Secret Service agent Bill Carter (circled) watches John F. Kennedy’s casket on Nov. 24, 1963, as servicemen carry the slain president up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Bill Carter)
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.
LEBANON, Tenn. -- Possessing a career full of close encounters with the rich and famous, Bill Carter cherishes the days he spent in “Camelot” with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his family.
His four years as a U.S. Secret Service agent during the 1960s left him countless strong memories, but none more evocative than those days following the Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas.
Among the 27-year-old’s assignments was to stand watch over Kennedy’s casket at the U.S. Capitol.
“I will never forget the first official viewing of the casket by Jackie, the kids, Robert, Ted, all the Kennedy family, the White House senior staff, the cabinet and then the Secret Service,” Carter said from his home in Lebanon, Tenn. “When I walked by that casket, there were four veterans on each corner. Their chests just covered with medals and tears streaming down their faces. I can see that so clear. It had a tremendous effect on me emotionally.”
Another thing Carter said he remembers is that not one person said one word during the viewing.
“Not a word said, and they played the ‘Navy Hymn,’ and everybody there was bawling,” he said. “It was the most solemn, emotional thing I ever experienced. I’ve never seen anything like it since.”
Carter, 77, who has been an attorney for The Rolling Stones and managed the careers of country music singers Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, among others, has lived in Lebanon the past 19 years. In 2005, he published his memoir, “Get Carter: Backstage in History From JFK’s Assassination to The Rolling Stones.”
He currently produces the Bill and Gloria Gaither homecoming videos and helms the Johnny Cash Festival, which benefits the restoration of Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark.
“It’s really hard for me to grasp that it was 50 years ago. For 35 years or so, until I wrote my book, I put it out of my mind,” Carter said about the assassination of the 35th president of the United States. “I don’t want to think about the 50-year thing, and the reason is about everyone associated with it is dead.”
JFK introduces himself
The Arkansas native met Kennedy while in training at the White House.
“He walked by me and turned around and came back and stuck his hand out and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy.’ ‘I know who you are Mr. President, you don’t need to introduce yourself to me.’
“He said, ‘I understand you’re from Arkansas,’ and he asked me about Arkansas, and then he went on. He had a habit too, of looking back and smiling, letting you know he was putting you on. He made everybody feel so at ease, such a down-to-earth person. He had a great sense of humor. He treated us as equals,” Carter said.
“When he talked to the agents he talked to them on their level and treated them as equal, but he did that with everyone,” he said. “That’s really rare. The only other person I’ve noticed that trait in is Billy Graham.”
Kennedy had a charisma that Carter said he had never experienced.
“He used to punch the guys, make a joke to an agent. He was a buddy. I mean here’s a blueblood, shouldn’t be that way, but maybe due to his service in the U.S. Navy. He did cuss a bit. He was common, he was rich, well-educated, sophisticated but as common as if he was from Rector, Ark.,” Carter said in reference to his hometown.
Impressions of the first lady
“It was really weird. Jackie was a blueblood like him,” Carter said. “She intimidated me so. She called me Mr. Carter, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. It was a cultural difference that was so obvious, and I was never comfortable with her. There may have been slight resentment. I really admired her. She was on a pedestal to me. I would have never even had any common conversation with her. It would have been beneath her to talk to me like that.”
When she died, Carter said he mourned her as if she were a member of my family.
“You bond with those people,” he said. “After I left the Secret Service, my respect for her continued to grow over the years, and I realized how naïve I was.”
Carter had been an agent a little more than a year when from a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald fired the bullet that snuffed out the life of the 46-year-old first-term president.
Carter had been with Kennedy seven weeks prior when he made a visit to Arkansas in early October and was completing an
advance training course in Washington, D.C., the day Kennedy was killed. He heard the sad news over lunch with Secret Service Chief James Rowley and other classmates.
“We were at O’Donnell’s Seafood restaurant across the street from the (U.S. Department of the) Treasury next door to the White House, sitting there having lunch, talking about the president’s trip to Texas. … From the reports we had, it had been such an overwhelming success,” Carter said.
While they were sitting there, a waiter came to their table and told Rowley, he had a phone call.
“When he came back, one thing I will remember until the day I die is the look on Chief Rowley’s face,” Carter said. “It was shock, stunned, gone almost white, pale, and he just simply said, ‘The president has been shot.’”
Chaos in the Capitol
Carter noted that in 1963 the White House detail numbered about 40 Secret Service agents, eight per shift.
That weekend, all the White House agents were in Texas, four shifts of agents, so there really wasn’t anybody at the White House, Carter said.
Carter and several other agents were immediately sent to the presidential residence.
“When I got there, it was chaos,” he said. “The phone was ringing. I took a phone call from (French President) Charles de Gaulle. I had written out what to say – I was very nervous. I wasn’t quite prepared to talk to world leaders about the president’s death.
