On 2 August the New York Post ran a long excerpt from Ronald Kessler’s new book In the President’s Secret Service.
Mr. Kessler has an impressive record as a responsible journalist, a serious author, and a go-to blogger, so I was surprised at the titillating and gossipy nature of the material. But I thought that might reflect more of the Post‘s editors’ tabloid sensibilities than the author’s sense of his subject.
The very brief section of Nixon excerpts was marred by including an ugly, blatant, and gratuitous lie followed by a couple of anodyne anecdotes which —given the nature of the man and the geography of La Casa Pacifica— are harmless but clearly apocryphal:
One evening, Nixon built a fire and forgot to open the flue damper. Two agents came running.
“Can you find him?” one of the agents asked the other.
“No, I can’t find the son of a bitch,” the other agent said.
From the bedroom, a voice piped up.
“Son of a bitch is here trying to find a matching pair of socks,” Nixon said.
At any rate I put the book on my Amazon Wish List to the top of which it would, in the fullness of time, eventually have worked its way. Now, thanks to James Bamford’s devastating review in today’s Washington Post Book World, my Wish List is one book lighter.
Bamford considers Mr. Kessler’s claim —undoubtedly true— to have interviewed more than one hundred present and former Secret Service presidential protection division agents:
But rather than use that wealth of information to write a serious book examining the inner workings of the long-veiled agency or the new challenges of protecting the first black president, the author simply milked the agents for the juiciest gossip he could get and mixed it with a rambling list of their complaints.
Trashing their motto [“Worthy of trust and confidence”], these agents seem to relish throwing dirt on their former protectees, especially Democrats. But it is all boring and familiar. Agents Chuck Taylor and Larry Newman, like tattling schoolboys, breathlessly rant about JFK’s escapades more than 40 years ago, in particular one with secretaries nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle wearing T-shirts in the White House pool. “You could see their nipples,” snickers Taylor.
The busy, self-important agents also disliked tardiness, which is one reason they couldn’t stand Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Former agent Dave Saleeba waited impatiently for Vice President Gore one day, only to discover him “eating a muffin at the pool.” The book’s inane and endless anecdotes never rise much higher.
Richard Nixon was “the strangest modern president,” say Kessler’s agents, and his successor, Jerry Ford, was nice but “cheap.” Former agent Robert B. Sulliman Jr. was angry because Jimmy Carter would get to the office about 6 a.m. and “do a little work for half an hour, then close the curtains and take a nap” without informing the press of his breaks.
Other agents tell of Lyndon Johnson’s “stable” of women and how he liked to get drunk at his ranch and then “whiz out on the front lawn.” Even Vice President Spiro Agnew, according to another agent, was escorted to various hotels for affairs. “We felt like pimps,” he said. But the best he could offer for proof was that “he looked embarrassed.”
Throughout the book, many of the current and former agents come across as little more than disgruntled rent-a-guards, complaining about their shifts, their assignments and their pay while traveling on Air Force One and walking the halls of the West Wing.
Aside from the ugly and false impressions that too many of these anecdotes will leave on too many readers, and aside from the blow to Mr. Kessler’s reputation for so uncritically repeating them, the book represents a more serious problem:
What is truly dangerous is the kind of National Enquirer-style gossip in Kessler’s book. In the future, without “trust and confidence” in their agents, presidents will want to keep them at a distance, out of spying range — and out of safety range, when split seconds may count. And with President Obama, such concerns may be especially acute. “Once Obama became president,” Kessler says, “the Secret Service experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of threats against the president, in comparison with President Bush.” Two weeks ago, outside an Obama town hall meeting in Maryland, a man held a sign reading “Death to Obama” and “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.” And last week, at an Obama event in Phoenix, a dozen gun-toting protesters — including one with an AR-15 assault rifle on his shoulder and a handgun in his holster — lingered nearby.