Back from vacation, well rested and ready to take the oath of office, President-elect Barack Obama - motorcade in tow - has converged on Washington. A seemingly smooth move to his temporary digs and path to a seamless transition has left most of the national press corps in awe over the “coolness” Mr. Obama exudes in all matters.
Yet, that casual approach could bring what’s bubbling below to the surface. It’s what most of the public doesn’t see - but got a glimpse of a few weeks ago with the shoe throw heard ‘round the world. The incident was met with laughter and late night spoofing, yet it really is no laughing matter. Not only was it “not funny,” as First Lady Laura Bush pointed out on FOX News Sunday, but it should come as an eye-opener for future administrations and the security detailed to manage them. In this case, the United States Secret Service (USSS).
For some of the suggested finger-pointing at the USSS, there should be caution - as there is a fine line between how much Secret Service interference a president is willing to tolerate beyond what is required. Agents have historically tended to push for the more-is-more approach (some have called it oppressive) while presidents, including Mr. Bush, prefer a less-is-more approach. Privacy is one argument frequently made. Another, from a PR standpoint, is that press staff don’t care much for the “bodyguard look” in video and photos of the president. Thus, agents are encouraged to keep their distance.
Life-threatening the Iraq incident was not, but very well could have, if not for Mr. Bush’s stellar athletic reflexes. Had he not ducked, then what? The scenario could have been much different. Whether the shoe hit him or not is beside the point, every threat against the president (no matter how small) is taken seriously. As to “why” the Secret Service didn’t respond quickly enough or wasn’t close enough to Mr. Bush - consider this - they were as close as the president would allow. As former agent Lynn Meredith once told the “Missoulian,” “Presidents accept Secret Service protection with varying degrees of appreciation.” And at times their stubborness trumps security.
“Privacy” is why presidential daughter Barbara Bush had her purse and cell phone stolen “under the nose” of agents while celebrating her birthday at a restaurant in Buenos Aires two years ago. In a headline then, the BBC declared: “US agents fail Bush’s daughter.” The late-night routines predictably made light of the incident - mostly to point fingers at an apparently lax security detail. Yet the twins, notoriously not fond of all the prying eyes and up-close and personal protection, insist that agents keep their distance. It is a fact not widely known to the public, but one I witnessed first hand during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Hillary Clinton was no fan of the Secret Service during her years in the White House either, and neither them of her. Ironically, she is now insisting on their protection over the standard-issue State Department detail she is expected to receive once confirmed as secretary of State.
President Lyndon Johnson was openly hostile to his presidential detail. And it was widely reported that John Kennedy, who agents considered among “the easiest” presidents to work with, insisted - against Secret Service recommendations - on removing the protective bubble from his convertible that fateful day of his assassination. In Michael O’Brien’s autobiography “John F. Kennedy,” he characterized Kennedy as “non-chalant” about his security, opting to be closer to the crowd.
In many ways Mr. Obama has been compared to Camelot and similarily his bare-chested, every-man approach to “keeping it real” with his constituents could leave him equally, if not, more vulnerable than he needs to be.
I was struck last week, while watching news footage of Mr. Obama enjoying an afternoon lunch in an open air sidewalk cafe in Hawaii, at how USSS agents frantically attempted to keep onlookers (walking along the public sidewalk) at bay as they reached out to touch or shake Mr. Obama’s hand.
It is a scene not uncommon for a celebrity rock star or actor - but our nation’s leader? Are agents going to have to work this hard over the next four years each time Mr. Obama insists on grabbing a tofu burger at the corner store, or a lite latte at the Starbucks down the street? Is he so enamoured with himself and the attention he gets shirtless, that he unecessarily puts his security detail at risk for the sake of wanting to maintain some normalcy? Should the 6,700 men and women who make up the USSS and put their lives on the line for the president, add to that risk because Mr. Obama wants to make a bookstore run?
While there is much more scrutiny of the shoe-throwing incident to come (internally and externally), it is not simply a lesson for the agency, but the president-elect himself. His casual, carefree bookstore stops and beach hopping in Hawaii are a security nightmare waiting to happen and will have to be reined in once he’s sworn in.
Yes, the nation is still wrapping itself around the historic nature of this new kind of presidency, which apparently hasn’t “sunken in,” for Mr. Obama either. Most presidents usually look forward to getting back some “normalcy” upon leaving office (as no doubt Mr. Bush is), yet Mr. Obama’s state of “normalcy” seems to be a dangerous expectation he rode into town with and is reluctant to shed.
Memo to Mr. Obama: There is nothing normal about being president.
Tara Wall is deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Times: firstname.lastname@example.org