Once upon a time, the Secret Service had to be an all-embracing elite force — self-respecting, fearless and valiant. They were the ones who took charge of the security and decorum of every event that the president attends, and still do.
The Secret Service is more than a motorcade of shiny black limousines with dark tinted windows led by police motorcycles and a helicopter hovering around. They are among those paragons who could have been described by the third century BC Indian Machiavelli, Kautilya, belonging in high family, are influential, and well trained in arts. They have foresight, are wise, and are of strong memory, bold, enthusiastic, and dignified. Pure in character, their endurance unwavering. Free from procrastination and fickle-mindedness, they make others feel less mortal.
Let us backtrack and recall what had been an excellent source of pride and honor for every Secret Service guarding the president.
On that March afternoon in 1981, the 40th American president was struck by gunfire. The only one to survive, as six bullets from the revolver of a deranged man blasted then President Ronald Reagan and five of his aides, while they were leaving the Washington Hotel after a luncheon speech.
Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy turned to face the gunfire while remaining upright, as he had been rigorously trained to do and took a bullet meant for the president in his chest. Upon hearing the firecracker pop, one of Secret Service accompanying the president dived for the assailant and landed on his back as the last shot was fired. Another agent, instinctively shoved the president inside the car and fell on top of him to protect him, as he ordered the motorcade to proceed directly to the White House.
Then he ran his hands up and down the president’s body checking for bullet holes. Finding none, he radioed the Secret Service Command Post at the White House with the first report of the incident, which was inaccurate.
Inside the car and in pain, President Reagan cursed him, “You son of a bitch, you broke my ribs.”
As the agent saw that the President was coughing up oxygenated blood, he barked, “Get to George Washington Hospital, immediately!”
Arriving at the hospital, agents sprung out to carry the president inside, but the seventy-year=old president, although barely able to breath, refused their help. For himself and the office he represented, he needed to be seen walking on his power. Even when he was weak and disoriented from sudden loss of blood, he told the Secret Service to let him walk into the hospital alone and unassisted knowing that the television image of a wounded, helpless president would diminish him and throw the country into a panic. Only when he was safely beyond the press and cameras did he gasp for air and crumbled to the floor.
He could be physically protected by the Secret Service but only the President himself can solely protect his dignity.
Meanwhile at the White House bedlam ensued and everyone was shouting a question.
“Who’s running the government right now?” asked a reporter. “If the President goes into surgery and goes under anesthesia, would Vice President Bush become acting President at the moment or under what circumstances would he? Who is making the decisions for the government right now?”
The Secretary of State dealt with these questions of presidential succession inaccurately. He said that he was, forgetting that the Vice President and Speaker was above him in the line of succession.
The White House physician (who then carried a copy of the Twenty Fifth Amendment describing the temporary transfer of Executive Power in his black bag) admitted years later, the amendment should have been put into effect right there and then when the president went into surgery and could no longer communicate with people.
Still on the topic of Presidential guards, as newbies covering the Palace, they followed security and protocol as dictated by the Presidential Security Group (PSG) religiously. However, once in a while they insisted their ways on benign issues, those that are never endanger the President, of course. Unwittingly they incite the guards’ anger when they break the dress code—especially when there was hardly a minute to change into evening formal attire after a whole day of covering the president’s activities. Nothing overwhelms them except the intensity of a deadline that flashed like a neon light.
We’ve witnessed the PSG at their best, or at times looking helpless when all they could do was watch a president slide into little, undignified accidental episodes.
Like that time, while getting off from the helicopter, then President Cory Aquino slightly lost her balance, and broke her ankle. She tripped, flanked by her two most trusted guards (who eventually become army generals), too horrified to pick her up or carry her.
Who can’t forget the dilemma of her doctor, who was seated across her enjoying a meal and saw the president swell due to an allergy?
Or that time when President Fidel Ramos was enjoying a sumptuous meal, his front tooth just fell off the table and none of the guards assigned could stop the photographers from clicking their cameras.
Or that incident when the president stepped on a photographer’s eyeglasses and the photo essay, blow by blow, captured the sequence and was front page on all the tabloids. It will go back to the issue, who protects the president’s dignity? Not his security.
For Palace photographers, they are at their best when capturing presidents in their vulnerability. This is what they sell. Following instructions were almost stifling and cramped their styles. They’ve been pushed, shoved, man handled, literally—no longer allowed to eat near the president. That is why they’ve snubbed the yearly Van D’Honneur at the Palace, and for some reason, were never asked why.
The irony of it all is that they can’t take umbrage at the Presidential remarks or aggression. Their association with the guards almost demanded suspension of their pride and certainly their temper.
E-mail Mylah at firstname.lastname@example.org