James Robenalt. He has kept his secret for 60 years.
Paul Landis was one of two Secret Service agents tasked with guarding first lady Jacqueline Kennedy on November 22, 1963—the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In a new book, The Final Witness, to be published in October, Landis claims to have seen something that afternoon that he had never publicly admitted before. His secret, coming to light only now, will certainly reorient how historians and laymen perceive that grave and harrowing event. His account also raises questions about whether there might have been a second gunman in Dallas that day.
After much prodding and reflection, Landis, now 88, made the decision to begin laying out his recollections for publication. Because I have written three books on presidential history, and because Landis’s publisher, Chicago Review Press, happens to be my publisher, an editor there asked me to read a copy of the galley and offer my comments, which I did quite eagerly. In fact, I was so taken with Landis’s backstory and, upon spending time with him, so drawn to the facets of his tale that are not answered in the book (whose details were first reported in The New York Times), that I probed further, maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism.
And yet, as I got to know him during more than a dozen meetings this past year, I was won over by his integrity and by the way his account of what he witnessed in Dallas—and in the grave months of American mourning that followed—remained consistent and unwavering. Over time, Landis and I became close. As a result, I am writing this assessment of his narrative (and of his motives for coming out with his story) not only as a historian and armchair investigator but as Landis’s confidant.
Twenty-three-year-old Paul Landis applied to become a Secret Service agent in 1958. He came from Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, and had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University 15 months earlier. A neighborhood boy, Bob Foster, who was friends with Landis’s sister, had joined the Secret Service two years before. After speaking with Foster, Landis thought being in the Secret Service sounded like the “coolest job in the universe.”
Landis was intrigued. But because he has always been slight of build, his immediate concern was whether he could meet the minimum height requirement (five feet, eight inches). During the physical exam, he stretched himself like a rubber band and, as he recalls, barely made it.
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He started work in October 1959, at the time the youngest special agent, at 24. Just over a year later, John Kennedy was elected president; soon the young recruit was assigned the job of guarding the Kennedy children and, eventually, along with Special Agent Clint Hill, Mrs. Kennedy herself. Not all agents were given code names, but as a result of Landis’s new assignment, and because of his youth and boyish looks, he was eventually christened “Debut.”
Landis found himself deep in the inner workings of Camelot, coinciding with the apex of Jackie’s popularity. As an international superstar, she was the Princess Di of her era, and Landis was on hand as the media followed her every move. Landis traveled with the first lady and her daughter, Caroline, to Italy in 1962. (John Jr., her young son, remained back home.) Landis was the agent who helped speed and accompany Jackie to the Otis Air Force Base emergency facilities when she went into premature labor with son Patrick, who died two days after his birth in August 1963. That October, at the suggestion of Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, a trip to Greece followed for an excursion aboard the luxury yacht of the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
I believe there is little reason to think that late-night alcohol consumption contributed to the agents’ response times or decision-making that day. Hill, who had been out with the others, reacted quickly in trying to get to the limo. In a six-second incident, he did not make it in time. The agent on the running board in front of Landis, Jack Ready, started to jump off himself but was called back by the agent in charge of that car, Emory Roberts, who feared that Ready might be run over and realized that Hill was already on his way toward the vehicle. Roberts had not been out the night before, drinking or otherwise. The same is true of the only agent who really had a chance to avert disaster, driver Bill Greer, who might have taken evasive action with the president’s limo once the shooting started. The agent next to Greer in the front passenger seat of the presidential limo, Roy Kellerman, likewise didn’t react in time. Kellerman had not been out drinking; he had gone straight to bed once they checked into the Hotel Texas.
Landis recognized that, despite any accusations to the contrary, there was nothing he could have done to prevent the tragedy. He also knew that he risked being criticized for having stayed out most of the night and having violated Secret Service policy by drinking any alcohol that might possibly impair him “if called upon to perform an official duty.” This no doubt contributed to his overall reluctance to come forward.
More to the point, I sense that he had an underlying guilt about what he might have done. He had found a bullet—the first piece of evidence logged into the record of the assassination of a US president—and then he went on his way, alone, in private.
He understands today how history might have changed had he told the pathologists at Bethesda that night where the “stretcher bullet” had come from—but he was not the one in the autopsy room (Kellerman and Greer were), and he had his hands full with the stream of family and mourners who arrived on the hospital’s 17th floor to console Jackie.
Landis is an upright, respected, private man. His moral authority and personal credibility have always been two hallmarks of his persona. My gut tells me that in his own way, he didn’t want to be the guy who had done a good deed under intense pressure, and then, forevermore, was raked over the coals for it. Which is how society often treats people these days. That anxiety might well have led to a sense of regret—even though his initial actions had been completely laudable.
In addition, he was in his late 20s at the time, a man whose values were grounded in those of the 1950s and ’60s. Silence and discretion, to him, had always been virtues. And he didn’t feel that it was appropriate to change his stripes and “go public”—drawing attention to his own behavior—when conspiracy theorists ran rampant, when other agents had been in the press over the years, and when President Kennedy had been killed, in effect, on his watch.
All of this, I contend, contributed to his years of silence.
But nothing, as I see it—and as Landis himself sees it—should detract from the fact that he has now come forward with his version of what happened on that dreadful day. And history will be the better for it.
James David Robenalt is an attorney and Washington Post contributor. He is the author of four nonfiction books: The Harding Affair; Linking Rings; Ballots and Bullets; and January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever.