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No Time for Tears

History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.

—JOHN F. KENNEDY

WASHINGTON, D.C. NOVEMBER 23, 1963 2:15 A.M.

Standing outside in the pitch-black darkness, Agent Jerry Blaine tried desperately not to yawn. He was on post at the rear corner of President Johnson’s large two-story French chateau–style house close to the back door, and with the exception of the forty-five-minute nap in Austin and some catnaps on flights, it had now been nearly sixty hours since he’d had any sleep. Blaine was almost to the point where he was hallucinating.

When he’d taken over from Andy Berger just before midnight, the two had simply looked at each other without saying anything. What could be said?

Blaine had been at this particular post for about fifteen minutes when he suddenly heard the sound of someone approaching from the clockwise direction. It wasn’t rotation time, and he knew a Kennedy Detail agent would never approach from that direction.

Instinctively Blaine picked up the Thompson submachine gun and activated the bolt on top. The unmistakable sound was similar to racking a shotgun. He firmly pushed the stock into his shoulder, ready to fire. He’d expected the footsteps to retreat with the loud sound of the gun activating, but they kept coming closer. Blaine’s heart pounded, his finger firmly on the trigger. Let me see your face, you bastard.

The next instant, there was a face to go with the footsteps.

The new President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had just rounded the corner, and Blaine had the gun pointed directly at the man’s chest. In the blackness of the night, Johnson’s face went completely white.

A split second later, Blaine would have pulled the trigger.

President Johnson looked at Blaine, said nothing, and turned around and went back in the house.

Jesus Christ! I almost shot the new president. What the hell was he coming around the wrong way for?

With all the new security measures put into place that night, in the chaos nobody had thought to inform President Johnson about the standard counterclockwise movement protocol.

Blaine struggled to regain his composure as the reality of what had just happened washed over him. Fourteen hours after losing a president, the nation had come chillingly close to losing another one.

BETHESDA NAVAL HOSPITAL 2:45 A.M.

Clint Hill was standing outside the Presidential Suite when he got a message that Roy Kellerman needed him to come down to the autopsy room. Leaving Paul Landis in charge on the seventeenth floor, he stepped into the elevator, and as he looked at all the numbers on the panel, for a moment he was disoriented.

Stay on task. Stay on task.

He looked at his watch and realized that it was no longer November 22, the day President Kennedy had been assassinated. Time was moving forward. He hit the down button and the elevator doors closed.

Roy Kellerman was waiting for him in the stark hallway outside the autopsy room. “Clint,” he said, “before the autopsy is closed, I need you to come in and view the president’s body.”

Clint’s eyes were as hollow as Mrs. Kennedy’s. He clenched his teeth, and his jaw twitched as he nodded.

“I know this isn’t going to be easy, but we decided that since you are the closest to Mrs. Kennedy, it’s important for you to see the body, in case she has any questions.”

Kellerman opened the door and they walked in together.

Bill Greer was there, and General McHugh. There were doctors and other people Clint didn’t recognize. And lying on the table was the naked body of President Kennedy, covered delicately with a white sheet. At first glance it looked like he was sleeping. There wasn’t a mark on his face.

A man in a white coat pulled the sheet down and Clint saw the wound in the throat, where the doctors at Parkland had done a tracheotomy. More hands touched the pale, lifeless president and turned him to the side so Clint could view the back.

Six inches down from the neckline, just to the right of the spinal column, there was a small wound, a hole in the skin. Clint might not have noticed it had the man in the white coat not pointed it out. All Clint could see was that the right rear portion of President Kennedy’s head was completely gone.

Clint grimaced and took one long look so that if Mrs. Kennedy ever asked—which he knew she never would—he could tell her what anybody who had been in the follow-up car could tell her. They’d all seen it, heard it. There wasn’t any doubt what had happened. A sniper had shot the president from an upper window. And I didn’t get there in time to stop it.

The president’s body was placed in the new mahogany casket from Gawler’s funeral home and Clint Hill returned to the seventeenth floor, where Paul Landis was still on guard. When Clint got word that the casket was being transferred to a U.S. Navy ambulance, he solemnly told Mrs. Kennedy that it was time to return to the White House.

