Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: In The President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Title: In The President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect
Author: Ronald Kessler
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: August 4, 2009
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library via my Kindle

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service, that elite corps of agents who pledge to take a bullet to protect the president and his family. After conducting exclusive interviews with more than one hundred current and former Secret Service agents, bestselling author and award-winning reporter Ronald Kessler reveals their secrets for the first time.

Secret Service agents, acting as human surveillance cameras, observe everything that goes on behind the scenes in the president’s inner circle. Kessler reveals what they have seen, providing startling, previously untold stories about the presidents, from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as about their families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides. 

Kessler portrays the dangers that agents face and how they carry out their missions–from how they are trained to how they spot and assess potential threats. With fly-on-the-wall perspective, he captures the drama and tension that characterize agents’ lives.

In this headline-grabbing book, Kessler discloses assassination attempts that have never before been revealed. He shares inside accounts of past assaults that have put the Secret Service to the test, including a heroic gun battle that took down the would-be assassins of Harry S. Truman, the devastating day that John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and the swift actions that saved Ronald Reagan after he was shot.

While Secret Service agents are brave and dedicated, Kessler exposes how Secret Service management in recent years has betrayed its mission by cutting corners, risking the assassination of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and their families. Given the lax standards, “It’s a miracle we have not had a successful assassination,” a current agent says.

Since an assassination jeopardizes democracy itself, few agencies are as important as the Secret Service–nor is any other subject as tantalizing as the inner sanctum of the White House. Only tight-lipped Secret Service agents know the real story, and Ronald Kessler is the only journalist to have won their trust.

My Review:

Hey, Americans!  In case all the hate-ads and yard signs didn't tip you off, November 6 is Election Day!  And what better way for me to celebrate this time of awkward conversations with your opposite-leaning friends, than to review a book about politics.  However, never fear--this is not a political book full of hot-button issues and diatribes.  Kessler covers presidents on both sides of the fence in this tell-all book about the Secret Service.

First off, I have to say that I found the book's description a bit misleading.  Based on the title, I was hoping for some historical information about the Secret Service, and interesting anecdotes about the men and women who served with the agency.  There is some of that--and those were my favorite parts of the book.  Stories of thwarted assassination attempts, explanations of the training agents must go through, descriptions of how a typical Secret Service detail manages itself--that stuff is fascinating!

But those pieces of history and interesting tidbits did not seem to be the central goal of Kessler's research, unfortunately.  No, this book focuses much more on the presidents' personal lives, and it my opinion, plays out like a Perez-Hilton-esque expose rather than a serious political nonfiction.  You learn about how Jimmy Carter was a complete cheapskate; how JFK kept his lady-callers a secret; and (most unnecessary detail of all) the size of LBJ's penis.  Kessler shows no compunction about sharing this type of information.  He claims that this is because presidents are public figures, and so we deserve to know about their private mistakes.  However, as a reader, it just made me feel uncomfortable, and a bit embarrassed for the past leaders of our country.  It also didn't seem entirely relevant to the Secret Service, other than the fact that he got these juicy bits from the agents themselves.  This made me confused about the real purpose of the book.

The book does end with some more interesting facts about how the Secret Service has devolved into a horribly mismanaged organization--it's amazing to see how security issues are sometimes taken so lightly by these undertrained and overworked agents.  I appreciated that kind of revealing (and publicly important) information.  But I wish the rest of the book showed that level of useful journalistic discovery.

I do wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more, had I learned more about it beforehand and realized that it would delve so deeply into the presidents' personal lives.  Maybe I picked this one up for the wrong reasons (wanting factual vs personal information).  But despite that, I still am not a huge fan of how Kessler put this book together.  The awkwardly personal details cheapen the power of the solid historical and agency-specific information that he managed to uncover.

Overall--not the serious journalistic work that I was hoping for.  But if you don't mind a little peeping-tom look at the leaders of our country, this book could be right up your alley!

And hey, Americans--go VOTE on November 6!!

7 comments:

  1. Wow, the cover really does make it look very serious. Definitely a very apt book for the coming elections though!

    Who are you voting for, if I may ask? (I understand some people don't like to discuss that kind of thing, so if you don't, that's fine =P)

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  2. Ha! Definitely didn't need to know that about our former presidents. Too bad there wasn't enough info and tidbits about the secret service agents :)

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  3. Rinn, I would prefer not to say. Politics is so partisan, I don't want it to color how people read my reviews! I will say that I am having a harder time feeling sure of my vote this year than any other election I've voted in.

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  4. Yes, that is true! Although we obviously don't get all the news over here, we've had some of the more extreme stuff. Certainly going to be an interesting election...

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  5. I always wonder how much of the election process is televised in other countries. I don't remember hearing anything about elections in the UK over here, other than who won (or if there was some sort of scandal involved).

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  6. Oh god, the election went on forever! Me and my friends stayed up to watch it, but because the votes were so close (and we now have a coalition govt as a result) it ran way over.
    The debate isn't televised (at least on terrestrial TV, maybe for those who have Sky and other TV packages where you get extra channels, including US ones), but we get stuff on the regular news programs. Though most of what I've heard about the debate has been via the net =)

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  7. Very fitting for the elections! Perez-Hilton would be proud of the author :)

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