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Kennedy Assassination Transformed US Secret Service

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, 48 years ago, stunned the world.  It was the first time since 1901- when President William McKinley was killed - that a U.S. president fell to an assassin’s bullet.

The Secret Service is responsible for protecting the president and his family.  President Kennedy’s death put the service on the defensive. In conversations with several former Secret Service agents, our correspondent reports that the assassination, and later attempts on Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, led to changes in how the President and first family are protected.

On November 22, 1963, when shots rang out in Dallas, Secret Service Agent Clint Hill was in the best position to react.  His analysis of that day is simple.

“There’s no question that we failed in providing protection for President Kennedy," said Hill.

Agent Gerald Blaine was also in Texas that day, but not in Dallas. He says a lack of manpower was partly responsible. “In 1963 we had 330 agents; we had about 34 agents on the White House detail," said Blaine.

The agents were visible.  Some ran alongside or stood on cars in the presidential motorcade.  But Blaine says they couldn't communicate with each other.

“We didn’t have radios," he said. "We operated through hand signals. We had photographs of subjects that we had concerns about, and we would memorize those subjects. And we had to rely on each other to work together as a team."

Author Lisa McCubbin collaborated with Blaine on the book The Kennedy Detail.

She says weaknesses exposed by the Kennedy assassination forced a change in how the Secret Service was funded.

“So it made them realize even more how important their mission was, and they were able then to convince Congress to get more money," said McCubbin. "They had been asking for more money for years and years, to get more people. They knew they couldn't protect the president with what they had."

Clint Hill stayed with the Secret Service after the assassination.

He rose to assistant director, and witnessed changes in the agency:  no more travel in open automobiles and more agents, more money, and better communication.

But Hill suffered from guilt after the assassination. He retired in 1975.

Several months later, not once but twice, assailants tried to kill President Gerald Ford during visits he made to California.

And in 1981, another disaster was narrowly averted.

President Ronald Reagan, emerging from a Washington hotel, was shot by John Hinckley Jr.  Reagan was rushed to a nearby hospital for life-saving surgery.

Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy was shot in the abdomen. Press Secretary James Brady was struck in the head and seriously disabled..  

But no one died in the attack.

McCarthy says the incident led to even more changes. “After that, metal detectors were used to screen anyone who gets near the president," said McCarthy. "Shortly thereafter, and the legacy is that since that time, there has not been an attack on any of our presidents by the historic assassin which is the lone gunman."

Though the assassination of President Kennedy was a transforming event for the Secret Service, recent incidents are a reminder that the president is still a target.

At 21-year-old Idaho man is under arrest for allegedly firing several shots at the White House on November 11.

Kane Farabaugh

Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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