Sunday, January 24, 2010

In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Every day the Secret Service protects the President, keeping him away from enemies that might want to try to kill him or cause him and his family harm. But who are they, where do they come from, and what do they say the Presidents are really like when they are away from the public?

Speaking with actual Secret Service Agents, Ronald Kessler spills the beans about what goes on behind the scenes in the secret service, from the true characters of the Presidents as seen by their agents, to the surprising ways the Secret Service has protected the President, both from threats, and from their own wives.

Not only does the Secret Service protect the President, but also the Presidential candidates on the campaign trail. This is good, because it gets the candidates used to being protected by the Secret service, heading up to the time when one of them will actually become President, and have the Secret Service guarding him 24/7. The same goes for the Vice Presidents and their family.

This book is packed with lots of interesting information, from the secret service code names of the Presidents and their first ladies. The President and First Lady's code names start with the same letter. President Obama, for instance, is Renegade and his wife, Michelle is Renaissance. This even extends to their children, Sasha and Malia are code named Radiance and Rosebud.

Sometimes, the names are descriptive- Lynn Cheney, an author, asked for the Codename Author, and her husband, an avid fisherman, took the name Angler. Sarah Palin got Denali and her husband Todd, Driller. George W. Bush had "Tumbler", but asked to be "Trailblazer" instead.

But in addition to the fluff, there is a lot of more interesting information. For one, that the Secret Service is understaffed, and has a problem retaining agents- because the bosses in the Secret Service are unexpectedly severe about when and where the agents work- and worse, it's run like a fiefdom, so if an agent has friends or contacts in the upper echelons, he or she is golden and gets what they want. If not, they are SOL.

Because of this problem, which no one in the Secret Service wants to admit to, the quality of the Secret Service agents have declined- not precipitously, but there is a definite lack of superior agents in the service. They still have good agents, but unless something is done, the security of the Presidents could suffer because of the Service not being willing to see what's wrong or able to do something about it.

This was an incredibly engaging book, giving us a look inside the Secret Service and the people who protect the President. I learned a number of interesting things- like how the Secret Seryice are treasury agents, originally created to track down counterfeiters- but their original part-time protection of Grover Cleveland eventually became a mission to protect the President, then Vice-President and finally not only the President and Vice-President, their wives and children, but also the Presidential candidates as well.

Some of the things I found amusing included the name "Denali" as the Secret Service codename for Sarah Palin. Is it just a coincidence that reordered, it spells "Denial"? And her husband's codename being "Driller" when her constant refrain was "Drill, baby, drill"? Also interesting is the stories of the Presidents as they were in real life. Carter, who would go to his office at 5 AM so he could tell people so- but then he'd nap once he got there! And it's not just Kennedy and Clinton who have had affairs in the White House- or used Secret Service agents to cover up their infidelities- LBJ was also sowing wild oats in the White House, and some members of Congress as well.

My biggest complaint about this book, is that there is very little of substance in it. It's like reading a supermarket tabloid, filled with gossip- we never get the agent's insights into how the President dealt with any matters of substance during their time in office. It's all gossip, and how much the agents didn't like Presidents or first families that treated them like excrement on the side of the road. They don't have to like you to protect you, but it does make it easier for them if you do. Also complaints about what was wrong with the Secret Service were scattered all over the book instead of being grouped in one place, and several sections were poorly written.

If you are looking for endless gossip about the Presidents, this is definitely the book to get. Some parts of it have been told before- like the history of the secret service and what they do. As Treasury agents, they investigate financial crimes, but this book is strictly about their protection aspect. The gossip will definitely keep your attention, but it's very shallow and seems strangely biased towards the Republican Presidents (yet the Reagans were apparently quite a piece of work). Recommended, just don't expect to get anything very deep out of it.

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