The Saturday Paper
Carol Leonnig’s Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service.
Scribe Publications, 560pp, $35
In 2017, two Secret Service men were caught taking selfies with United States President Donald Trump’s sleeping grandson. The president was incredulous. “What the fuck is wrong with you guys?” he snapped.
It’s a question the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig sets out to answer in her history of the Secret Service, the agency responsible for guarding American presidents.
Leonnig wrote Zero Fail after reporting in 2012 on how agents travelling to Colombia with Barack Obama – who, as the first Black president, received four times as many death threats as his predecessors – were drunkenly carousing with sex workers. The ensuing scandal simultaneously revealed both the agency’s frat boy culture (“You are going to fuck your way across the globe,” one supervisor promised new recruits) and its mulish determination to frustrate modernisation.
The popular image of square-jawed men in sunglasses and suits standing between the president and a bullet emerged from episodes of genuine selflessness. Famously, an agent leapt onto John F. Kennedy’s car to shield Jacqueline Kennedy from further gunfire; another deliberately took shots intended for Ronald Reagan. Yet the organisation evolved on an extraordinarily ad hoc basis.
It was tasked with presidential protection only after the shooting of William Mckinley in 1901, a mission allocated more or less on the fly and with no clear demarcation of what the job entailed. As late as 2008, the strategic blueprint of an agency overwhelmingly associated by the public with the prevention of assassinations still listed financial crimes as its top priority.
A fish, they say, rots from the head, and the Secret Service was inevitably affected by the behaviour of the leaders it guarded. President Kennedy relied on agents to keep shtum about his own sexual shenanigans, the men guarding Bill Clinton knew he used his early morning jogs to meet women in nearby hotels, and Richard Nixon tried to deploy the agency to gather information on his political enemies.
Leonnig says that the modern service has become profoundly incompetent, “fulfilling its … mission based not on skills, people, training or technology but on dumb luck”. She describes an organisation riddled with sexism and a Maga-style racism that meant some agents cheered on white supremacists trying to storm the Capitol after the election of President Joe Biden.
Trump did not, however, reciprocate the service’s affection, regularly deriding those protecting him for being overweight and unphotogenic, and forcing them to rack up huge bills guarding Trump Towers while he was playing golf.
About 500 pages, the book becomes rather a slog. But if you’re interested in understanding one of the world’s most mythologised agencies, Zero Fail offers a glimpse behind the mirror shades.