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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


The Secret Service
The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency

By Philip H. Melanson and Peter F. Stevens  
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 374 pp, 2002

I picked this book up from the library because when I saw it I realized I didn't know jack about the Secret Service, other than it protects the president from harm. But everyone knows that - that's nothing special. 

So now I know a little more. Is that special? Probably not.

Anyway, I didn't know that the Service is a Civil War creation that fought counterfeiters. It did not protect President Lincoln - it instead was designed to protect the money supply, which is why its home is the Treasury Department. There was a lot of funny money floating around during the Civil War, and the Service put a dent in it.

It didn't begin protecting presidents until the late 19th century, and it did so without any authorization from Congress. Congress didn't want the president protected, because that smacked of royalty or a standing army. Congress did not fully authorize the Service to protect presidents until World War II.

In the meantime, the Service continued to hunt counterfeiters, and also served as an intelligence agency during the Spanish-American war and World War I, and did it quite well. This was before the days of the CIA and even the FBI, so the service was the federal government's only law enforcement agency.

Until the service's protection duties were legal, it often protected presidents, their wives, or their children upon request, without getting the attention of Congress. However, the Service did get the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who in the late 1920s and 1930s tried to take over the Service and give its unofficial protection duties to his own FBI. But FDR put the kibosh on that. In return, the Service relinquished its counterintelligence duties, with much regret.

The authors go into detail about President Kennedy's assassination, and conclude the Service really botched it. The route was horribly exposed and too slow, which made the President a sitting duck for snipers. When the first shot was fired, the Service driver slowed to a near stop, rather than speeding up and taking evasive maneuvers. This made it easier for Oswald to shoot JFK the second time with the killing shot. The authors quote doctors who believed that the initial wound would not have killed Kennedy, provided he received medical attention very quickly. 

In short, the assassination was preventable and should not have happened.

Same with John Hinckley's attempt on President Reagan's life. The Service failed to adequately scan the press club and pick out the obviously out-of-place Hinckley. The rope lines were too close to the President, allowing the assassin to get to within 20 feet for the shots.

However, what saved Reagan's life was the quick reactions of the Service agents. One tackled Reagan into the limo, and the others blocked the president Hinckley from Reagan, willingly taking bullets not meant for them. 

What also saved Reagan was luck. At first, Reagan said he was unhurt, then he complained of chest pains and started coughing up blood. The agent with Reagan ordered the limo driver to a Washington hospital. Because of crappy 80s era technology, they could not call ahead to the hospital and let them know an injured president was on the way, so no staff or stretcher were waiting for them. Reagan actually walked into the hospital with a bullet in his lung.

While surgeons rushed to save the president's life, the hospital remained vulnerable to further attack. If Hinckley had been part of a larger conspiracy, his fellow murderers could have killed Reagan in the limo on the way to the hospital or in the hospital itself. The Service did not adequately secure the hospital for several hours after Reagan's arrival.

The book examines the organization of the Service (very complicated for a small agency) and taps into the lives of some of its agents (burn-outs, alcoholics, and so on). It discusses how various presidents reacted to the Service's protection duties (some chafed under it, and others accepted it) and how the Service dealt with problem presidents like LBJ, who often sneaked away from his protection detail and once willfully pissed on a secret service agent. This book makes clear what a classless boor was LBJ.

This is an interesting book, very readable, though the writing isn't spectacular. The authors got hold of some good stuff - much of what the Service does is classified, for obvious reasons.

So if you want to be special and know a little more about the Secret Service, pick up this book. I think you'll like it.

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