COLUMN ONE : A President And His Protectors : Clinton is a challenge for the Secret Service, but agents are used to it. Lyndon Johnson treated them like chattel, and Hubert Humphrey was whisked away after punching a protester.
Keeping presidents out of harm’s way has always produced headaches for the Secret Service, the elite security corps that was given the task of protecting occupants of the White House after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. And Bill Clinton is a migraine already beginning to happen.
From his propensity for jogging through city streets and stopping at local eateries to his planned inauguration week bus tour from Monticello to Washington, the President-elect is a case study in risky impulses. And while the Secret Service, as always, refuses to discuss its task, there is no question that Clinton may pose its biggest challenge in years.
“He’s got to be driving the agents crazy,” said Dennis McCarthy, a former Secret Service special agent who tackled John W. Hinckley Jr. to the ground during the 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan.
Yet the venerable old institution that is the U.S. Secret Service has been down this road many times before. Throughout its rich history, the service, originally created by President Abraham Lincoln 128 years ago to investigate counterfeiting, has regularly had to adapt to the habits of new chief executives.
The conflicting desires of President and Secret Service almost never have been resolved to either side’s satisfaction.
Normally, the Secret Service would prefer to perform its mission outside the public spotlight. But President-elect Clinton’s relish for connecting--directly--with the American people has given greater visibility to the outfit and the men and women who are willing to place themselves between a President and a would-be assassin.
Certainly, the risks are real. Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated, and attempts on the lives of others have been thwarted.
Presidential candidates also have been targets--Robert F. Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, after winning the California primary, and Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace was permanently paralyzed on May 15, 1972, after being shot while campaigning in an open-air shopping center in Laurel, Md.
“Every President thinks everybody loves him, and nobody wants to hurt him, but there are people out there who are convinced that the President--whoever he is--is responsible for all their troubles. Or they just want to make a name for themselves,” said McCarthy, a 20-year veteran of the service who wrote a book titled “Protecting the President” after he retired.
The relationship between presidents and the agents who protect them can be openly hostile--as was the case with Lyndon B. Johnson--to very friendly, as was the case with former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
“Agnew was kind of a cop buff,” recalled former Secret Service Agent Chuck Vance. “He enjoyed being with the agents and their wives. He would throw parties for them, and they would throw parties for him.”
Johnson, in contrast, treated his agents like “hired hands” during stays at his Texas ranch and was generally considered a “royal pain,” according to McCarthy, who offers this tale as evidence:
One rainy night at his ranch, Johnson put his dog Yukie out, screaming: “Secret Service! Throw Yukie back in when he’s finished.”
“As usual,” McCarthy said, “there was no ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ ”
The dog got quite muddy, so the agent on duty “was delighted to follow the President’s orders exactly. . . . The next morning the President awoke to find the silk sheets on his bed quite a mess,” McCarthy said. After that, “we were told not only to put the dog back inside after he had been out, but to clean him up first.”
Vance, who now owns his own security firm, says walking dogs is not part of an agent’s job description and that he, in fact, once refused to walk Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’s dog, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice President, we’re not allowed to do that. But we’ll be glad to walk you, sir.”
Sometimes, the relationship is so trusting that some presidents can even forget that their agents are there.
Former President Richard M. Nixon, for example, at one point during the unfolding Watergate scandal wept while McCarthy stood a few feet away.
Vance recalls that Humphrey, during a late-night return to his Chicago hotel during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, had to pass through a line of demonstrators chanting “dump the Hump, dump the Hump.” One young man, however, held out his hand and said “Mr. Vice President, come shake my hand.” Humphrey, thinking he had a friend in the crowd, reached out--but the man turned his hand over and shouted: “Dump the Hump.”
“Humphrey formed a fist and punched him in the chest,” Vance said. “We weren’t sure what would happen, so we whisked him away and into the elevator.
“There was total silence until about the 16th floor,” Vance continued. “Then, all of a sudden, we heard a voice from the back of the elevator say: ‘Boy that felt good. ‘ “
On another occasion, in the chaos that erupted during a fire in Nixon’s San Clemente residence, McCarthy yelled: “Who’s got the (expletive) President?”
“I’m right here,” Nixon replied. “Everything is fine.”
“We were pretty careful about our language around the President . . . but as the Watergate tapes later revealed, Nixon was no stranger to salty language himself,” McCarthy said. “He never said a word about my indiscreet phrase during the fire.”
Oftentimes, the needs of the service to provide protection and the needs of a President for more contact with the electorate lead to conflict.
During a 1976 presidential campaign appearance by Jimmy Carter in a parade in Manhattan’s garment district, agents refused to allow a camera truck--traveling in front of the candidate’s car--to slow down enough to get photographs, recalled Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary
The agents needed an unblocked route--so they could get Carter out of the area if something happened--but Powell needed good coverage of his candidate, and was furious.
“I’m hanging over the side of the truck screaming and shouting at the agent, who is ignoring me,” Powell remembers. “So finally, I jumped off the truck, ran around it, and stood in front of it, just to make it stop. The agents came up and argued, but I yelled back at them: ‘This is the big event of the day, and you guys are really screwing it up.’ I just wanted to keep them arguing, because by this time they’re beginning to get shots.
“Finally, they go and talk to a policeman,” Powell continued. “In a few seconds, one of New York’s finest--the biggest policeman I’ve ever seen--picks me up under my arm pits, sets me down to one side and says very softly: ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ ”
Such struggles go back even further in Secret Service lore.
Edmund W. Starling became part of the presidential Secret Service detail on Christmas Eve, 1914, and guarded five presidents--Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt--and none was ever harmed under his care. His was an era when danger existed, but presidents were clearly not as confined and constrained as they are today.