Mrs. Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy climbed into the rear of the ambulance with the casket. Bill Greer drove President Kennedy one final time, home to the White House.

A White House limousine followed directly behind with Clint Hill in the right front seat. When the motorcade arrived at the White House at 4:24 A.M., there was a unit of U.S. Marines waiting at the Northwest Gate. The squad, in full military dress, marched solemnly at port arms ahead of the body-bearing ambulance, escorting the fallen commander in chief to the North Portico, the sound of their boots on the pavement like a drumbeat. The stoic young men were surely glad for the darkness, for it hid the steady stream of tears none of them could control.

A military honor guard from Fort Myer had assembled outside the North Portico. In the black of night, the military body bearers carried the casket into the East Room, with the small procession of Secret Service agents following Mrs. Kennedy and the attorney general behind it.

In the hours since the president’s death, Sargent Shriver—the husband of JFK’s sister Eunice and the man President Kennedy had appointed director of the Peace Corps—had been working with the White House staff to prepare the East Room for the president’s casket. Shriver had found an engraving of how the room had looked when Abraham Lincoln’s body had been brought there, and he was striving to duplicate it. A replica of the catafalque used for Lincoln, and which had been used for the remains of the Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington Cemetery, had miraculously been located. Shriver had it placed in the identical spot in the East Room where Abraham Lincoln’s body had lain nearly a century before. A staff member had found yards and yards of black crepe fabric and had draped it elegantly around the mantel, the drapes, and the large crystal chandelier. Keenly aware of Mrs. Kennedy’s taste, Sargent Shriver made sure the room looked elegant and respectful without being garish or morbid.

Agent Paul Rundle was waiting at the White House, and when he saw Clint in his wrinkled, stained shirt, the stubble of a beard on his normally clean-shaven face, and the desolate look in his eyes, the reality of what his friend had been through hit him like a punch in the gut.

“Clint,” Rundle said, “is there anything I can do?”

Clint seemed to look right through him and merely shook his head. What can anybody do now? The president is dead. Oh, dear God. The president is dead.

As Paul Landis followed Mrs. Kennedy into the White House, he suddenly remembered that the Zippo lighter he had retrieved from the limousine was still in his pocket. Provie, Mrs. Kennedy’s Dominican attendant, was standing nearby.

He walked over to her and, his voice cracking, he handed her the lighter and said, “Provie, I don’t know what to do with this. It was on the backseat of the car.”

Paul didn’t know whose lighter it was. Mrs. Kennedy didn’t carry a lighter. Perhaps it had fallen from Clint’s pocket, or from the president’s. Tears welled in both their eyes as Provie took the blood-encrusted lighter and clutched it in her hands.

With her husband’s body back home in the White House, Mrs. Kennedy finally felt as if she could try to get some sleep. Once Agent Hill was assured that Mrs. Kennedy was safely settled into her private quarters, he walked out of the White House and drove home.

Agent Joe Paolella had been working the evening shift at Atoka and was assigned the task of guarding the presidential vehicles and overseeing staff members from Bethesda Naval Hospital who would be arriving to search the presidential limousine and collect scalp, brain tissue, and bone matter. Paolella shook his head with disbelief at the gory sight inside the car. The thought of what had happened sickened him as his eyes moved through the interior of the once-pristine vehicle. It was then that he noticed what appeared to be a chip and a bullet fragment in the front windshield on the driver’s side, and an indentation on top of the windshield frame. The inside of the windshield was spattered with blood, and as his mind started imagining the horror of the assassination, he quickly looked away.

7:15 A.M.

Emory Roberts and his day shift agents who had been in the follow-up car in Dallas showed up at the Elms forty-five minutes before their shift was to start. Art Godfrey briefed Roberts on the posts and the Thompson submachine guns and quietly mentioned the near accident that Jerry Blaine had reported to him.

“Everybody’s exhausted, Emory,” Godfrey said. “And you guys, more than any of us, have been through hell. Just tell your men to be cautious with the weapons.”

