The Kennedy Detail
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Friday, July 1, 2011

Life With The Secret Service

The Obamas have a head start among First Families in learning to live with the Secret Service's constant presence.

How would you feel if a frowning man in dark sunglasses and wires in his ears grabbed the back of your pants every time you walked into a crowd? That's just one of many less-than-enjoyable aspects of presidential life that the Obama family have been living with, ever since they were christened with their recently-released official Secret Service code names: Renegade (Barack), Renaissance (Michelle), Radiance (Malia), and Rosebud (Sasha).

The Obamas have had some time to adjust; they have had a Secret Service detail since May 2007, the earliest one ever assigned to a presidential contender. The detail was assigned because of concerns that the African-American candidate might face greater dangers. Those concerns were not misplaced, as evidenced by the discovery of several plots to do the candidate harm this fall.

The Obamas aren't the only ones keeping the Secret Service busy. Since 9/11, the ranks of the protected have swelled to include key cabinet and congressional leaders, and even their assistants. Files are kept on some 40,000 U.S. citizens, including about 400 deemed by the agency to pose a specific threat. Using gadgets that would make James Bond envious, agents sweep offices and hotel rooms for surveillance devices, test food for poison and measure air quality to check for dangerous bacteria. The cute code names might make for good stories, but they're functionally obsolete; Secret Service agents actually rely on modern encryption technology to help keep discussions about those they protect confidential.

Of course, all the technology and planning in the world can't protect a candidate or president if he won't do what he's told. Some politicians have been cooperative—Dwight Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, for example—while others have gone rogue; Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson all loved to make mischief. What can agents expect from the new First Family? With the help of two valuable books on the subject—"The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency" and "Standing Next To History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service"—and interviews with an agency staffer, NEWSWEEK compiled a tip sheet of anecdotes from administrations-past illustrating the sundry ways Renegade, Renaissance, Radiance, and Rosebud might manage to stir up trouble for the folks in the dark glasses.

Lesson 1: Expect the Unexpected
At a pet show at Ethel Kennedy's Virginia estate, Secret Service agents had to scoop up and whisk away Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy when Suzy, a 6,000 pound elephant, charged in her direction. With Amy in his arms, the agent jumped over a split-rail fence—which the rogue elephant soon splintered—and carted the First Daughter to safety inside Kennedy's house, while crowds scattered and trainers struggled to get Suzy back under control.

Lesson 2: Agents Protect, Not Serve
President Jimmy Carter, accustomed to asking his state trooper guards to do errands for him, initially used his Secret Service detail as bag carriers—much to their dismay. He eventually backed off, but other presidents have requested such favors as babysitting and providing a fourth for a bridge game; all of which, agents have complained, detracted from their ability to do their jobs. Jackie Kennedy was the opposite: after JFK died, her children continued to have protection until they were 18. She insisted that the guards remain as inconspicuous as possible—and that they not pick up after or run errands for her children.

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