Starling, who wrote a book about his experiences in 1946 entitled “Starling of the White House,” found Roosevelt the most difficult to control, despite the fact that this chief executive was confined to a wheelchair.
Once he disobeyed Starling’s orders and went up a steep mountain on a bad road, where his car stalled. Roosevelt had to be turned around “at a spot where nothing lay between sheer rock and precipice but a narrow strip of dirt highway.”
The President “remained in the car unperturbed while the turn was made,” he wrote. But the next day Starling lectured him “for his recklessness and threatened to resign unless his orders in such matters were obeyed. Roosevelt, who was at that time the most powerful person in the world, apologized and promised not to take any more chances.”
The Secret Service was not put in charge of protecting the President until the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Over time, coverage was extended to the vice president, family members of the President and vice president, presidential candidates and other dignitaries. A separate uniformed division also was established to guard the White House grounds and those of foreign embassies.
The agency’s investigative responsibilities continue to this day and include not only counterfeiting but telemarketing schemes, computer fraud, credit card fraud and telecommunications fraud. In 1989, fraud cases made up one-third of the service’s investigative time.
There are 2,064 special agents of the Secret Service, which is part of the Treasury Department. Of that total, 136 are women, the first of whom were admitted 20 years ago.
Since 1902, 20 agents and uniformed officers have died in the line of duty, including Julie Cross, a female agent murdered 12 years ago in a robbery while part of a counterfeit surveillance operation at Los Angeles International Airport.
To prepare for the hazardous line of work, all special agents receive an eight-week training course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga., and then attend an additional nine weeks of training in the Washington area. There they learn about protection, investigations and intelligence, and they participate in extensive simulation training.
“All agents are trained to perform all of our missions--investigation and protection,” said Special Agent Gayle Moore, a spokeswoman for the service. “Not every agent in the service can be on the President’s detail.”
More than 800 applications are received for every opening. Potential agents must hold a college degree and pass certain exams, including a polygraph and a drug test. But, beyond that, they must “demonstrate self-confidence and a sense of humor,” said a former high-ranking agency official who requested anonymity. “If you take it all too seriously, the stress would bring you right to your knees.”
All new agents must go before a three-person evaluation panel, which is where “you can really get into someone’s decision-making ability and how seriously they take themselves,” he said. “One important aspect of what we look for in new agents is their ability to react and make decisions. When they’re out there, they have to make decisions that they can’t run and ask their boss about.”
To help prepare them for their special role as protectors, however, training exercises are designed “to condition agents’ responses to an attack on the person whom they are protecting . . . they are trained to put themselves between the President and the source of the shots,” McCarthy said.
“All agents are taught that if shots are fired, they should remain in an upright position and make themselves as large a target as possible.”
The former agency official said that “we don’t expect an agent to think about it--we expect him to react.”
Nevertheless, Vance said, “the hard part is maintaining your alertness and professionalism when you know you might go your whole career without having an incident. It’s very stressful knowing that if it happens, you have to be able to respond.”
Some agents draw what amounts to “baby-sitting” duty for the President’s children or grandchildren. This can mean long tedious hours sitting in a car outside a house or school, or standing in a hallway outside a classroom.
And this can be as tough on the family members and the public as it is on the agents.
For presidential children of dating age, it can be frustrating to have agents around all the time--and it can become a great game trying to outwit them. President Johnson’s daughter, Luci, and her then boyfriend, Patrick Nugent, managed to escape from their agents one night while attending a party. They simply left through the back door for a night on the town, without telling their agents, leaving them panic-stricken and infuriated.
And Susan Ford, President Ford’s daughter, married Vance, whom she met in California while he was guarding her father after Ford had left office. They were later divorced.
“Susan didn’t have protection at that time,” Vance said. “If she did, there would have been no way I’d have been able to date her. That’s why the relationship ever began at all, because she was no longer being protected. Then, after we began dating and became serious, I was taken off his detail because that would have been a conflict of interest.”
Occasionally, members of the public are caught unaware by the actions of special agents. Agents frequently will walk through a crowded area--along a route to be traveled by the President--and check individuals who have their hands inside their coat pockets.
“That’s what frightens us,” McCarthy said. “When you can’t see the hands, you don’t know what’s in the hands. I have walked up to people and said, ‘Hey buddy, how ya doin’?’ and reached down to grab his hand in his pocket to see if he’s got a gun--and then just kept on walking. They don’t realize what I’ve just done. Then all of a sudden they do--and they jerk their hands out of their pockets.”
Agents also continually monitor “lookouts"--people who are considered extremely dangerous and who may pose a threat to the President. The service’s Office of Protective Intelligence has a computer system to follow the activities of approximately 40,000 people who are regarded as threats, and they are watched if they show up anywhere in the vicinity of the President, McCarthy said.
Occasionally someone, such as Hinckley, will not appear on these lists. But more often than not, the computer files have proved valuable over the years, according to the former agency official.
“There have been an awful lot of people who have been detained and arrested that, if they had an opportunity, they would have made an attempt on the life of the President,” he said. “We knew this because of our investigations--and because of their propensity for violence and their ability to obtain weapons. The evidence was there.
“The major part of the security of the President is not his physical security, but the advance work and intelligence gathering that goes with it,” he added. “The guys around the President are the last line of defense.”
The Secret Service was formed to fight the wave of counterfeiting that was sweeping the nation during the Civil War. In the early 1860s, as much as one-third to one-half of the nation’s currency was bogus, and Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch was desperate to do something about it. So on April 14, 1865, he asked President Abraham Lincoln for permission to form a force to investigate counterfeiting in an attempt to help stabilize the monetary system. Lincoln gave his approval. Ironically, Lincoln was assassinated that evening. It was not until the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt that the Secret Service was given responsibility for protecting presidents.