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 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