As a Secret Service agent, I had the privilege of witnessing history unfold. JFK’s last birthday was one of those memorable events.
Of course I am best known for that one day in Dallas, the day of JFK’s assassination, but in my book Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, I have recounted many of the lesser known events I witnessed during my career as well. In commemoration of John F. Kennedy’s birthday, here is a brief excerpt:
May 29, 1963, was President Kennedy’s forty-sixth birthday—and it is one of those days that has remained vivid in my memory. At the end of the workday, at around 5:45, President Kennedy walked down to the Navy Mess, where a small group of his staff and Mrs. Kennedy were waiting with a cake. When the president walked in, we yelled, “Surprise!” and as soon as somebody handed him a glass of champagne, we all started singing “Happy Birthday.”
He broke into a big smile and played along like he really was surprised, as he was presented with an array of gag gifts. There was a miniature rocking chair, boxing gloves to deal with Congress, “Debate Rules” supposedly from Richard M. Nixon. But he got the biggest kick when Mrs. Kennedy gave him her present—a basket of dead grass.
“Mr. President,” she deadpanned, “on behalf of the White House Historical Society, it is with great honor and with the utmost respect that I present to you genuine antique grass from the antique rose garden.”
The president loved it.
That evening, Mrs. Kennedy had planned an intimate cruise for twenty-four guests aboard the presidential yacht, the USS Sequoia. None of President Kennedy’s political advisors had been invited—the guest list included only family members and his closest friends–and while we had Secret Service agents on a couple of security boats, there were just three agents aboard the Sequoia—Floyd Boring and Ron Pontius from the president’s detail, and myself.
The rest of the evening, which turned out to be JFK’s last birthday, is detailed in Five Presidents, now a New York Times bestseller, along with additional photos.