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What Jackie Bouvier Kennedy said about the Cuban Missile Crisis

I recently finished a book by ex-Secret Service agent Clint Hill, talking about his years protecting Jackie Kennedy as First Lady and afterward: Mrs. Kennedy and Me. On balance, I liked it. The First Lady as presented is faultlessly polite to those who help her, requires her children to behave likewise, has a powerful multilingual appeal that charms people and peoples wherever she goes, and tries desperately to avoid excessive media intrusion into family life while seeking to raise two unspoiled children.

One could without much difficulty point to more recent governing examples of the exact opposite in every particular.

Hill reports one statement by Mrs. Kennedy profound enough that I first questioned whether I believed his account. (This is not special nor exempt from critical thinking, unless one subscribes to the notion that government cops would not just lie to us. It is a historical memoir from a source logically prone to natural bias, based on eyewitness memory which can be malleable and flexible with time.) On reflection, I believe Hill because the event is consistent with the overall portrait, which in turn is supported by most independent evidence. It is the utterance that most influenced my perception of her, and I’m here to share it because most of you may not know of it.

For the record, I’m not the least bit nationalistic. This is the very last place to come for your dose of rah-rah Murrica f***-yeah. I consider nationalism to verge on mental illness in many cases. I’m also not a First Lady heroine worshipper, nor a Kennedy fanboy. No part of me headed into this book expecting to post on the blog about it. I still don’t even consider Jackie Kennedy among the United States’ three most important First Ladies (though I acknowledge that she was one of the most popular, and a truly admirable person who reflected great credit on the role). Ask yourself whether, had she resembled Eleanor Roosevelt, she’d have been as popular. The answer is unfair to everyone involved, because neither ought to have been judged on her looks, and thus were perceptions skewed.

The passage is on p.193 of my edition. They are in Hill’s White House office near the private residence. The Cuban Missile Crisis is reaching peak danger, and Hill was reviewing with Mrs. Kennedy the plans for the nightmare scenario of imminent nuclear warfare. He has told her what to expect: if there is not enough time to get her and the children out of town, he will conduct them to the bomb shelter underneath the White House.

Mrs. Kennedy is about to interrupt him.

…Before I could explain any further, she pulled away from me, in what can only be described as defiance, and said, “Mr. Hill, if the situation develops that requires the children and me to go to the shelter, let me tell you what you can expect.”

She was looking me straight in the eyes. She lowered her voice, into a deep whisper, and with complete and utter conviction said, “If the situation develops,” she repeated, “I will take Caroline and John, and we will walk hand in hand out onto the south grounds. We will stand there like brave soldiers, and face the fate of every other American.”