Secret Service agents protect presidents, vice presidents, the entire first family, and even candidates on the campaign trail. Due to the nature of the job, these agents remain attached at the hip to the people they’re sworn to protect. There are obvious downsides to being in the Secret Service (mostly regarding the secretive aspects of the job), but these men and women also get to travel the nation and bear witness to many incredible events.
Initially founded in 1865 as an agency to stop counterfeiting, the duties of the Secret Service have expanded during the last 150 years. Tasked with protection and investigation, Secret Service agents not only learn a great deal about the elected officials they guard, but they also possess a wealth of insight into the underpinnings of the political process.
Luckily, some agents have talked about their experiences and shared their stories, which offer a fascinating look into what it’s really like to guard the leader of the free world.
Presidents And Agents Can Bond Over Similar Interests
President Ronald Reagan loved to ride horses on his ranch in California, an activity that Secret Service Agent John Barletta shared with his boss. Barletta spent hours with Reagan, riding horses and talking. Barletta still had a job to do – something made more difficult given the open spaces they traversed; but it was all private land, which made keeping Reagan secure a bit easier.
Generally, Reagan treated his Secret Service agents well. After Reagan’s death, Joe Petro, former head of Reagan’s detail, told The Morning Call:
We worked so well together. The whole relationship was a projection of him, how he was… He was a great guy to be around. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
Presidential Hobbies Are A Pain For The Secret Service
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Bill Clinton was a regular jogger by the time he became president in 1992, something that was difficult for the Secret Service to navigate. The Secret Service hadn’t really taken part in any fitness activities with presidents, and while Clinton wasn’t very fast and agents didn’t have to be in great shape at first, soon agents had to up their game.
In addition to running, agents also had to carry guns and radios while scanning the streets for any threats. It was a frustrating situation for the Secret Service, one that veteran agent Dan Emmett wrote about in his book Within Arm’s Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service. Emmet called it a “nightmare…the worst thing for the Secret Service is to take a sitting president into public when no one has been swept, and anyone could be out there.”
To keep Clinton safe during his jogs, the Secret Service tried to get the president to run on a track or on military bases, but he refused. Jogging was about public relations as much as health, and Clinton wanted to be seen. The Secret Service staged agents throughout the streets of Washington, DC, and other cities, offered “guest run” opportunities for well-connected citizens, and mapped out approved routes for Clinton.
Agents Can Be Put In Very Awkward Situations
President Lyndon Johnson was considered “uncouth” and lashed out when agents didn’t do what he wanted. When Johnson ordered an agent to jump the curb while driving to an event in which they were running late, the agent refused. The next day, they got fired. Johnson’s secretary intervened, and they kept their job.
Johnson’s affairs were difficult for agents to navigate, as well. One agent alleged Johnson had sex with one of his secretaries in the Oval Office, and he derided his agents for not warning him that his wife was on her way to visit. Lady Bird ended up walking in on the pair, so an alarm system was installed to prevent it from happening again.
Presidents Have Good Days And Bad Days, Just Like Everyone Else
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Dan Emmett, former agent and author of Within Arm’s Length: A Secret Service Agent’s Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President, protected George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. When he was ultimately asked who his favorite was, he refused to answer. According to Emmett, they each had personal and professional highs and lows, with good and bad days.
Not all secret service members were as professional or calculated when it came to reviewing their time with their respective president. When former Secret Service agents discuss Richard Nixon, many call him one of the “strangest” presidents. Depressed and paranoid, Nixon allegedly did some odd things, including eating dog biscuits.
Local Law Enforcement Can Be A Big Help For Protective Duty
When Bill Clinton visited Russia in 1993, Secret Service agents protected the president as he worked crowds in Moscow, Kiev, and other cities. Clinton, prone to stopping his limo and spontaneously jumping out, exhausted his agents as he shook hands amid unfamiliar surroundings. Luckily for agents like Dan Emmett, the people in Russia showed deference to Clinton that wasn’t common in many other countries.
Attributed to the legacy of Communism, people in Russia moved out of Clinton’s way instead of surging at him. And they moved when the agents told them to and didn’t question authority. According to Emmett, it was “perfect crowd control – no muss, no fuss.”
Agents Often Doubled As Babysitters And Chauffeurs
Amy Carter was only 9 when her father got elected president of the United States. For the Secret Service, guarding Amy meant escorting her to friends’ houses and supervising her evening activities, often putting in extra hours to do so. When Amy wanted to go to a friend’s house instead of being brought home after school – as the agents were instructed to do – she would call her father and put him on the phone. President Jimmy Carter would often say, “[take her] anywhere she wants to go.”
Amy was also known to purposely throw crumbs on the floor for agents to clean up. Still, she wasn’t as bad as her brother. James Carter III, known as “Chip,” was recently separated, drinking, and picking up women to bring back to the White House during his father’s presidency. He’s considered one of the least-liked presidential children ever protected by the Secret Service.