Nothing more was said between the agents. They were all walking zombies—mentally and physically drained—but still they had a job to do. Their job was to protect the President of the United States. The agents were filled with grief, anger, fatigue, and so many questions, but nobody said a word. It was as if the assassination were a forbidden subject.

After being relieved, the midnight shift agents drove straight to the White House and assembled in the Secret Service office in the West Wing. President Kennedy’s body would be placed in the Capitol rotunda for viewing by the general public, but Mrs. Kennedy had requested that her husband lie in state in the East Room of the White House for twenty-four hours so that the staff and administrative officials who had served him so loyally could pay their personal respects.

Somberly the agents walked out of the Secret Service office. Rather than take the direct route to the walkway between the West Wing and the residence, the group took the longer path to pass by the Oval Office. They felt compelled to pay their respects.

But as they walked past the open door, they could see a tearful Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy’s secretary, and some other White House staff members busy packing President Kennedy’s personal items. Blaine, for one, was incensed and the anger over the assassination surged through him.

ATSAIC Art Godfrey led the shift past the Rose Garden and into the long hallway of the executive mansion.

Death was not new to Art Godfrey, Jerry Blaine, Ken Giannoules, Paul Burns, Bob Faison, or Jerry O’Rourke, but this death was different. The mission of the White House Secret Service detail was simple. Their sole responsibility was to protect the President of the United States. And they had failed. Even though the midnight shift had been miles away when the assassination occurred, they all felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the loss of a gifted world leader whom they’d also considered a friend.

With their heads bowed, the agents filed into the East Room. Directly beneath the ornate crystal chandelier in the middle of the white-walled room, President Kennedy’s flag-draped casket lay in the same location where President Lincoln’s had rested nearly one hundred years before, and on the same bier that had been used for the Unknown Soldier. There was already a line starting to form. Soft cries, sniffles, and heaving sobs echoed through the vast wood-floored room as the White House cooks, maids, gardeners, secretaries, and policy advisors circled the casket. Seeing the outpouring of grief by the other staff members suddenly brought rise to new emotions in the agents: guilt and shame. They stood back from the line, hoping not to be noticed, and after a while they looked at each other and silently walked out of the East Room.

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The Honor Guard stands vigil over President Kennedy’s casket in the East Room of the White House. (PHOTOGRAPH BY CECIL STOUGHTON, WHITE HOUSE, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON)

Gwen Hill had barely slept. She couldn’t turn away from the television. She still hadn’t spoken to Clint, but, thank God, Eve Dempsher had called to tell her that the rumors of the Secret Service agent being shot were untrue. Clint was unharmed.

But nothing could have prepared her for how her husband looked when he walked in the door of their house at six o’clock in the morning.

His eyes. Oh God, his eyes. They were empty, lifeless. He looked as if he’d been to hell and back. No, that was wrong. He looked like, wherever he’d been, he had yet to return from it. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged hard, but it was as if he were catatonic. It was as if he weren’t even there.

“Oh, Clint. Oh, Clint . . .,” she cried.

And Clint just let her hug him. It was a small piece of comfort, but inside he was wondering how he would go on. He had told Mrs. Kennedy he would be okay, but really, he didn’t know how anything could ever be okay again.

Somehow he managed to go through the motions of showering and shaving and eating. Did he eat? He couldn’t remember. And then, dressed in a clean shirt and tie and suit, he drove back to the White House.

When Jerry Blaine walked into the apartment sometime around 9:00 or 10:00—who knew what time it was? did it matter?—Joyce had breakfast prepared, but Jerry wasn’t hungry. He headed for the bedroom and collapsed on the bed.

He’d just fallen into a deep sleep when he dreamed that the phone was ringing. And then Joyce was shaking him.

“Jerry, Jerry, wake up.”

Jerry opened his eyes. Maybe it had all been a nightmare.

“Jerry, Jerry Behn is on the phone,” Joyce said. “He says it’s urgent.”

Jerry got out of bed and walked groggily to the kitchen. He picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Jer, how’re you doin’” Behn asked. “I know you were probably sleeping, but I need to give you an assignment.”

