Patti Davis is the author of, most recently, “The Earth Breaks in Colors” and is the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
I was 28 years old and single when my father was elected president. As you might imagine, I was less than thrilled when heavily armed men in dark suits arrived in my life and basically said, “Hi. We are the next four years of your life.” I haven’t done a survey on this, but I think I might hold the record as the most difficult protectee in modern Secret Service history. I sped up to get through yellow traffic lights, leaving the agents to try to catch up. I glared at them when they followed too closely on dates (which were rarely repeated because what guy wants to be trailed by agents?). I was very bratty and very difficult. One afternoon, after I’d turned into Danica Patrick on a city street and left them so far behind they had to use sirens to catch me, my detail leader confronted me.
“You might want to think about the fact that if something awful happens,” I recall him saying, “these guys have to put themselves between you and danger. They literally have to take a bullet for you.”
It was a sobering moment, and I did try to be less of a brat, though it was not an immediate transformation.
I’ve thought about his words often lately, as President Trump has huffed and puffed about the government shutdown, threatening to let it go on for months, even years. I thought about it when he described being alone in the White House over Christmas and looking out at men with machine guns. He made a quip about the machine guns — trying, I guess, to be funny. But there is nothing funny about this shutdown. The agents protecting him and his family are showing up, without pay, for a job in which the central theme is: If bullets fly, step in front of them.
He has not said a word about what is happening to these agents because of the government shutdown, which he said he would own. These are men and women with families, with bills to pay, who went through rigorous training to be accepted into the Secret Service, who are serious and dedicated, and don’t deserve to be treated as indentured servants whose livelihoods are immaterial.
My eventual relationship with the agents who trailed me was complex. After all, they knew more than anyone else about my life. While the feeling of intrusion never left, dependence softened the edges of discomfort. When my father was shot, the first shoulder I wept on was that of my detail leader.
My parents used to spend Christmas at the White House because they didn’t want their agents to have to leave their families over the holiday. Contrast that with a president who flippantly talks about letting the shutdown continue and who never says a word about the agents who are guarding his life and who don’t know when they will be paid.
People are, in the end, not judged by the deals they make or the “wins” that give them bragging rights. They are known by how they treat others. I don’t know what it takes for someone to want to be in a job that’s defined by risk, such as the Secret Service. I know I don’t have that kind of fortitude or bravery. Wouldn’t it be nice if the president of the United States showed some empathy for the agents whose job it is to protect him? But then that would indicate he is a person who cares, and he’s spent decades demonstrating that he doesn’t.