The party animals of the Secret Service
WASHINGTON (By Maureen Dowd, NYT) May 28, 2012 — The Secret Circus, as the traveling Secret Service extravaganza is known, had come to town. And the pack of macho Secret Service agents were hitting the clubs, drinking and hanging out with comely young women in alluring outfits.
That was half a century ago in Fort Worth at the Press Club and a joint called the Cellar, where the waitresses wore only underwear. The carousing started after midnight on Nov. 22, 1963, the day the agents were charged with keeping President Kennedy and Jackie safe in Dallas.
Boys will be boys. And no one doubts that being an agent is a tough job. John Malkovich, playing an aspiring presidential assassin in “In the Line of Fire,” muses to Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent: “Watching the president, I couldn’t help wondering why a man like you would risk his life to save a man like that. You have such a strange job. I can’t decide if it’s heroic or absurd.”
The heroism is captured in Robert Caro’s latest book on Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” which vividly retells the story of the day J.F.K. was assassinated.
Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent in the vice president’s car, grabbed “Johnson’s right shoulder, yanked him roughly down toward the floor in the center of the car, as he almost leaped over the front seat, and threw his body over the vice president, shouting again, ‘Get down! Get down,’ ” Caro writes, adding L.B.J. said he would never forget Youngblood’s “knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”
The absurd was captured on Wednesday in a Senate hearing into Secret Service shenanigans, focused on the drinking and prostitution scandal in Cartagena last month, but also touching on an incident in 2008 when an on-duty uniformed agent was arrested for soliciting a D.C. police officer posing as a hooker, and an episode in 2002 when three to five agents were ordered home from the Salt Lake City Olympics for misconduct involving alcohol and under-age girls in their hotel rooms.
As The Washington Post reported, noting some Secret Service employees call the road show “the Secret Circus,” one 29-year-old agent who was forced to resign after the Cartagena meshugas is protesting he did not know the two women he brought to his room were prostitutes. Like Dudley Moore in “Arthur,” he just thought he was doing great with them.
Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director, came across like a credulous Boy Scout under rigorous questioning from Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel.
He said he was sure, given the Secret Service had 200 people in Colombia and only 12 bad apples, that someone on his team would have reported the misconduct — even if Arthur Huntington, the cheapskate cheating agent, hadn’t started a ruckus by handing his hooker $28 for a night worth $800.
Collins reminded Sullivan he had told the panel about a survey of personnel in the Secret Service — a muscular fraternity that indulges a wheels-up, rings-off swagger — showing only about 58 percent would report ethical misconduct.
“I came away with a sense of disbelief Mr. Sullivan is still maintaining this was an isolated event,” she told me. “I think he’s an extraordinarily honorable person who is so blindly devoted to the Secret Service he just cannot conceive of agents’ acting in a way he would personally never act.
“It’s going to make it difficult for him to truly solve the problem if he can’t admit there was a problem.”
Collins professed a special fondness for law enforcement officers. “But most of the ones I know who have had 29 years of service have a less sanguine view of human nature,” she said. “That’s what Mark Sullivan totally lacks.”
Dryly, she noted: “Thank goodness it was just prostitutes. They could have been spies planting equipment. They could have blackmailed or drugged agents. This is Colombia, for heaven’s sake.”
Collins talked about the actions that led her to believe the culture of the agency was warped.
“The 12 agents didn’t go out on the town together in one group, where arguably some could have gotten swept away with what was going on,” she said. “They went in small groups but with the same end results.
“And they made no effort whatsoever to conceal what they were doing. They were registered under their own names. The women registered under their own names. They didn’t go to an alternative place or to the women’s homes. They went back to the hotel where the other agents were staying, with no fear of ramifications if they were caught.”
Pronouncing herself “astonished,” Collins said she would keep after Sullivan to treat the matter more seriously.
“I hate to use the word naïve, but ...”