In 1922, Walter Lippmann, writer, reporter and political commentator published his remarkable book Public Opinion. It is a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially the irrational, and other self-serving, social perceptions that influence individual behaviour and prevent optimal societal cohesion. It also contains a significant observation. “Great men, even during their life time, are usually known to the public through a fictitious personality; hence, the modicum of truth in the old saying that no man is a hero to his valet.” This applies not just to millionaires and movie stars but also to US presidents, as Ronald Kessler points out in his highly readable book — In the President’s Secret Service. There are a few very interesting snippets from Impressions and Observations of the Secret Service about some past presidents and their first ladies.
The comments led me to the inescapable conclusion that by and large, the Republican presidents were moral. They did not dip their pen in company ink and were thought of highly by the chaps who guarded them day and night, probably wondering when some deranged character would take a shot at el supremo. The senior George Bush was the darling of the Secret Service. “He was extremely kind and considerate. Always respectful and correct and took great care in ensuring the agents’ comforts were taken care of … and even brought them meals … and warm clothes. He was also very prompt and ran the White House like a well-oiled machine.” His son and wife, Laura, were also greatly loved by the Secret Service. “They made sure their entire administrative and household staff understood they were to respect and be considerate of the Secret Service. Laura was … “one of the nicest First Ladies, if not the nicest … She never had a harsh word to say about anyone”.
Ronald Reagan was another darling of the elite corps. “The real deal. Moral, honest, respectful and dignified … They treated the Secret Service and everybody else with respect and honour, and thanked everyone all the time … Reagan tried to get to know each of the lads who guarded him on a personal level.” Probably his background as an actor prompted a little eccentricity, like carrying a pistol on his person. Once when one of the agents said: “Why the pistol Mr President?” He replied: “In case you boys can’t get the job done, I can help.” The Reagans shunned alcohol “and drank wine only during state dinners and special occasions … Nancy Reagan was very protective of her husband and tried hard to control what he ate, occasionally saying to the Secret Service chap on duty ‘Come on, you gotta help me out’.” In short, “The Reagans were the ones who lived life as genuinely moral people”. Gerald Ford came a close fourth. “A true gentleman who treated us with respect and dignity … He also had a great sense of humour.” His wife, however, spoiled the image. “She drank a lot.”
Richard Nixon was something of an exception. He was moral all right, “… but very odd, weird and paranoid, something of a recluse and didn’t have a good relationship with his family. His wife was quiet most of the time”. While he is referred to in the United States as Tricky Dick of Watergate, he is, however, remembered by the older generation in the Pakistan Foreign Office as the American president who saved this country from an onslaught by the Indian army in the western wing after the fall of Dhaka.
The Democrats were in a completely different league and got the wrong end of the stick from the Secret Service. John Kennedy was “a philanderer of the highest order”. And she (Jackie) ordered the kitchen help to save all the leftover wine at a state dinner, mixed it with fresh wine and served it again during the next White House occasion. Lyndon Johnson was “another philanderer of the highest order”. In addition, “LBJ was as crude as the day is long. Both JFK and LBJ kept a lot of women in the White House for extramarital affairs, and both had set up ‘early warning systems’ to alert them if or when their wives were nearby. Both … were promiscuous and oversexed men … She (Ladybird) was either naïve or just pretended to ‘not know’ about her husband’s many liaisons.”
Going back a few years there was Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn. The Secret Service found him to be “a complete phony who would portray one picture of himself to the public and was very different in private, e.g., would be shown carrying his own luggage, but the suitcases were always empty. He kept the empty ones just for photo ops. Wanted people to see him as pious and a non-drinker, but he and his family drank alcohol a lot. He had disdain for the Secret Service and was very irresponsible with the ‘football’ that has the nuclear codes. He didn’t think it was a big deal and would keep military aides at a distance. Often did not acknowledge the presence of Secret Service personnel assigned to serve him.”
For Bill Clinton, the “Presidency was one great party. Not trustworthy, he was nice mainly because he wanted everyone to like him, but to him life is just one big game and party. Everyone knows of his sexuality.” Their views about Hillary are equally unflattering: “She is another phony. Her personality would change the instant cameras were near. She hated with open disdain the military and Secret Service. She was another one who felt people were there to serve her. She was always trying to keep tabs on Bill Clinton.”
Barack Obama was “Clinton all over again — hates the military and looks down on the Secret Service. He is egotistical and cunning; looks you in the eye and appears to agree with you, but turns around and does the opposite. Untrustworthy. He has temper tantrums. She (Michelle) is a complete bitch, who basically hates anybody who is not black; hates the military: and looks at the Secret Service as servants.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2012.