Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Author Interview: Ronald Kessler on 'In the President's Secret Service'

An unexpected story from an unexpected place -- CartageƱa, Colombia -- has dominated the nation's attention over the past few days.  It has been the subject of congressional hearings and newspaper headlines.  Last night, in fact, all three major broadcast networks led their evening news programs with the story.

The headlines sum up the tale:  "New Evidence Cited in Secret Service Prostitution Inquiry" (New York Times); "Secret Service prostitution scandal demands tough, complete investigation" (New York Daily News); "Secret Service scandal: An indication of broader organizational problems?" (Washington Post); "Bigger scandal in Latin America than US secret service: US drug hunger" (Christian Science Monitor); and "Report: Secret Service Bragged to Hookers About Protecting Obama" (The Atlantic Wire).

Ronald Kessler
Created by Abraham Lincoln to investigate currency counterfeiting (signing the authorizing legislation on the day of his assassination), the U.S. Secret Service remained part of the Department of the Treasury until 2003, when it became part of the new Department of Homeland Security. It became the protective security force for the President after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

According to Sean Hannity of Fox News, Ronald Kessler broke the Colombia prostitution story.

Kessler is the author of several best-selling books on law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. In February 2011, I interviewed Kessler about his 2009 book, In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, and asked him why he wrote it and what surprises he found in his research.  That book came out in paperback in 2010 and is also available in a Kindle edition.

‘Startling’ revelations
Kessler “wanted to find out what the presidents are really like and what better way [to do that] than to interview Secret Service agents,” he explained, noting that members of the Secret Service “are very secretive, even more secretive than the FBI or the CIA.”

Still, over more than forty years as a journalist, Kessler had developed sources within the agency and he was able to uncover information that was “pretty startling.”

His book goes back to the Eisenhower years but really picks up during the Johnson administration.

Lyndon Johnson, he said, “was totally out of control, a real maniac. He would sit on the toilet and defecate in front of aides.” During press conferences on his Texas ranch that included female journalists, he would “urinate in front of them.”

In addition to these intimidating actions, Kessler noted, Johnson “would have sex with his secretaries, even in the Oval Office” while “the press covered it up at the time.”

Phony and genuine

Jimmy Carter, he said, “was known as the phoniest president by the Secret Service. He would pretend to carry his own luggage in front of the cameras but actually the luggage was empty.”

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, “was genuine,” Kessler said, and he “liked to schmooze with the agents.”

Captains of Air Force One during the Reagan administration told Kessler that “every time Reagan got into the plane he would come into the cockpit and greet the captain. Jimmy Carter did that once in his whole four-year term.”

‘Bizarre tale’ of Bush 41
Among the more surprising tidbits that Kessler picked up was a “bizarre tale” from the George H.W. Bush administration.

President Bush was visiting Enid, Oklahoma, Kessler explained, and the Secret Service followed its normal protocol by checking with local law enforcement about any kind of threats that might have surfaced in the vicinity.

The local police “said there’s this psychic in town who has been incredibly reliable in the past and has actually led us to bodies of murder victims.”

This psychic, they said, had had a vision that Bush was going to be assassinated by a sniper at an overpass when he came to Enid.

Although they found it embarrassing to do so, the Secret Service followed up with the psychic and asked her if she had any other details.

To their surprise, Kessler recounted, she knew where the limousine that would transport the President was housed, even naming the precise hangar at a nearby Air Force base.

She also predicted that “when Bush gets out of the plane, he’s going to be wearing a sport jacket.”

The Secret Service agents thought “that was crazy” because the President would “be wearing a suit,” as Bush, a stickler for formality, always did.

But “sure enough,” Kessler continued, “when he got out of the plane, he was wearing a sport jacket. As a result of that, they changed the motorcade route so it would not go under any overpass and, of course, he was safe -- and he’s reading about it for the first time in this book.”

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