Some VIPs Liked Agents So Much, They Threw Them Parties
Spiro Agnew, President Richard Nixon’s vice president until 1973, was described as a bit of a “cop buff” by former Secret Service agent Chuck Vance. According to Vance, Agnew enjoyed spending time with agents and their families. He even threw parties for them and in return, “they would throw parties for him.”
Agnew was known for having a good relationship with agents, but expressed concern that they were talking about him behind his back. Agnew, while having an affair with one of his staffers, would only stay at hotels when the Secret Service arranged for his lover to have an adjacent room.
Presidents Rarely Say ‘Please’ Or ‘Thank You’
According to author and former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy, President Lyndon Johnson treated the Secret Service like “hired hands.” On one occasion at Johnson’s Texas ranch, the President put his dog, Yuki, out while shouting “Secret Service! Throw Yuki back in when he’s finished.”
The demand was nothing new from Johnson, and while agents resented the request – McCarthy notes there was no “please” or “thank you” involved – they did as they were told. Because it was raining that night, they returned a very muddy Yuki to the house and “the next morning the President awoke to find the silk sheets on his bed quite a mess.” They were then instructed to “not only to put the dog back inside after he had been out, but to clean him up first.”
Chuck Vance took a different approach to demands he deemed inappropriate. When Hubert Humphrey asked him to walk his dog, Vance replied, “I’m sorry, Mr. Vice President, we’re not allowed to do that. But we’ll be glad to walk you, sir.”
One Agent Found Love Within The First Family
Agent Chuck Vance protected Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew before being sent to California to protect Gerald Ford after he left office. While on detail in California, Vance and Ford’s daughter, Susan, began a relationship in 1977. A secret at first, their relationship was tumultuous, and Vance was transferred once Betty Ford discovered it. She was appalled because Vance was divorced and had two children.
Agents Often Blend Into The Surroundings
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There’s an unspoken, unbreakable trust between agent and president. Because Secret Service agents remain silent observers, they get exposed to information and situations that may make them uncomfortable. Presidents may even forget a Secret Service agent is in the room, something that former agent Dennis McCarthy recalled when he was guarding President Richard Nixon.
McCarthy once saw Nixon crying as the Watergate scandal began to plague his presidency.
Agents could also see affairs, drinking, drugs, and other behaviors that they witnessed out of necessity – they couldn’t leave – and because their presence was so common that their wards didn’t give it a second thought.
Reckless Presidents Make An Agent’s Job Much More Difficult
Secret Service agents often deal with presidents that can be somewhat careless with their own safety. President John F. Kennedy, for example, was considered particularly reckless. Agents recalled keeping Kennedy’s liaisons in check, especially when Jacqueline Kennedy was out of town.
On one occasion, according to Ronald Kessler’s In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, Secret Service members alerted the president that Jackie was returning to the White House sooner than expected. At the time, John was swimming with two female secretaries. He jumped out of the pool, handing a Secret Service agent his drink and saying, “Enjoy it; it’s quite good.”
Kennedy’s risky behavior carried from his personal to his professional life. In Dallas, TX, on November 22, 1963, John had his staff tell his Secret Service detail that he would ride in an open convertible unless it was raining.
Presidential recklessness can also stem from a desire to escape. Teddy Roosevelt supposedly hid from his agents, and Woodrow Wilson actively tried to lose his agents when he was in a crowd.
Agents Get Yelled At Just For Doing Their Jobs
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When the Secret Service is protecting the president, vice president, or first families, they have to keep the individual safe, even when that means keeping the public and the press at bay. Agents that protected Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in 1976 were chided by Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, for not allowing the media to get quality pictures of the candidate.
Powell recalled in the Los Angeles Times:
[I was] hanging over the side of the truck screaming and shouting at the agent, who is ignoring me…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.
His efforts did not go over well. The agents talked to a nearby police officer who escorted Powell from the scene.
Presidents Like Golf – And Secret Service Get To Tag Along
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President Dwight D. Eisenhower played golf as his main non-presidential activity, something veteran Secret Service agent Clint Hill observed on many occasions. Hill recalled Eisenhower stashing his cleats in the Oval Office so he could practice hitting and putting around the White House lawn when he had free time.
As Eisenhower hit a ball, the President had his valet, Sergeant John Moaney, retrieve it. At first, Hill felt bad for Moaney, but after a while, he realized the aide enjoyed the task. When Eisenhower was on a public golf course, a Secret Service agent accompanied him with a Thompson submachine gun stowed in a golf bag.
Agents felt bad for President Nixon when he tried to play golf. Nixon was really bad at the game, and according to Ronald Kessler’s The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents, one agent said, “When you saw him play golf, you were embarrassed for him. I mean it was awful.” Eventually, Nixon gave up the game, calling it a “game for lazy bastards.”
George HW Bush liked to play golf on public courses, which was a security risk. As Dan Emmett, a former Secret Service agent, put it, “There is all this open space, and you have other people playing because you cannot just shut down the course.”
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