For the past year or longer, publishers have been preparing for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, generally regarded as one of the watershed moments in American and journalism history. Some books consider the nostalgia of the pre-Johnson/Vietnam era, some the Hollywood-like angle of JFK and Jacqueline. Some are Studs Terkel-like collections of reminiscences, while others, such as FIVE DAYS IN NOVEMBER, focus on a singular account.
In an era before personal computers, cell phones and social media, Americans were gathered together to the bosom of television as the tragic news unfolded. Video of Walter Cronkite, that generation’s consummate newsman, choking up as he announced the death of the President, still resonates and draws a lump to the throat for those of us who remember seeing it in illo tempore.
Yes, we grieved, but we did so as “fans,” for lack of a better word. The recent glut of Kennedy features on television show thousands of people waiting along the motorcade route in Dallas for a glimpse of Jack and, sometimes more so, Jackie. The way some carried on, these weren’t just the President and the First Lady, they were movie or rock stars.
"Hill’s story...is at once clinical and intensely personal, the former as he describes the logistics (and headaches) of seeing the President through unpredictable situations, and the latter as he recalls his interaction with Mrs. Kennedy in the difficult hours and days following the assassination."
But we were outsiders. As much as we may have loved and followed them, we had no intimate knowledge of their lives. So now it is up to those who did, who were on the scene, to come forth and tell their stories.
Like aging war veterans whose time is running out, people like Clint Hill, a former Secret Service agent charged with the care of Jackie Kennedy, have decided to break their silence (some recent features have included phrases such as “they are speaking about “X” for the first time…”).
If you’ve ever watched the famous Zapruder films, you’ve seen Hill; he’s the one scrambling up the back of the presidential limousine trying to protect Mrs. Kennedy as she attempts to collect bits of her husband’s head that were blown off by the assassin’s bullets.
Hill’s story --- told over the days preceding and following the event --- is at once clinical and intensely personal, the former as he describes the logistics (and headaches) of seeing the President through unpredictable situations, and the latter as he recalls his interaction with Mrs. Kennedy in the difficult hours and days following the assassination.
One problem with writing about such a historical moment is that almost all of us of a certain age know the story so well, unlike, say, tales from a battlefront that are experienced by a relative few. We know full well what’s coming, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop, of how much the writer decides to play up or down the overall affair and their role in it.
Hill writes and speaks about his guilt for not having responded sooner, a natural reaction for someone in his occupation who must be prepared to lay down his life in the course of his service. This is survivor’s guilt, and while understandable, it’s probably impractical, considering the laws of physics. Given his position in the car behind Kennedy’s, it seems unlikely he could have gotten there any faster to ensure a different outcome.
FIVE DAYS IN NOVEMBER is heavily illustrated. Unfortunately, the photos have no captions, which --- outside of a few iconic images --- would have been informative in most instances.
Perhaps Hill’s book will prove cathartic, but given the amount of material coming out on the same subject at the same time, it’s hard to rank it among the competition.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on November 22, 2013