WASHINGTON — When you have a young woman screaming in a hallway about some sort of grievance she has with you, you have a problem. Even a Secret Service agent, surrounded by his buddies, has a problem. I know about this sort of thing from my work in the archives pursuant to my researches as a presidential historian.
One thinks back to the late 1940s of Elizabeth Bentley, an American spying for the Soviet Union. She raised an intolerable ruckus outside a hotel room with one, possibly two, Soviet intelligence operatives — both male. Her involvement with one had been romantic, but the cad let her down. Possibly he did not pay for her turkey sandwich. Possibly he left other bills cooling on the table. At any rate, there was hell to pay. She had a set of lungs on her like a bull moose and a face to boot. When she let out a yell it was deafening. Of course, the Russians were terrified. Shortly thereafter she renounced Communism, and they were glad to get back to Stalin’s Russia.
Another example is more recent, and in this the Secret Service was almost without doubt innocent. Miss Monica Lewinsky was left to cool her heels in a White House gatehouse while her truelove dallied with another vamp. She caught on and fumed. She looked menacingly at the furniture. The Secret Service is trained for dangerous operations, but this was close to the limit. Luckily she was admitted to the White House before she did real damage, but then all hell broke loose for poor Bill. It is a mistake to toy with an irascible woman, even an irascible woman of easy virtue.
I do not know the details of the imbroglio involving the Secret Service agent who attempted to stiff the Colombian cutie on her bill in steamy Cartagena. We shall have to await Hollywood’s treatment of it, but he acted very unwisely. We do know that as many as ten other Secret Service agents, along with members of the military, were playing animal house with him. They apparently planned to party when they landed in Colombia. One agent even took a girl back to the hotel where the president was to stay a few days later. This suggests that the event was not isolated. Apparently a whole culture of laxness has descended upon the once proud Secret Service. I cannot imagine such goings on during the Reagan years, when I was familiar with the President’s bodyguards. They were conscientious to the utmost, and, as they proved, brave. I had them and something like 240 other guards and White House personnel in and around my home when the President came to dinner in 1988. They were the best.
What has happened and when did it start? Did it begin with Bill Clinton? I rather think so. One of the Arkansas state troopers with whom I became familiar suggested as much. He was a well-educated man and at one time a friend of Bill’s. He told me, “Clinton’s treating his Secret Service detail the way he treated his Arkansas trooper detail.” My friend was referring to Clinton’s propensity for giving his bodyguards the “residuals,” the women that he had tired of or that did not measure up.
I have known Secret Service agents as far back as the Nixon years. They were always first rate and straight as an arrow. They were devoted to their principal. I remember when Spiro Agnew had to leave the vice-presidency, his Secret Service detail on their off-hours moved his effects from his office. I doubt such loyalty is practiced today. A source for The American Spectator tells the indefatigable Jeffrey Lord that owing to Liberal bugaboos such as affirmative action for minorities and women, “the bar was lowered significantly. Now that affects ALL hires of the Service regardless of race.” As a consequence, when combined with “the societal attitudes of the latest generations and their general lack of education, commitment and reality,” the result is a “dumbed down” agency. And our source goes on to say Cartagena was “only the tip of the iceberg.”
Can the Secret Service recover? Some are calling this scandal the worst in its history. Actually the Secret Service was born of scandal. Thomas Craughwell tells us in his book, Stealing Lincoln’s Body, that the agency was set up in 1865 to combat counterfeiting. Half the paper money in the Midwest was counterfeit. The Secret Service was successful in part because it hired as agents wayward counterfeiters. Such agents were great at putting the cuffs on active counterfeiters, but somehow the counterfeiters’ booty kept disappearing. The answer was to bring in incorruptible new leaders such as Chicago’s Chief of Police, Elmer Washburn, who brought with him his own kind of incorruptible agents, for instance, the agent who broke the plot by counterfeiters to steal President Abraham Lincoln’s body in 1876, Captain P. D. Tyrrell.
In a new biography of Lincoln’s son Robert, Giant in the Shadows, Jason Emerson demonstrates how under Washburn the Service arose from corruption and became a police force of the first rank. Tyrrell, my great-great-grandfather, though from remote Chicago, became “one of the service’s most outstanding operatives and later in his career would be considered one of the most distinguished law-enforcement officers in the country.” You will understand why I, for one, am hoping for an Elmer Washburn to appear.