“Sure, what do you need, Jerry?” Blaine asked dutifully.

“I need you to advance a reception at the State Department. We have dozens of world leaders coming for the funeral, and the president—President Johnson, that is—wants a reception for them immediately following the funeral. I hate to do this to you, but this is important.”

Blaine felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. He had been with President Kennedy since the day after he was elected, traveled everywhere with him, and now Jerry Behn was telling him he would have to miss the funeral and burial in order to do the advance.

“When is the funeral?” Blaine queried.

“Monday. Two days from now.”

“Not much time,” Blaine answered. He was feeling more and more like he was being handed a punishment he didn’t deserve.

“That’s why I called you. I know this is a lousy assignment, but it needs to be done right. We have a lot of exposure responsibility. Almost every leader in the world is attending. Eve has the information, so you can pick it up this afternoon,” Behn said.

“Okay,” Blaine said, then hung up the phone. What else could he say?

Blaine knew that the SAIC was suffering, just as they all were. This had to be the toughest day of Jerry Behn’s long career with the Secret Service. He was receiving orders from Johnson’s staff while simultaneously trying to handle the Kennedy family requests. Even though there were agents flying in from all over the country to help, the only agents he could count on with absolute assurance were the agents on the Kennedy Detail. He had no alternative. Jerry Behn was now the Special Agent in Charge of the Johnson Detail.

• • •

A burial site had to be chosen for the president. The Kennedy family assumed he would be buried in the family burial site at Brookline Cemetery, outside Boston, but Jackie believed her husband was more than a Kennedy—he belonged to the American people. She was insistent that he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in a state funeral befitting the commander in chief.

At two o’clock, just over twenty-four hours after President Kennedy was assassinated, Agents Clint Hill and Paul Landis accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Arlington to choose a grave site for her husband. To choose a grave site for the President of the United States.

Stay on task. Stay on task.

The attorney general—the president’s brother—was by her side, along with two of the president’s sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It didn’t take long for Jackie to find the perfect resting place for her husband. As she stood on the hillside looking back over Memorial Bridge to the lovely, serene view of Washington, D.C., in the background, she envisioned a simple marker with an eternal flame, so that John F. Kennedy would remain alive in the hearts of the American people forever. The funeral would be Monday, here in the same cemetery where President Kennedy had placed the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and had brought his son John to see the soldiers, exactly two weeks earlier.

When they returned to the White House, plans for the funeral continued. Tomorrow morning the casket would be taken from the East Room in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the rotunda of the Capitol building, where President Kennedy would lie in state for twenty-four hours. On Monday, the day of the state funeral, the casket would again be placed on the horse-drawn caisson and travel from the Capitol back to the White House, on to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for a requiem Mass, and finally on to its final resting place at Arlington Cemetery.

The outpouring of grief was overwhelming. Mrs. Kennedy was getting telegrams and telexes from all over the country, from all over the world. People from New York to Rome to Pakistan to Japan to Tibet to the Soviet Union were gathering in the streets, making impromptu floral temples to the slain president. In Berlin, where President Kennedy just five months earlier had stood and proclaimed Ich bin ein Berliner, thousands gathered again to mourn together and vowed to rename the huge public square John F. Kennedy Platz.

But even as commerce and entertainment and politics came to an abrupt halt as the world collectively mourned the beloved president, those closest to him had to focus on the days ahead. Dozens of world leaders and their representatives were flying in from all over the world, and the Secret Service was working nonstop with the State Department security staff to figure out how to handle the influx of dignitaries, where they would stay, how they would participate.

Mrs. Kennedy was deeply involved in the planning of the state funeral and wanted the ceremonial details to be modeled after President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. The Office of the Chief of Protocol and military staffs were working around the clock to get everything in place by Monday, and while Mrs. Kennedy left the majority of the planning to others, there was one thing on which she insisted: on the day of the funeral, after the president’s body had lain in state at the Capitol, as the caisson traveled from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Mrs. Kennedy wanted to lead the procession of dignitaries, on foot.

