In his In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents they Protect, journalist Ronald Kessler gives us a peek inside the intimate lives of our presidents. Through interviews with over 100 secret service agents from the past and present—dating all the way back to John F. Kennedy—Kessler paints a picture of what our presidents are like when no one is looking.
We learn from the agents Kessler interviews that John F. Kennedy was a serial adulterer (big surprise) and that Lyndon Johnson was essentially a serial adulterer and a lunatic. “If Johnson weren’t president, he’d be in an insane asylum,” said one former secret agent who sometimes was on Johnson’s detail. Secret Service agents found Richard Nixon strange and unsociable. Agents described Gerald Ford as friendly but cheap, often tipping caddies at exclusive country clubs a dollar if anything at all. But the president subject to the greatest scorn is Jimmy Carter.
Carter is portrayed as a phony according to the agents interviewed by Kessler. Carter would put on a show for the public to convey himself as a common man, but it was never anymore than an act. For instance, we are told that when Carter would make a point of carrying his own luggage in front of the press, he was really carrying empty bags. He expected others to carry his real luggage. Unfriendly, Carter “didn’t want the police officers and agents looking at him or speaking to him when he went to the [Oval] office,” explained an assistant White House usher. “The only time I saw a smile on Carter’s face was when the cameras were going,” one former agent told Kessler.
After his presidency, Kessler reports that when Carter would stay at a townhouse maintained for former presidents in D.C., he would take down pictures of other presidents and put up more pictures of himself! “The Carters were the biggest liars in the world,” one agent told Kessler of the Carter era.
Carter, not surprisingly, denied to Kessler through a lawyer many of the allegations in the book.
The man who sent Carter packing from the White House could not have been more different according to accounts from agents. Ronald Reagan would constantly interact with his secret service agents and other staffers who worked for him. He was apologetic when he would take secret service agents away from their families on holidays. While Carter would make secret service agents pay for any leftover food they consumed after White House parties, we are told Reagan would insist the secret service eat leftover food (without charge, of course).
George H.W. Bush also comes across as eminently decent. The Bushes, for instance, would stay home on Christmas Eve so that the agents could spend at least some time with their families. “Both [President Bush] and Mrs. Bush are very thoughtful, and they think outside their own little world. They think of other people,” one agent commented to Kessler.
Bush’s successor President Clinton comes across fairly well if sometimes inconsiderate, while Hillary Clinton is depicted as a monster. “Hillary did not speak to us,” one agent told Kessler. “We spent years with her. She never said thank you.”
Vice President Al Gore was exceedingly obnoxious to his agents according to Kessler. When scolding his son for not doing well in school, Gore chastised him by warning that “if you don’t straighten up, you won’t get into the right schools, and if you don’t get into the right schools you could end up like these guys.” The “guys” Gore was referring to were his secret service agents!
President George W. Bush is painted as an affable character behind the scenes. “He does not look comfortable in front of a microphone,” one agent explained to Kessler. “With us, he doesn’t talk like that, doesn’t sound like that. He’s funny as hell.” Bush 43 was also depicted as “down to earth” and “caring.”
While many conservatives may bristle at the domestic and foreign policies of current President Barack Obama, judged by the way he treats his secret service agents it is fair to conclude that Obama is personally a decent man. One agent who protected Obama on the campaign trail says that Obama twice invited agents to dinner at his home.
Kessler’s book does raise a serious question. Should those charged with protecting the president be chatting about what they saw behind the scenes, especially when the protectee is still alive, or worse, still in office? If presidents have to worry about their secret service agents squealing about them to the press at every turn, it will make our presidents want to put as much distance as possible between them and their agents and thus ultimately compromise presidential security. This is not a desirable outcome to say the least.
On the other hand, secret service agents have a unique view of history and there is something to be learned about our presidents from the stories agents tell. It may be argued that the agents owe a duty to history to tell us what they saw on their watch so we can get a fuller understanding of those who lead us, foibles and all. This argument is especially compelling after a president has passed away, or at the very least, left office.
These are difficult issues to wrestle with, but the fact is that the book has been written. What’s done is done. Might as well take a peek inside.