Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In the President's Secret Service - Ronald Kessler

Livia picked up this book for research purposes (she’s writing a proposal in which one of the main characters is a Secret Service agent), and it looked interesting, so I decided to read it, too.

I admit, my knowledge of the Secret Service comes mostly from movies and TV and the occasional political thriller. I know some of the history (founded by Allan Pinkerton during the Civil War, etc.), but IN THE PRESIDENT’S SECRET SERVICE focuses on both the more recent past (assassination attempts in the Twentieth Century and beyond) and the day-to-day activities of the Secret Service, as well as their training and procedures.

Somewhat surprisingly, much of the book is an indictment of Secret Service management, which, the author claims, is asking its agents to do more and more without giving them the resources to perform their jobs at the highest possible level. Much of the agents’ equipment, including the weapons they carry, verges on being obsolete and can’t match up with the firepower possessed by modern-day terrorists. Severely overworked, the agents don’t have time for the necessary training, either. Kessler pulls no punches in this part of the book, although the actual field agents come in for plenty of praise.

But let’s face it, what we’re all really interested in is the gossip, and Kessler delivers, again pulling no punches as he tells how the agents who work with them every day feel about the high-level politicians that it’s their job to protect. From JFK on, Kessler dishes the dirt about all the presidents (and their families) and reveals who was really a phony and a big jerk, who was a lot smarter than he seemed, who cooperated with and respected the Secret Service, who went out of their way to make the agents’ jobs a lot more difficult than they had to be, and who was just downright weird. Some of it is very surprising, some of it not at all.

The big question with any book like this, of course, is how accurate it is. And my answer is: I don’t have a clue. I’m no Washington insider. Kessler is, having been a long-time journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the author of more than a dozen previous books about politics, espionage, and business. No doubt some of the things in this book are spin and exaggerations, but my hunch is that there’s a considerable amount of truth in it as well.

Regular readers of this blog know that I hardly ever venture into the realm of politics. IN THE PRESIDENT’S SECRET SERVICE is remarkably non-partisan, though, and more than that, it’s very entertaining and informative. You can take some of what Kessler has to say with a grain of salt if you want, but that’s true of anyone who writes about politics, history, or current events. I enjoyed the book, and if you have any interest in the subject matter, I don’t hesitate to recommend it.


RJR said...

James, I've used several Kessler books for research over the years and found them useful.


James Reasoner said...

I was thinking that I might read some more of his books. This one is pretty readable, not like a lot of non-fiction. Livia has another Secret Service book I've looked at, but I think it would be a real slog getting through it. I don't have enough patience for slogging anymore.

acoe said...

Kessler is also the author of fawning books about Bush II and his wife Laura. So you can draw your own conclusions about how "non-partisan" he is.

James Reasoner said...

I haven't read any of Kessler's other books. In this one, the sections on the various politicians and their families are solely about how the Secret Service agents he interviewed feel about them. Some Democrats were well-liked and made the agents' job easy, and others weren't and didn't. The same things are true of Republicans. I don't see how you can get any more non-partisan than that, in this particular book.

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