It was just eight blocks, but to the White House Secret Service detail, who still felt as if they were living in a nightmare, the notion of Mrs. Kennedy walking through the streets of Washington, D.C., accompanied by President Johnson, leading members of Congress, and dozens of prime ministers, presidents, and representatives from other countries was beyond the bounds of reason.

The President of the United States had just been assassinated, world leaders were coming in from all corners of the globe—France’s Charles de Gaulle, King Baudouin of the Belgians, Queen Frederika of Greece, Irish president Eamon de Valera, the Duke of Edinburgh, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. It was a security nightmare even if everyone were to be in closed-top cars. Walking was a bad idea. Everybody agreed. Everybody, except Mrs. Kennedy.

She refused to compromise and in the end nobody was willing to stand up to the grieving widow. Chief Rowley and SAIC Jerry Behn wouldn’t sleep until the funeral was over.

• • •

That morning in Hyannis Port, at the Kennedy compound, Special Agent Ham Brown and the Kennedy family went through their normal routine. Ambassador Kennedy had breakfast, a stroll outside in his wheelchair, and a nap. When Senator Ted Kennedy, his wife, Joan, sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and several other family members arrived, it was time to break the news. Rose Kennedy and her children gathered around the helpless ambassador and, holding him in their arms, they told him that his son, the President of the United States, had been killed. It was the saddest thing Ham had ever seen.

John and Caroline had been brought back to the White House and had been told their father was dead—a bad man had shot him. The helicopter had come and gone, and now their daddy was in a box with an American flag on top of it, in the big ballroom downstairs with soldiers guarding him. There was going to be a funeral and a lot of people were coming because their daddy had been so special. Everybody was very, very sad.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 1963

In Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald had been charged with the murder of President John F. Kennedy and was being held under tight security. Secret Service agents Forrest Sorrels, Win Lawson, and Dave Grant had all spent time observing Oswald being interrogated by FBI agents and Dallas police investigators. A receipt that had been found in Oswald’s possessions had been traced to the same rifle that police found stashed in a corner on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Additionally, Oswald’s fingerprints matched those found on boxes near the window where a sniper’s nest had been formed out of stacks of book boxes. There would have to be a trial, of course, but everybody who’d questioned Oswald had no doubts that he was the assassin. The bigger law enforcement concern now was that with so much public hatred and rage directed toward Oswald, somebody might try to take the law into his own hands and kill him before he could stand trial.

WASHINGTON, D.C. 12:15 P.M.

After attending Mass in the East Room with members of the family, friends, and household staff shortly after 11:00 A.M., Mrs. Kennedy returned to the second-floor living quarters. Special Agent in Charge Jerry Behn had summoned Clint Hill to his office, and Hill realized this would be the only time he’d have to meet with Behn before the procession started toward the Capitol in an hour.

Everybody was traumatized but SAIC Behn realized the men in the follow-up car were going through things nobody else could even imagine. Now, as Behn looked at Clint Hill sitting across the desk from him, his face sullen, his eyes devoid of the twinkle that had been a window into his fun-loving nature, Behn knew that nothing he could say would be of much comfort. From everything Jerry Behn had heard about the tragedy in Dallas, nobody was to blame. It had all happened so fast. Every advantage had gone to the shooter. Of course, there would be an investigation, but Behn knew his men, knew their dedication and the quality of their work. And by all accounts Clint Hill had saved Mrs. Kennedy’s life. For that he should be commended. But Behn knew the only thing going through Clint’s mind was that he had failed to save the president. It was the same thing every agent on the Kennedy Detail felt, himself included. But as Behn looked at the shattered man sitting before him, it was evident that nobody’s pain could match that of the men who’d been in the follow-up car.

Behn had been speaking to Clint for several minutes—speaking to him, not really sure that Clint was even hearing what he was saying—when Eve Dempsher buzzed in on the phone.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Behn,” she said. “But General McHugh is on the line for Mr. Hill.”

“Put him through,” said Behn as he handed the phone to Hill.

“This is Clint Hill,” Hill said into the phone.

