Protecting the President

Secret Service agents have taken metaphorical bullets for the boss before this.

The Clinton years haven’t been easy for the U.S. Secret Service. First, agents were blamed for spreading rumors about marital spats–involving household furniture–between the president and the first lady. Then they drew jeers for closing part of Pennsylvania Avenue after two near-assaults on the White House. Last fall, muckraker Seymour Hersh’s book about John F. Kennedy’s sexual exploits relied on dirt from whistle-blowing ex-operatives. Now, Clinton’s guards are being forced to tell all about the president’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky.

It’s an uncomfortable role for a group that prides itself on its low profile–indeed, on its secrecy. From the Zapruder film to the Clint Eastwood film, the popular image of the Secret Service agent–stiff posture, of dark suit and shades, the walkie-talkies, the microphone in the sleeve–is one of laconic, unflappable, and self-abnegating cool. Though always at the center of things, the agent cherishes his anonymity; he’s expected to sacrifice not just life but also ego to protect the president.

Who are these guys, anyway? And how did they develop such importance and mystique?

F rom the beginning, Secret Service operatives have been thought to have pretty sexy jobs. Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan conceived of the organization during the Civil War as an espionage agency. Under the control of the Department of War, its first head was the legendary private detective Allan Pinkerton, a friend of McClellan’s who had learned of–and helped avert–an attempt on Lincoln’s life in 1861. When Lincoln fired the famously inept McClellan, Pinkerton went, too. He was replaced eventually by a brigadier general named La Fayette C. Baker, who recorded his exploits of derring-do in a memoir called The Secret Service in the Late War (1874)–the first in a long line of agents’ kiss-and-tells (click for a brief review). Later, Baker ran afoul of President Andrew Johnson for having allegedly set up his own espionage network within the White House. Johnson abolished the organization, and Baker wound up testifying against the president during his impeachment hearings.

Meanwhile, another Secret Service–the forerunner of today’s–was created as a division of the Treasury Department. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln met with Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough about the need to fight rampant wartime counterfeiting. During the war, the U.S. government had issued its first paper money, or “greenbacks” (previously, only private banks had issued paper notes), and one-third to one-half of all paper currency in circulation was believed to be “queer.” McCullough and Lincoln discussed setting up a Secret Service to root out counterfeiters. It didn’t occur to them, unfortunately, to have this new division protect the president, and that very night Lincoln was assassinated when the Washington, D.C., policeman assigned to guard him wandered out of Ford’s Theater to a tavern down the street. (La Fayette Baker’s men, coincidentally, helped bring John Wilkes Booth to justice.) The assassination delayed things, and July 5, McCullough swore in the new service’s first chief, the appropriately named William P. Wood.

In the absence of other federal law enforcement agencies–there was no FBI until 1908–the service over time took on new jobs: combating the terrorist acts of the Ku Klux Klan, which had sprung up in the Reconstruction South; conducting espionage during the Spanish-American War and World War I; investigating the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome scandal; and helping to apprehend the gangster Al Capone for tax fraud. Its main job, though, has always remained fighting counterfeiting and other forms of fraud: check, credit card, postage stamp, food stamp, and the like. Which is to say, if you cash your neighbor’s Social Security check, it’s the Secret Service that will come after you.

Conspicuously absent from the agency’s duties was the job of presidential protection. Until Lincoln’s murder, no president had been assassinated. When, in 1835, a would-be assassin pointed his pistol at Andrew Jackson, the pugnacious president simply charged at the assailant, brandishing his cane. To his good fortune, both the gun and a backup pistol failed to fire. In 1881, James Garfield was the second president to be killed, and during Grover Cleveland’s second term–a time of fierce labor unrest–the president finally began using Secret Service agents, informally, for defense. Only when Theodore Roosevelt took office following the 1901 assassination of William McKinley did the Treasury Department authorize full-time presidential protection. Five years later, Congress passed the Sundry Civil Expenses Act, which made the service’s protective duties official.

F or 62 years the Secret Service ably sheltered the president from danger, despite assassination attempts on Franklin Roosevelt (as president-elect, in 1933) and Harry Truman (in 1950). John F. Kennedy’s assassination, although the service’s greatest failure, nonetheless brought it renewed acclaim for its agents’ heroics. One leapt onto the president’s moving limousine to shield Jackie Kennedy, while another, Rufus Youngblood, gained fame for covering Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s body with his own. (Likewise, Agent Timothy McCarthy was celebrated for taking a bullet for Ronald Reagan in 1981.) The Kennedy assassination thus marked the arrival of the romantic myth of the self-sacrificing agent–the myth that Larry Cockell and Clinton’s other agents trade on when they publicize their anguish over having to betray the president’s trust.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the danger of assassination seemed suddenly to expand–Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered in 1968, George Wallace was crippled in 1972, and Gerald Ford was targeted twice within three weeks in 1975–and the Secret Service’s custodial duties expanded accordingly. Protection had been unofficially extended to presidents-elect in 1908. Now, others came under the shield: former presidents (1961), vice presidents and vice presidents-elect (1962), former presidents’ spouses and families (1965), presidential and vice presidential candidates (1968), visiting foreign heads of state (1971), vice presidents’ families (1974), foreign diplomatic missions (1975), and spouses of foreign heads of state (1986). Even the Mona Lisa got Secret Service guardianship during her visit to the United States in 1962.

Naturally, the agency’s size and budget exploded (see David Plotz’s explanation in “Strange Bedfellow“). In 1963 it had 520 employees and an annual budget of $8 million. Today it has approximately 4,600 employees, a $590 million budget, and field offices around the world. This massive growth has periodically elicited cries from lean-government types. What’s more, in our egalitarian times people resent the privilege that serves to insulate a somewhat random quasi-aristocracy from contact with citizens. This same egalitarianism fuels the feeling that the Secret Service shouldn’t serve, in the mot du jour, as the president’s “Praetorian Guard”–that it shouldn’t take metaphorical bullets to protect his dalliances.

Even that unpleasant task, however, has some precedent. In The Dark Side of Camelot, of course, Hersh found four ex-agents who told him about JFK’s reckless sexual escapades and about how they were pressed into providing cover. Less well known, if less salacious, is the fact that in 1915, the Presbyterian moralist Woodrow Wilson, then a recent widower, used agents to run interference for him in his amorous pursuits. Edmund Starling, who guarded Wilson, wrote in his memoir: “Our boss was in love. He was courting a handsome widow, Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt … it was all taking place at the White House, where Mrs. Galt was brought by her friends.” Soon, Starling was conscripted into following the couple on their walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park (for more details, click) and fending off reporters. Though Wilson was unmarried, dating another woman so soon after his wife’s death seemed vaguely scandalous in 1915, especially because, as Starling discreetly put it, Wilson was afraid “another woman–a Mrs. Peck, whom the President had known years before–would make trouble if an engagement were announced.” Starling and his colleagues held their tongues, at least until he penned his memoir.

History teaches few practical lessons, but here it may have a small one to offer: Larry Cockell, call your agent.

If you missed the review of Secret Service kiss-and-tell memoirs and other useful sources, click. For more on President Wilson’s chaste pursuit of Mrs. Galt, click.