Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Book Review: In The President's Secret Service

Ronald Kessler, formerly a reporter for both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, has written a series of "inside the (fill in the blank)" books that have been best-sellers. He tackled the CIA, Congress, the FBI and now has written an "inside" book on the Secret Service: In the Presidents Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. (Also available at amazon.com.)

I heard Kessler interviewed about this book on a radio show and thought it sounded intriguing. And it is! Kessler provides a history of the establishment and evolution of the Secret Service which began as an agency within the Treasury Department in 1865 to track down and arrest counterfeiters of US currency. He traces the evolution of the agency to its present day role as security provider for the President, Vice President and their families; Presidential candidates; and others as ordered by the President.

In the book's prologue, Kessler notes that
"because Secret Service agents are sworn to secrecy, voters rarely know what their presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates and Cabinet officers are really like. If they did, says a former Secret Service agent, "they would scream."
Some of the revelations in the book are not new--JFK and LBJ were compulsive womanizers and Nixon was strange. Since Secret Service agents spend 24/7 with their protectees, it was interesting to learn which Presidents and Vice Presidents treated them well.

At the top of the list is Laura Bush. "I've never heard a negative thing about Laura Bush. Nothing. Everybody loves her to death and respects the hell out of her," Kessler quotes an agent as saying. Ronald Reagan, the Cheneys, George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, and the Obamas are also praised in the book for their considerate relationship with their agents. On the bottom of the list are Jimmy Carter, LBJ, Al Gore, and Hilary Clinton.

Being the child of a President has got to be tough. The two former First Daughters, Barbara and Jenna Bush, chafed at the Secret Service oversight over their lives and led them a merry chase for most of their father's term in office. My own daughters are the same age as these two and I can just imagine them reacting the same way. What college student wants a permanent security escort dogging them? At the end of W's term, though, Kessler relates that the twins had matured and showed more appreciation for their security detail. Agents thought Amy Carter was "a mess" and Kessler says that the least liked child of a president was Chip Carter.

There was a lot of praise, by contrast, for Chelsea Clinton who was a favorite of the agents. " In my career, Chelsea Clinton did it the best. Treated the detail right, told them what was going on, never gave problems that I know of," Kessler quotes an agent as saying.

Gossipy anecdotes and factoids aside, the book presents a forceful and detailed argument that the failure of the Secret Service administrative heads to adopt modern personnel practices and to advocate effectively for the budgetary needs of the agency is creating a serious security risk for those they are charged to protect. Kessler says that threats against President Obama are up 400 per cent compared with those against George W. Bush. If Kessler's analysis is correct then this is an issue that should be addressed immediately by Congress.

Kessler also documents several incidents of threats against recent presidents that were thwarted by the Secret Service which have not previously been publicized. It is interesting to see the different ways in which the agents get, analyze and act upon all the information that comes into them.

The downside of any "inside the" book is the fact that there is little or no named attribution for the facts and opinions of the "insiders". That is certainly true here, because the agents are sworn to secrecy about their day to day life with those they protect and the intelligence techniques that the agency uses. Are axes being ground by the unnamed agents Kessler interviewed? Probably. Caveat lector.

I enjoyed the stories about the different presidential families and learned a lot about the history of the service and the issues it confronts today.


Cathy said...

I heard that Carter was not an easy President to work for while he was in office. I have heard he is a micromanager.

Rev Kim said...

This sounds like an interesting read. And with a visit to Costco upcoming, maybe they'll have it.

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