The great irony of the Secret Service sex scandal is that for many decades its agents had protected presidents and senior officials from scandal over sexual trysts and romantic affairs — indeed, often discreetly facilitating them — only to embarrass itself in a hotel in Cartagena, Colombia. The 12 Secret Service employees being investigated for cavorting with at least 20 prostitutes last month were in Colombia to prepare for President Obama's arrival for the Summit of the Americas. A look at some episodes from the agency's past shows that these staffers should have known better.
A Secret Service agent stood guard while President Harding and his mistress slipped into a coat closet in the White House; Secret Service agents escorted FDR to wartime meetings with his former mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd (her Secret Service code name was "Mrs. Johnson") when they began regularly seeing each other 20 years after their affair had ended; and, according to Ronald Kessler's "In the President's Secret Service," agents kept one eye out for Jackie Kennedy while her husband dallied with young women (with their comings and goings, the White House seems to have resembled a small bordello — not for nothing was "Lancer" the Secret Service code name for President Kennedy). And according to their grand jury testimony, Secret Service agents bent the rules for frequent Oval Office visitor Monica Lewinsky.
One of the Secret Service's most tactful — and for a time, successful — responses to official indiscretion occurred in September 1940 on a presidential train that had taken FDR and senior government officials to the Alabama funeral of the speaker of the House. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was ill, and his undersecretary, Sumner Welles — a brilliant diplomat, educated at Groton and Harvard, fluent in four languages and Roosevelt's chief foreign policy advisor — was there in his place, which meant that Welles had a sleeping car next to Roosevelt's.
After the funeral, attended by tens of thousands, the train headed back to Washington. Welles began drinking in the dining car with companions, most of whom left at 2 a.m. to go to sleep. By 4 a.m., Welles was alone and drunk. He staggered back to his sleeping compartment and rang for coffee. A Pullman porter named John Stone answered the bell, wearing a midnight blue uniform, buttoned to the neck, and a visored cap with a well-shined silver plate bearing the words "Pullman Porter." Pullman porters were all black men. Despite the strict racial hierarchies that the Pullman cars represented — the porters were given strict instructions to avoid touching white passengers as they walked through the narrow sleeping cars — the job of porter was a coveted one. It was akin to working in a luxury hotel, and many held their positions for decades.
Stone entered the compartment. Notwithstanding that Welles' sleeping car was immediately adjacent to the president's, Welles, who had a history of bisexual behavior, propositioned Stone to engage in paid sex. Stone politely but firmly declined and returned to the dining car. Other porters who answered Welles' bell reported less direct but unmistakable advances. The porters reported what had happened to Pullman officials on the train, who alerted Dale Whiteside, the chief of the president's Secret Service contingent.
Whiteside understood the need for careful handling of the extraordinarily awkward situation. He ordered a porter to take coffee to Welles' compartment and leave the door open, as he waited in the passageway. Welles came out of his compartment and exclaimed, "What is Whiteside doing in this car?" He went back into the compartment and slammed the door. The rest of the trip passed uneventfully.
Even with rumors flying around Washington almost as soon as the train pulled into Union Station, Welles held on to his job until 1943, partly because of Whiteside's quick response and partly because no one could believe, as Welles' biographer wrote in "Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist," that "a senior government official in his right mind — least of all the patrician under secretary of State — would solicit Pullman porters on a train carrying the president, the Cabinet, the Secret Service and railway officials."
Eventually, Welles' enemies, which included Secretary of State Hull, put the story together and went to Roosevelt, who first tried to defuse the scandal with humor — "Well, he's not doing it on government time, is he?" — but eventually had to let Welles go.
But the point is, for the better part of a century, the Secret Service has understood the imperative need for tact and discretion in the handling of a seemingly endless variety of dalliances and improprieties by presidents and other high officials, lest embarrassment, or worse, result. Somehow, in Cartagena, to the embarrassment of everyone, including the president of the United States, some of its members threw all that experience right out the window.
Gregory J. Wallance, a lawyer and writer in New York, is the author of "America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy," from which this essay is adapted.