“I don’t remember what was going through my mind. I was probably in somewhat of a state of shock. I had been in the military, been though all the Secret Service training, and then all your adrenalin kicks in. You’re doing your duty, and you don’t think beyond that at the time. I never had time to think that President Kennedy, who I adored, was dead.”
Carter said he and his fellow agents were scrambling around because “we didn’t know what was going on. The president was dead. We didn’t know who shot him.”
“It was a time of crisis, and there was no real organization about it,” Carter said. “I was stressed beyond normal, just doing my duty. I really don’t recall any emotional response at that time.”
About 6 p.m. that fateful Friday, newly sworn in President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived at the White House via helicopter, and Carter and other agents escorted him to the executive office. They stayed by his side until he retired for the night.
Interestingly, Carter never desired to serve as an agent in Washington, D.C.
“When you went into the Secret Service, right away, they tell you what they kind of have in mind. If you were going to be a White House agent, they assigned you first on the field. They wouldn’t transfer you there permanently until you had some experience,” he said. “During the training course, we pulled shifts at the White House. They were telling me, ‘OK, we’re gonna bring you to the White House.’ Well, here’s the kicker, I didn’t want to go the White House.”
Instead, Carter loved criminal investigation.
“I just loved tracking criminals,” he said. “You have to put yourself in the mind of the criminal to catch him. To me that was a challenge. Being a White House agent there’s a lot of, I guess, glamour in that. Even though I’m from Rector, Ark., I never saw that as something I really wanted to do.”
Carter had been wrestling mentally with the idea of turning in his resignation in 1964 so that he could return to college and complete his law degree, but his fondness for Kennedy was strong.
“Had Kennedy lived, I would have probably made the Secret Service a career,” Carter said. “I had so much respect for him and was so inspired by him. It’s an honorable profession. I loved all the guys I served with. It’s a close fraternity.”
No rest for the weary
After seeing Johnson to bed that evening, Carter went to his hotel room at 2 a.m. only to receive a phone call at 4 a.m. ordering him back to duty.
“I guarantee it, I didn’t sleep at all,” Carter said. “I put my clothes back on and reported back to the White House. At 4:30 a.m. the president’s body was brought back and that was what I had to get back for. I remember the body was taken to the East Room, and they had a military honor guard that lined the corridor all the way. They were all dressed in full dress.”
Carter and his peers stood by the casket. Later that Saturday morning, they accompanied the Kennedy family to a memorial-prayer service at a church across from the White House. He then stayed close to Johnson for the rest of the day.
That Sunday, the casket was moved to the rotunda. Carter accompanied the casket and remained at the Capitol the rest of the day.
“The thing that day that affected me the most was the young people who lined up by the thousands and thousands,” Carter said. “I talked to some college kids from Salt Lake City and asked them, ‘When did you leave?’ They said, ‘As soon as we saw the body was going to lie in state. Five of us drove without stopping, rotating drivers, so we could get here.’“
The students were in line more than two hours waiting to go into the rotunda, despite the cold, wet drizzle.
“It kind of overwhelmed me,” he said. “There were more young people than there were older people. It occurred to me their future is gone because I felt the same way. He inspired a generation and what’s left? We don’t know. We’ll never know the impact that had on my generation.”
The following Monday, the day of the funeral, Carter went with the casket to the church and then was told to go ahead to Arlington National Cemetery, where he stood at the head of the grave until the burial.
Afterward, Carter was assigned to Johnson for several more days. However, his boss told him to go home and enjoy Thanksgiving with his family, who, coincidentally, had made plans to celebrate the holiday with his sister who lived in Dallas.
Grief kicks in
Arriving at the airport at 6 p.m., Carter had to hide out while waiting for a 2 a.m. flight, hoping he would not be called back for duty at the last minute. It was then the reality of Kennedy’s death finally struck him.
“I really came unglued emotionally,” Carter said. “I sat there and couldn’t get my mind off the assassination and his death. I’d be sitting there crying and going over to the corner hiding my face, and people were going by looking at me, probably wondering, ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’”
Taking the flight to Dallas, Carter met his brother-in-law at the airport at 6 a.m., but by that time his senior supervisor Tom Kelly had tracked him down with plans for him to assist with the Warren Commission investigation.
“So I went on duty at 8 o’clock Thanksgiving morning and immediately was assigned to Six Flags Hotel with Marina (Oswald’s wife) and Marguerite (Oswald’s mother) and Robert (Oswald’s brother) and the whole family. They still thought there could be danger to the family,” he said.
After a couple of days guarding the Oswald family, Carter was pulled away to join other agents in conducting interviews for the investigation. He and a partner interviewed the witnesses at the Texas Book Store Depository, more than 120 individuals, over a period of weeks.
Carter, who had a portable typewriter, took the statements and had the witnesses sign them.
Among others, he interviewed Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald, as well as Oswald’s landlady and dozens of more leads that came in. He got a short break at Christmas before returning to Dallas to complete the interviews.