Weird History

What It’s Actually Like To Guard The President, According To Former Members Of The Secret Service 

Melissa Sartore
Updated August 29, 2019 153.2k views 13 items

Secret Service agents protect presidents, vice presidents, the entire first family, and even candidates on the campaign trail. Due to the nature of the job, these agents remain attached at the hip to the people they're sworn to protect. There are obvious downsides to being in the Secret Service (mostly regarding the secretive aspects of the job), but these men and women also get to travel the nation and bear witness to many incredible events. 

Initially founded in 1865 as an agency to stop counterfeiting, the duties of the Secret Service have expanded during the last 150 years. Tasked with protection and investigation, Secret Service agents not only learn a great deal about the elected officials they guard, but they also possess a wealth of insight into the underpinnings of the political process. 

Luckily, some agents have talked about their experiences and shared their stories, which offer a fascinating look into what it's really like to guard the leader of the free world.  

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Presidents And Agents Can Bond Over Similar Interests 

President Ronald Reagan loved to ride horses on his ranch in California, an activity that Secret Service Agent John Barletta shared with his boss. Barletta spent hours with Reagan, riding horses and talking. Barletta still had a job to do - something made more difficult given the open spaces they traversed; but it was all private land, which made keeping Reagan secure a bit easier. 

Generally, Reagan treated his Secret Service agents well. After Reagan's death, Joe Petro, former head of Reagan's detail, told The Morning Call:

We worked so well together. The whole relationship was a projection of him, how he was… He was a great guy to be around. I wouldn't trade those years for anything.

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Presidential Hobbies Are A Pain For The Secret Service

Bill Clinton was a regular jogger by the time he became president in 1992, something that was difficult for the Secret Service to navigate. The Secret Service hadn't really taken part in any fitness activities with presidents, and while Clinton wasn't very fast and agents didn't have to be in great shape at first, soon agents had to up their game.

In addition to running, agents also had to carry guns and radios while scanning the streets for any threats. It was a frustrating situation for the Secret Service, one that veteran agent Dan Emmett wrote about in his book Within Arm's Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service. Emmet called it a "nightmare...the worst thing for the Secret Service is to take a sitting president into public when no one has been swept, and anyone could be out there."

To keep Clinton safe during his jogs, the Secret Service tried to get the president to run on a track or on military bases, but he refused. Jogging was about public relations as much as health, and Clinton wanted to be seen. The Secret Service staged agents throughout the streets of Washington, DC, and other cities, offered "guest run" opportunities for well-connected citizens, and mapped out approved routes for Clinton. 

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Agents Can Be Put In Very Awkward Situations

President Lyndon Johnson was considered "uncouth" and lashed out when agents didn't do what he wanted. When Johnson ordered an agent to jump the curb while driving to an event in which they were running late, the agent refused. The next day, they got fired. Johnson's secretary intervened, and they kept their job.

Johnson's affairs were difficult for agents to navigate, as well. One agent alleged Johnson had sex with one of his secretaries in the Oval Office, and he derided his agents for not warning him that his wife was on her way to visit. Lady Bird ended up walking in on the pair, so an alarm system was installed to prevent it from happening again. 

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Presidents Have Good Days And Bad Days, Just Like Everyone Else

Dan Emmett, former agent and author of Within Arm's Length: A Secret Service Agent's Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President, protected George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. When he was ultimately asked who his favorite was, he refused to answer. According to Emmett, they each had personal and professional highs and lows, with good and bad days. 

Not all secret service members were as professional or calculated when it came to reviewing their time with their respective president. When former Secret Service agents discuss Richard Nixon, many call him one of the "strangest" presidents. Depressed and paranoid, Nixon allegedly did some odd things, including eating dog biscuits.