Philadelphia Inquirer – April 4, 2012
Mitt Romney has been dubbed “Javelin”; Rick Santorum, “Petrus.” It’s an election year, and Secret Service agents are guarding another set of candidates. The lighthearted news coverage of this development has focused on such tidbits as the current and historic code-names: Truman was referred to as “General,” Reagan as “Rawhide.” The rest of the first family’s code-names, we are told, usually begin with the same letter as the president’s: Those of Reagan’s children included “Radiance” and “Riddler.”
A Secret Service agent watches as presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets people at a campaign event in Madison, Wis., this week. STEVEN SENNE/ Associated Press
Although we hire the president and we can fire him, he and his family also function as our “royals.” We are endlessly fascinated by their personal lives and other goings-on in the White House. The Secret Service not only plays a central role in this pageant; the agency encourages it. The more carefully the president’s moves are choreographed, the easier it is to keep an eye on him.
It was not always so. Nineteenth-century Americans would have been horrified to see the chief executive, his family, and even the candidates for the job surrounded by such a huge security apparatus. They took great pride in the fact that their freely chosen presidents did not have to be protected from their fellow citizens.
When President John Tyler visited New York in the 1840s, he said, “My bodyguard I desire to be the people, and none but the people. That is the bodyguard that a plain, republican president of the United States can alone desire to have.”
For more than a hundred years after Washington, presidents (with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) were essentially unguarded. On the morning of his inauguration in 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked alone from his boardinghouse down Pennsylvania Avenue to the stands where he was sworn in as the third president of the United States. There were no escorts, barriers, sharpshooters, or decoys.
One hundred sixty-eight years later, the total force deployed for Nixon’s first inauguration numbered around 15,000. The rooftops of buildings along the parade route swarmed with snipers, two helicopters filled with agents hovered over the presidential motorcade, and the streets were lined with police and military personnel.
The assassination of William McKinley, in 1901, was a turning point. One of his predecessors, Grover Cleveland, responded to the news with “stunning amazement that in free America, blessed with a government consecrated to popular welfare and contentment, the danger of assassination should ever encompass the faithful discharge of the highest official duty.” Worse, Cleveland added, McKinley was the third president to have been gunned down “within the memory of men not yet old.”
Following McKinley’s death, Congress informally requested that the Secret Service protect the president, but it wasn’t until several years later that it voted to fund the effort. Lawmakers’ hesitation stemmed not from a lack of concern about the president’s safety, but from a deep-seated reluctance to give up a vision of American society’s exceptional nature. No one wanted to admit that the president of the United States needed palace guards, as if he were an Old World emperor or king.
The winner of this election will take office in 2013, exactly 100 years after Congress voted for permanent protection for the president. Sadly, beside his contemporary European counterparts, America’s chief executive appears more regal than ever.