General Godfrey McHugh, the Air Force aide to President Kennedy, said, “Clint, Mrs. Kennedy wants . . . she wants the casket open. She wants to see the president. I think you better get down here.”

Oh God.

12:20 P.M.

Exhaustion had prevailed and Jerry Blaine woke up to discover he had slept until noon. Joyce and the kids had gone to church and the apartment was quiet. Blaine could smell the coffee in the kitchen, so he got up and poured himself a cup. He couldn’t believe how long he’d slept, but finally, for the first time in four days, he felt rested. It was going to be yet another long day; he still had plenty of details to arrange for the advance of the State Department function.

He walked into the living room and turned on the television. All normal programming had ceased as the network news agencies struggled to keep the public informed about the investigation of Oswald and the arrangements for the president’s funeral.

Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. (2:12)
Source: CBS News

Blaine sat down on the sofa and sipped the hot coffee as the television warmed up and the screen slowly came into focus. His television was tuned to NBC, which was just wrapping up a report from the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port.

Suddenly the image on the screen switched to a shot of the basement of City Hall in Dallas, where newspaper reporters and photographers were crowded into an area outside the ground-floor elevator. The news anchor’s voice announced that Lee Harvey Oswald was about to be transferred from the city jail to the county jail, and as soon as he said it, Oswald, handcuffed to a man in a white Stetson hat, stepped out of the elevator doors. The newspaper reporters started yelling questions at Oswald, who remained glibly silent as he was marched toward the waiting armored truck.

A man in a black hat lunged toward Oswald.

Bang!

Oswald collapsed to the ground as pandemonium broke.

“Oswald’s been shot!” the news announcer declared. “Oswald has just been shot!”

Blaine was stunned. Before his very eyes, the one man who could explain why he’d taken President Kennedy’s life was now being rushed to the hospital.

“Damn. That son of a bitch better live,” he said to no one as he slammed his fist on the coffee table.

Several miles away, Win Lawson was sitting in his living room, holding his baby daughter in his arms—he’d just flown in from Dallas—when he saw Oswald get shot on live television.

“Oh crap,” he said as his heart dropped into his stomach.

“Barb!” he called to his wife. “Come here. I’ve got to get back to work. Oswald’s just been shot.”

And then the announcer said something that made Lawson’s stomach turn.

“Oswald is being rushed to the hospital. We’re being told he’s going to Parkland Hospital . . .”

12:34 P.M.

General Godfrey McHugh was waiting for Agent Hill on the first floor of the mansion. They walked together toward the East Room, where Mrs. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were standing near the doorway.

“Yes, Mrs. Kennedy?” Clint asked as he walked briskly toward the first lady. “What do you need?”

She was wearing a black suit, with a tailored jacked and knee-length skirt, and her hair was covered by a black lace veil. Clint tried to look into her eyes, but they’d gone numb. Her eyes were numb.

Standing next to her, her brother-in-law the attorney general, dressed in a charcoal-colored suit, was staring blankly into the East Room at the flag-covered casket.

“We want to see him. Bobby and I want to see the president.”

Oh God.

Hill turned to General McHugh, who had met him on the first floor, and gave a brief nod.

Hill and McHugh walked into the ballroom, which was empty but for the casket perched atop the black funeral stand in the middle of the room, and the honor guard—the servicemen from each branch of the military who had faithfully been keeping watch since the president had been lying in repose.

General McHugh walked over to the commander of the honor guard.

“Commander, will you please have your men leave the room for a few minutes?”

Mrs. Kennedy interrupted, “No, it’s fine. Let them stay.”

Still, the commander gave an order for the guard to do an about-face, and they stepped away from the casket to give Mrs. Kennedy some privacy.

General McHugh carefully folded the flag back over itself to expose a portion of the mahogany wood, and opened the casket to reveal President Kennedy’s upper body.

Mrs. Kennedy and the attorney general approached the casket and stared, solemnly, at the president. Clint Hill looked away. His chest tightened with pain; his brow furrowed as he willed the emotions deeper and deeper.

