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Boy in the Bubble

In Washington, you're not cool unless you've got your own security detail. We all know wealth corrupts power, but does safety corrupt, too?

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A month before the 1912 presidential election, someone tried to assassinate Teddy Roosevelt. The former president, then a candidate on the Progressive Party ticket, was in Milwaukee for a speech. He had just finished dinner and was leaving his hotel when a bartender from New York named John Schrank stepped from the shadows and shot him. The .38-caliber slug passed through Roosevelt's overcoat, a sheaf of papers, and an eyeglass case before lodging in his chest.

It was never clear why Schrank did it. Some newspaper accounts described a dream in which a ghost told Schrank to kill Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself did his best to pry a motive from the would-be assassin, summoning Schrank for an explanation. Schrank wouldn't answer. Roosevelt got impatient and left to give his speech.

Roosevelt spoke for more than an hour, bleeding the entire time. Afterward, flagging from blood loss, he was taken to the hospital. But first he delivered some of the better lines of his career. "I will make this speech or die," he told his doctor on the way to the event. "I have just been shot," he informed the audience when he arrived, "but it takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose."

Theatrical? Sure. (T.R. was doing Schwarzenegger long before Schwarzenegger.) A pointless display of swaggering machismo? Absolutely. And, for that reason, marvelous. Politicians don't act this way anymore, partly because physical courage is no longer a requirement for office but also because they can't. A contemporary politician would destroy his political career by doing what Roosevelt did. His disregard for his own safety would be held against him, taken as evidence of recklessness, possibly of mental instability. Teddy Roosevelt lost the 1912 race. But the public loved that he gave a speech while wounded. Dick Cheney, by contrast, is considered morally suspect because he eats steak and doesn't exercise enough.

Presidential candidates must be among the safest people in America. Even long-shots get Secret Service protection after the New Hampshire primary. From that point until they lose, they are watched over like visiting dignitaries in a war zone. Toward the end of the 1996 race, Jack Kemp, a former football player then running for vice-president, made a brief stop in Chicago for a fund-raiser. Local police closed the main highway in and out of the city during rush hour as Kemp's motorcade proceeded from the airport to a hotel downtown. Thousands of commuters missed appointments, showed up late to day care, or went without dinner so that Kemp and the reporters following him (I know, I was one of them) wouldn't have to wait in traffic.

All of this was done in the name of security, though it was unlikely that anyone would have bothered to hurt Jack Kemp. And there was never much chance Kemp was going to find himself in a position to hurt anyone else. As he whizzed through Chicago a month before the election, even he knew he was going to lose.

No one complained about the roadblocks, though, at least not loudly enough to register. Just as there was no outcry four years later when the equally hopeless Bill Bradley closed down a Los Angeles freeway on his way to some now-forgotten event. No one asked the obvious question: When did American politicians get the right to behave like members of a Third World junta, blockading intersections and blowing through red lights with armed entourages? No one seemed to care. It was as if voters had accepted the idea that the health and safety of a political leader should be the central concern of any city in which that leader finds himself. It struck me at the time as an odd attitude for a democracy.

But I recognized it. It's an attitude we're accustomed to in Washington. One afternoon earlier this month, an absentminded passerby left what appeared to be a small pink backpack leaning against one of the metal fences that surround the outer edge of the White House grounds. Security forces spotted it and evacuated the entire area. The cable news networks went wall-to-wall. "We have an incident at the White House," announced a CNN anchor, who threw to a correspondent on the scene, who described the "situation": The "perimeter," which included the long-barricaded (for security reasons) Pennsylvania Avenue, had been cordoned off with yellow police tape. A "military robotic device," delivered on a flatbed hauled by a tractor, came to "isolate" the object and otherwise deal with the emergency.

The little pink backpack turned out to be a little pink backpack. There was no explosion. The military robotic device was returned to its fortified bunker.

And the president remained in his, the White House, which every year seems to become increasingly more "secure." The Secret Service details seem to grow larger and more aggressive. The precautions -- balloons were prohibited at the White House Easter Egg Roll this year because they sound like gunshots when they pop -- become a little more elaborate. The implication is that a president's life is worth a lot more than anyone else's, and that the country would flounder if anything ever happened to him. There are signs (amen) that Bush doesn't entirely buy this. He's already shortened the presidential motorcade by five vehicles. He may some day reopen Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps he understands that increased security invariably means increased isolation.

Or perhaps he just senses that most of the talk about security is ridiculous. Only the jumpiest Secret Service agent believes the president is ever really in danger. Danger isn't the point. Power is. The powerful have security protection. That's how you know they're powerful. In a city where even rich people don't drive particularly expensive cars, where a Lincoln sedan is considered a limousine, the real power move is not to own a Bentley. It's to be trailed by a Suburban with tinted windows. The mark of a successful Washington party is when the Secret Service sweeps your house beforehand.

If you're a federal official with access to free bodyguards, it must be tempting to play it up. Janet Reno never went anywhere unaccompanied. Nor was she above having FBI agents hold her bags while she shopped. Dan Glickman, a Clinton agriculture secretary obscure even to most terrorists, showed up at a Christmas party last year with a Puff Daddy-size posse of bodyguards.

An impressive few resist the temptation. Louis Freeh, the high-profile director of the FBI, moves around Washington most of the time with no bodyguards at all. (Freeh carries his own gun.) Donna Shalala dispensed with security during her eight years as HHS secretary, and she wasn't even armed. A couple of years ago, a mugger tried to rob Shalala at a cash machine. She crouched on the ground and started yelling till he went away. Afterward, she still refused protection.

Late last year, I saw Shalala on the street in Georgetown, walking her dog. I looked, but there wasn't a single man with an Uzi and an earpiece in sight.


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