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Inside the Secret ServiceBy Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
July 9, 1993
Things are very slow and then things are very fast. That is the Secret Service way.
Waiting, waiting, waiting ... then exploding forward, a mad dash, a sprint.
At 11 miles an hour the president glides away from the Texas School Book Depository. A slow motorcade. The wounds to the neck and the head come seconds apart -- you may even know the exact interval, 5.6 seconds, because these details are part of the lore. Only one Secret Service agent reacts -- Clint Hill sprints forward from the trailing car and grabs the bumper of the presidential limo just as the driver hits the gas. The agent hauls himself onto the back hood and grabs Jackie's hand as she crawls crazily backward on the hood in pursuit (goes the lore) of some fragment of her husband's skull. He gets her into the back seat again, and drapes his jacket over the president's head.
These horrible moments always happen so fast that the film or videotape must be shown in slow motion. Ronald Reagan turns in mid-wave. His smile fades. There's a sound like firecrackers. People are falling, twisting, pouncing, piling onto one another, and the limo peels away. Agent Jerry Parr, on top of Reagan in the back seat, frisks the president and feels no injury, then sees blood come from the mouth, oxygenated, a lung wound. He redirects the limo to the hospital, where three minutes later the president collapses, zero blood pressure. He would have died if they had taken much longer, the doctors say later.
Very slow. Then very fast.
That could have been your head blowing apart.
It's a line in the new movie starring Clint Eastwood. He plays an agent who suffers bitter memories of his failure to save the president that day in Dallas. Clint says, "Everything would be a whole lot different if I was half as paranoid as I am today."
With "In the Line of Fire," the Secret Service is finally given the full Hollywood treatment, long overdue. Americans are fascinated by the Secret Service, by the whole notion of these professional paranoiacs, these men and women who are trained to reflexively themselves in front of bullets, to "cover and evacuate." The Secret Service agent can be officially declared an American icon -- an icon being someone we might define as the kind of figure that Clint Eastwood would portray in a movie.
They wear shades (legendarily, if not always in fact) and dark suits and shiny shoes. They have wires in their ears and special buttons on their lapels and they talk into microphones in their sleeves, so that it looks as if they're speaking into a watch, like Dick Tracy.
They don't smile. They spend so much time not smiling it's almost riveting.
They know where your pressure points are, and can render you unconscious with a finger.
"Stand still, like you don't want to be moved," says an agent one day to a reporter.
The reporter stands rigid.
The agent steps forward and with the deft, almost delicate touch of two hands spins the reporter to one side and propels him away, nothing so ridiculous as a shove but every bit as effective. The agent knows how to shift a person's center of gravity. Roll the ball, as they say.
Agents have to be simultaneously observant and unimpressionable; they cannot be distracted by the irrelevant detail, the glamorous celebrity, the political rhetoric. Titles don't carry weight with the Secret Service; if someone pulls rank, an agent will politely note that John Wilkes Booth claimed to be a senator as he talked his way toward Lincoln.
It took three dead presidents to get the Secret Service into the protection businesss. The agency was created in 1865, the year Lincoln was murdered. Assignment: Stop counterfeiting. It still has that mission. Only after William McKinley was slain in 1901 did Congress decide that presidents needed special security, and the Secret Service, as the only national law enforcement agency, got the job.
There was a time when the Secret Service ran interference for adulterous presidents. Those days are long gone, as are the times when 300 agents seemed like enough to do the job. Now there are 2,000, including 145 women. Last year they had 1,550 investigations of threats against protectees.
The agency's job could be so much easier. Just lock the doors of the White House and don't let the president go anywhere. "The Secret Service would love to put him in a Sherman tank," says Bob Snow, who retired last year after 33 years as an agent and served as a consultant on the Eastwood movie.
Democracy forces compromise. Politicians like to mix it up, Bill Clinton more than most. The Secret Service cannot dictate security measures. It had wanted JFK to ride in a bubble-top limousine in Dallas, with agents on the bumpers. One of them would have been right in Lee Harvey Oswald's line of fire. The president refused. He wanted the open limo. The Secret Service had no power to overrule Kennedy's (last) wish.
The name of the agency is part of its romance. It's so dramatic, it's almost comic-bookish. But the Secret Service is suddenly getting a little less secret.
The agency, it turns out, is happy to get good pub.
"We'll provide technical assistance for virtually any project provided it portrays us in a positive light," says agent Carl Meyer, a Secret Service spokesman.
All the better if it's a Clint Eastwood movie.
"I can't think of many actors who could do a better portrayal than Clint Eastwood. It's the whole Clint Eastwood mystique," says Meyer.
An NBC-TV series this year, now canceled, dramatized cases from the agency's files, such as a plot to kill Ron Reagan, the president's son. After the first two episodes were made, the series's producers got Secret Service advice on scripts and some technical support. The Secret Service also offered advice to the makers of the movie "Dave," even though the agency wasn't thrilled that the script featured the Secret Service helping subvert the 25th Amendment.
