The Week (US)
Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service
(Random House, $30) You probably think of the Secret Service as a band of sunglasswearing professionals who’ve compiled a nearly spotless record as presidential bodyguards, said Chris Whipple in The New York Times. “Think again.” Carol Leonnig’s new history of the agency is “a devastating catalog of jaw-dropping incompetence, ham-fisted mismanagement, and frat-boy bacchanalia.” In the eyes of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter, the Secret Service has been lucky that no president has been harmed since Ronald Reagan. Though many individual agents serve honorably, the agency has been consistently stretched thin, abused by its overseers, and tactically a step or more behind the times.
When you think about it, “the modern Secret Service was born out of failure,” said Rosa Brooks in The Washington Post.
Originally created to investigate counterfeiting, the agency began protecting presidents only after the 1901 assassination of William McKinley—the third president killed in less than 40 years. The force remained modest in size, though, until the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Since then, the head count has climbed from 300 agents to 7,000. “But as the Secret Service’s budget and mission have grown, so, too, have its flaws,” among them its party-boy culture. Drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes figure in numerous scandals, while security lapses have piled up year after year. At times, “Leonnig struggles to bring life to what can feel like an unending chronicle of failures and missteps.”
“There are heroes in this book,” said
Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. One of them is a uniformed officer who wrote a 2005 memo detailing exactly what was wrong with the agency—and lost his job for doing so. The scandals have dinged the Secret Service’s reputation; this book reveals the decline in the way the agency actually operates. Almost every issue that Congress and the White House handle is presented as needing urgent attention, but this one can’t be put off. Leonnig has done well to bring that truth to light. This is “journalism as a true and honest public service.”