Mrs. Kennedy turned her head toward Clint, and in a voice now as numb as her eyes, she asked, “Mr. Hill? Will you please get me a scissors?”

Clint turned and let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He walked down the hall to the usher’s office.

Oh God.

A few minutes later he was back in the East Room, handing her the scissors, looking at her, trying to avert his gaze from the interior of the casket. He turned and as he took a few steps back, he heard the snip of the scissors as Mrs. Kennedy cut a lock of her husband’s hair. And then the only sound that could be heard in the cavernous room was the inconsolable cries of two people in sheer agony.

Breathe, Clint told himself. Breathe. He couldn’t break down. He had to be strong, for her.

Robert Kennedy reached for the lid of the casket and slowly closed it, for the last time. Clint looked at his watch. 12:46 P.M.

1:00 P.M.

The three television networks had set up their cameras outside the North Portico of the White House to show live coverage of the president’s casket being transferred from the White House to the Capitol rotunda, where, for the next twenty hours, the president’s body would lie in state.

The military honor guard carried the flag-draped casket back out the way it had come in, down the short flight of stairs at the North Portico door, and placed it in the waiting artillery caisson that would be led by six white horses to the Capitol. Holding her children’s hands, Mrs. Kennedy walked behind the casket, down the stairs. Robert Kennedy, a few other family members, and Clint Hill came next, with President and Mrs. Johnson trailing behind.

They climbed into a procession of cars that was lined up behind the horse-drawn gun carriage, followed by Black Jack, the black stallion that was used for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Saddled, with boots facing backward in the stirrups, the riderless horse was an enduring tradition that symbolized a fallen leader who will ride no more. The escort exited out the East Gate of the White House. Bill Greer drove the black hardtop Cadillac limousine with SAIC Jerry Behn in the front seat and the awkward group of President and Mrs. Johnson with Mrs. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John, and Caroline in the back. Following closely behind were two cars of Secret Service agents on high alert.

Pennsylvania Avenue had been blocked off and was empty of traffic, but on either side, as far as the eye could see, were people standing in the cold, somber-faced or weeping. Three hundred thousand people had come to pay their respects to the grieving first lady and her family, and to the president they had loved. Eerily, the huge numbers of people were dead silent along the entire route and the only sound you could hear, over and over again, was the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves and the muffled drums of the military drum corps going boom boom ba boom tadadada. Clop clop clop. Boom boom ba boom tadadada. Along with the hundreds of thousands who felt compelled to pay their respects, millions more around the country watched the heartbreaking scene on television. There was no other programming, no businesses were open, sporting events had been canceled—the country had shut down. Nothing else mattered.

The television cameras followed the widow as she stepped out of the car. Clint Hill, somber, his eyes scanning the crowd, was immediately by her side as she reached for her daughter with one hand, her son with the other, while SAIC Jerry Behn and an army of White House Detail agents, all wearing black trench coats, moved into place around President and Mrs. Johnson.

They waited outside the Capitol as the formal military honors were granted the dead president and the caisson rolled toward the steps. With Bobby Kennedy on one side and Clint Hill on the other, the solemn-faced Mrs. Kennedy stood and watched with grace. But when the military band broke into “Hail to the Chief,” she suddenly bowed her head, and with frail shoulders shaking, she began to sob.

Finally it was time to go inside. The Secret Service agents were tense and ready to move in a millisecond. Nine military pallbearers lifted the flag-draped coffin off the caisson. Standing next to Mrs. Kennedy, Clint Hill could see the strain on the men’s faces as they started up the steps. Four men on each side and one at the foot, they were fighting gravity, struggling to keep the nearly half-ton mahogany case steady. Suddenly the casket wobbled.

Oh God, Clint thought. Don’t drop it. Oh please, whatever you do, don’t drop it. He knew that getting it up the stairs was taking every ounce of strength they had. He knew exactly how heavy it was. Two days earlier he’d been in their shoes.

Mrs. Kennedy waited until the pallbearers were halfway up the thirty-six steps, then, clutching the hands of her two children, she followed slowly, gracefully up the endless stairs of the Capitol.

