Review: In the President’s Secret Service

The humongous, full title of this book by Ronald Kessler is In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. And as the title suggests, it aims to tell the secret story of the equally secret service, gleaned by meticulous research, high quality reporting, cross-referencing each story with multiple sources, and maintaining a tone of level headed objectivity without taking sides.

Ha ha, no. Seriously. No. While it’s true that Kessler does aim to tell exciting and interesting stories about the Secret Service based on his extensive interviews with current and former Agents, what we end up with here doesn’t bear much resemblance to anything derived from sound journalism or rigorous research. Instead, the author seems most interested in taking quotes (often anonymous) from Agents (often disgruntled) that are assumed to be true without any kind of verification and usually without any kind of qualification. Think “tabloid.”

That’s bad enough but Kessler seems to be intent on wringing every bit of sensationalism he can out of the book, usually in the form of painting extreme pictures of the Presidents and other people protected by the Secret Service. So you get stories about how Jimmy Carter was aloof with the staff and disingenuous with the public, or how the Bushes sent the Agents steaks every year, and how Al Gore couldn’t stop eating cookies. Or how the appropriately named President Johnson would walk around the White House with his, um, namesake hanging out. Some of these are entertaining, but are tainted by their apocryphal nature, and Kessler’s judgmental tone.

Kessler also makes the frankly absurd mistake of thinking that I’m more interested in employee relations problems within the Secret Service than I am hearing about how they foiled assassination attempts or organize security measures. I sympathize, for example, that Agents have a hard time getting vacation time off or transfers or that their bosses are unsympathetic about all the overtime they’re working. But I really don’t want to read a whole book about it and I really don’t want you to try to convince me of how terrible this all is. The author goes to great lengths to rail against the Secret Service management about all this and more, and frankly it’s just not interesting and the bombastic tone of it all is pretty off putting.

The book does have some interesting bits, like an overview of the methods the Agents use to profile threats, the crazy hardware powering the Presidential motorcade, and a few good stories about catching would-be assassins. But those are buried under tedious discussions of stuff I don’t care about and an annoying, judgmental tone that relies on thin evidence and hearsay.

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