Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency, by Philip H. Melanson, Ph.D. with Peter F. Stevens

The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency, by Philip H. Melanson, Ph.D. with Peter F. Stevens

The Secret Service has two main areas of responsibility: counterfeiting and protection. Interestingly, the more familiar protection functions didn’t start until 1894 (well after the Lincoln assassination) when President Cleveland was taking a trip to Colorado. The Agency was investigating a gang that had issued anarchist threats and assigned a couple of agents to Cleveland for the duration of his trip, stepping into the realm of presidential protection for the first time. It wasn’t until Truman was in office that congress officially approved of this mission (the prevailing thought of the time was the President was a man of the people, just another citizen, and providing special protection was tantamount to an imperial guard) so from 1894 to 1951 the body guarding that occurred was far outside of the agency’s mandate and technically against the law. When signing the bill authorizing the security, President Truman quipped, “Well it is wonderful to know that the work of protecting me has at last become legal.”

The first few chapters of this book were really interesting. They told the story of how an anti-counterfeiting organization grew to encompass presidential security and the early history of the Agency. When the narrative reaches the JFK assassination, though, the book goes off the rails. Instead of a history, it becomes a diatribe of everything wrong with the Service. Yes, there were many mistakes made during that fateful trip to Dallas, but they have been nauseatingly dissected in many, many other books. Briefly going through them again here is expected, but special care was seemingly taken here to make the agency look foolish. The same is done in a later chapter about the Reagan assassination attempt, but because of the obvious heroism of Agent McCarthy (the man who leaped in front of the President and took a bullet) and the fact that Reagan was wounded only because of a freak ricochet, the complaints come off as petty. In fact, the author seemed to me to be petulant that the public wasn’t more outraged at the errors the Service enacted that day. The most obvious example of negativity towards the Service came during a chapter discussing media coverage and public-relations. A Discovery Channel documentary entitled Inside the Secret Service was described like this: “A flattering puff piece, it portrayed the Agency as patriotic, competent, apolitical, and dedicated while glossing over the Service’s many problems and failures. There were no critics or detached analysts.” The snobbish, implied “unlike the meaningful, important book you currently have in your hands” came through loud and clear, causing me to roll my eyes for the umpteenth time. Discovering that the author uses his own earlier published works as references didn’t help the credibility, either. Typos and poor editing abound as well, giving the subtle feel of a clandestine manifesto created under the cover of darkness as opposed to an objective history.

To be fair, I would have been annoyed by a fawning look at the Secret Service as well, one that ignored that they did in fact lose JFK and allowed Reagan to be injured. What I wanted, though, was a balanced history that devoted as much space to the successful missions (two attempts on Ford and one on Truman were covered in a matter of a paragraph or two) as to the unsuccessful ones. Once we get into the modern era of the Service where presidential security becomes paramount, the other duties of protecting the federal money supply fade into obscurity. While I certainly know a lot more about the Agency than I did before, I was still quite disappointed at the stilted look presented here.

First Sentence:
On July 5, 1865, in Washington, D.C., a tall, wiry man raised his right hand.

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