Finally the casket was laid in state in the rotunda, under the huge Capitol dome, and after more pomp and circumstance, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield from Montana proceeded to give a moving eulogy that would resonate forever in the hearts and minds of all those who heard it.

“There was a sound of laughter,” Mansfield began, in a somber voice. “In a moment, it was no more. And so she took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands.

“There was a wit in a man neither young nor old, but a wit full of an old man’s wisdom and of a child’s wisdom, and then, in a moment it was no more. . . .”

Mansfield spoke of how John F. Kennedy had left behind some priceless gifts—gifts of laughter, wit, kindness, strength, courage.

In closing, Mansfield posed a question not only to the politicians who surrounded him, but to all Americans glued to their televisions that day. “In leaving us these gifts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, leaves with us. Will we take them, Mr. President? Will we have, now, the sense and the responsibility and the courage to take them? I pray to God that we shall and under God we will.”

After being so good, doing all day what the grown-ups had wanted him to do, finally John, Jr., who would turn three the next day, just couldn’t stand it anymore. The sad eyes, the silence, the slow walking. Everybody was acting so strangely. Almost as soon as the ceremony began, John began fidgeting, moving his hands through the air like airplanes, his mouth pouted to make the sound of the engine.

Agent Bob Foster squatted, grabbed John’s hand, and gave him a look that said, Come on. Let’s get out of here.

Mrs. Kennedy nodded her approval as Foster led John out of the rotunda into an adjacent room. Tom Wells followed and stood outside the room. The door was cracked ajar and he heard John’s tiny little-boy voice ask, “Mr. Foster, what happened to my daddy?”

Wells struggled to control his emotions as he glanced into the room. Bob Foster had squatted to John’s eye level and was trying to explain, in words John could understand, why his daddy hadn’t come home in the helicopter like he usually did. Nobody knew about the heartbreaking question that had just been asked by the president’s son, but outside the door, an equally unforgettable moment was being shared with America as Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline, hand in hand, walked up to the casket, knelt, and placed their lips on the coffin for a final good-bye.

And from one person to the next, from the stoic and wizened men of Congress to the dutiful secretaries and wives, to the millions watching on television, the tears were unstoppable.

On his way to the State Department, Jerry Blaine had heard on the radio—before the station started carrying live coverage of the procession to the Capitol—that a man named Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, was being held for the shooting of Oswald. Then suddenly, just ten minutes after Jackie and Caroline Kennedy had kissed JFK’s coffin, came an unnerving news bulletin. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man investigators believed to be President Kennedy’s assassin, had just died at Parkland Hospital.

Oh my God.

The Diplomatic Reception Room, where the function for the visiting dignitaries would be held, was located on the top floor of the State Department, overlooking the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge. On any other day it was perhaps one of the best views in Washington, but today the only place Jerry Blaine wanted to be was with the procession going from the White House to the Capitol. He couldn’t even see it from here.

Blaine went through the security details with the State Department security and staff and after a few hours had a plan in place. Fifty world leaders in one room. It was perhaps the most important advance Blaine had ever been assigned and while he’d gone through the entire checklist, he realized now that no matter how much planning went into an event, you could never plan for the unexpected.

He still had to type up the Preliminary Survey Report, so he drove straight to the White House. By the time he walked into the West Wing, the somber silence of the morning had turned to pandemonium. Johnson’s staff was moving in as Kennedy’s staff was moving out, plans were being made for tomorrow’s state funeral, and now, when everybody was on emotional overload, the shocking news of Oswald being shot had put tensions over the edge.

Blaine typed up the report and dropped it off at SAIC Behn’s office, then stopped by the shift office in the West Wing to check his mailbox. In it was a sealed envelope.

Blaine ripped it open. He was requested to attend a brief meeting in Chief Rowley’s office the following morning at 8:00 A.M. Blaine’s mind raced. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been summoned to Rowley’s office. Was this about his confrontation with Johnson at the Elms?

As he drove home down Shirley Highway back to the comfort of his small apartment, Blaine wondered how things could get any worse.