the Vietnam War took on Johnson is equally sobering.
President Johnson told incoming President Richard Nixon that the best friend he'd have while in the White House would be "an organization - that will be the Secret Service of the United States."
Whether reading it as a history lesson or as one who lived through the administrations covered, this is a fascinating book.
(Gallery Books, 2016, 451 pps., $28.00)