The making of "In the Line of Fire" brought the Secret Service and Hollywood into a far more intimate relationship than had ever before existed. The Secret Service had "editorial control," says Meyer. That meant a line-by-line review of the script. The agency also helped with wardrobes and the filming of motorcades and campaign rallies.
"There aren't any secrets leaked in the movie," says agent Gayle Moore, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service. "The bottom line is the filmmakers came to us and said, 'We want this to be authentic, we want this to be accurate.' If someone's going to make a movie, they are going to make it with or without us, so why not become involved?"
Not everyone in the Secret Service shared that philosophy. Traditionally the agency has preferred to remain cloaked in silence and mystery. And there's no way that anyone at the Secret Service could avoid the copycat issue. No one can forget that John Hinckley was inspired by the fictitious Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 1976 movie "Taxi Driver."
"Is there a possibility of contagion? Sure there is. Are we concerned about it? Extremely. Is there anything we can do about it? No," says Meyer.
The movie producers, he says, wouldn't budge from the assassin-based plot.
"We wanted a different story plot," he says. "But it was not something we could negotiate."
He and Moore note that the killer's use of a plastic gun that doesn't register on a magnetometer is not realistic. The technology to make such a gun doesn't exist, they say.
In fact the movie, for all its input from the Secret Service, is hardly a documentary. In the first scene, Clint blows away a couple of goons with some classic one-handed no-look gunplay, then heads over to his favorite saloon to play cool jazz on the piano and knock back a few highballs. (Perhaps the scene where he fills out the paperwork ended on the cutting room floor.)
The Hollywood formulas keep firing away, rat-a-tat-tat: There's the obligatory hot young babe agent who is headed for Clint's embrace and may reform some of his sexist notions; there's the incredibly stupid presidential aide who won't cancel a risky event because "we're trailing 12 points in the latest polls"; there's the hero's partner, who, like all partners in Hollywood law enforcement dramas, ought to have Short Life Expectancy branded on his forehead; there's trembly-handed dangling from high places.
The most ludicrous scene is at the French Embassy, which serves no purpose other than to give Clint the chance to scope out the obligatory hot young babe agent, who is wearing a tight black dress, and say, "I was just wondering where you hide your firearm." Har har! So where does she hide her firearm? And her other gear? Slinky or not, women agents carry the same gear as the men. "A female agent couldn't dress like that," says Snow.
Real Secret Service agents spend a lot of time just standing around, waiting. They scan crowds, looking for someone who is probably not there, some hazard that probably doesn't exist.
"For all the glamour and excitement, there are countless hours of standing alone in deserted hotel corridors outside a door behind which the president is sleeping. And there is the constant stress of never knowing which face in the crowd might be another Lee Harvey Oswald or Arthur Bremer or Sara Jane Moore," writes Dennis McCarthy in his memoir, "Protecting the President: The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent."
McCarthy was the first agent to pounce on Hinckley that March day in 1981 (he's not to be confused with Tim McCarthy, who took a bullet after turning toward Hinckley and spreading his arms in a classic example of what a Secret Service agent is supposed to do). His book has a few marvelous details that only an agent would know. He describes Nixon sobbing in a hallway after addressing the nation about Watergate. He says H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, was "a power-hungry egotist who would do everything in his power to turn the Secret Service into his own private police force." He says Henry Kissinger wanted the agents to carry his briefcase. Once, Kissinger asked the agents to swim with him in shark-infested waters.
"If the sharks come on this beach, my agents will fight them," McCarthy answered.
The Service was not pleased with his book. "An embarrassment," says Snow.
But the details can be so delicious. In "Confessions of an Ex-Secret Service Agent: The Marty Venker Story," by George Rush, ex-agent Venker describes a trip by Nixon to the island of St. Martin. A beautiful woman kept wandering around the beach without a top, in full view of the president. "He'd wade out into the ocean and lurk with that nose just covered by the water. Like a crocodile."
Agents aren't supposed to talk. Ever. Which is why the rumors of this spring were so disconcerting to the Secret Service.
They started soon after the inauguration. Rumors about fights in the White House and so forth.
"D.C. was abuzz with all these unfounded stories about the personal lives of the Clintons," says Meyer. "We were cited as the sources for these baseless, unfounded rumors out there."
It was always a Secret Service agent saw this, a Secret Service agent saw that. One might have gotten the impression that a Secret Service agent assigned to the White House detail deserved combat pay.
But Meyer says the premise of the rumors is all wrong: The Secret Service gives the Clintons privacy when they are in the White House. The Clintons aren't watched.
"There's no way we would have been exposed to anything like that. That's why it's so ridiculous."
And besides ...
"There's no way we would have talked about it. There's an agency culture, an unwritten code," he says. "That was a pretty rough time for us."
But now there's the movie. Clint Eastwood to the rescue.