Out of the West: Public price of Secret Service invites scrutiny

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - There is, I confess, a certain pleasure in being inside the Secret Service 'bubble'. Speeding along in a presidential candidate's 40-vehicle motorcade, down an empty highway whose every access road is sealed off by gun-toting security men, you would not be human if you did not feel a mite self-important.

But if you are on the receiving end, stuck in an unnecessary traffic jam, or forced to spend precious local tax money on police overtime, it is another matter. And John Logie, the Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has had enough.

A biggish town in an electorally important state, Grand Rapids gets more than its share of such unwanted attention. But possibly, not for much longer. Mr Logie has told the Secret Service and the Republican and Democratic parties that either they pay for the disruption they cause, or stay away. One American mayor on his own will not change a practice worthy, he says, 'only of the most despotic and insecure reigning monarchs left in the world'. If others follow, however, it could be interesting.

Sometimes the Secret Service seems to run the US, or wherever else in the world is temporarily blessed with a president's visit. There is a rough justice to their work: be you a senator or just an ordinary citizen going about his business in Cairo, Illinois, or Cairo, Egypt, for the men with earphones who talk into their sleeves it makes no difference. You are merely a potential assassin.

In his book, The Power Game, the journalist Hedrick Smith hilariously recounts what happened in 1982 when Howard Baker invited his friend Ronald Reagan to spend a night at his home in Huntsville, Tennessee. Mr Baker was the Senate majority leader, a mighty figure in his own right. But that did not prevent the Secret Service disrupting local life a week in advance.

Come the big day and an army of 250 had been deployed, complete with sniffer dogs, metal detectors, searchlights, and road blocks; the idyllic guest lodge where the president was staying had become an electronic fortress. But at least everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

This year, Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York and a high-powered group of congressmen were less fortunate. One foul January day, they went to a public works site in Texas to attend the signing by President Bush of a dollars 150bn (pounds 97bn) transport bill, hailed as the most important of its kind in 35 years. But they were kept standing around in rain and mud by high-handed secret servicemen, while the president had lunch.

'It was a scene from an early Rossellini movie,' Mr Moynihan fulminated a few days later. 'A band of partisans has been rounded up. They are about to be machine-gunned and bulldozed into a mass grave. They are variously resigned, defiant, some even triumphant . . . the drizzle thickens, the camera recedes, the firing commences as the scene fades.' The men from Capitol Hill, of course, escaped that fate. After about half an hour, the 'men with rifles' began to withdraw and they were allowed to board their buses. As Mr Moynihan concedes: 'We were in that sense spared.'

But why this 'disgraceful and dangerous' armed intrusion into standard political ceremony? What reasons justified such 'insufferable behaviour' by the 'Praetorian Guard' that surrounds the modern presidency?

Public sympathy was not entirely with the Senator: if there is one American institution more reviled for 'arrogance and presumptuousness' than the Secret Service, it is Congress. But that obscures the sensible points Mr Moynihan raises; first and foremost the cost of the exercise. In just 30 years, the Secret Service budget has risen from dollars 6m to a proposed dollars 463m for 1993, even in constant dollars a seven-fold increase.

After the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981 and other incidents great and small, no one would dispute the need for proper protection of the leaders of this gun-ridden country. Its celebrity machine draws no distinction between good and evil - 12 years ago, Mark Chapman shot John Lennon dead; last week he was on the Larry King Show. But, as Mr Moynihan asks, might not a leaner Secret Service be a more vigilant one?

Money and numbers alone do not guarantee security: witness the water-meterman from Colorado who followed a marine band into the White House during Mr Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, and spent 15 minutes close to the president's private quarters before being discovered. And then there are America's egalitarian, republican traditions. Are these really served by this mighty protective barrier between the president and his countrymen?

Thus we return to the 'bubble', and to the next family who must step inside it. Bill Clinton is already bumping up against the transparent wall. And let Chelsea Clinton be warned, too: Susan Ford Bales, Gerald Ford's teenage daughter remembers how Secret Service-chaperoned dates turn the White House into 'a cross between a nunnery and a penitentiary'.

Cutting the budget deficit and keeping in touch with ordinary people are Mr Clinton's prime goals. Trimming the Secret Service would serve both ends. And, oh yes, John Logie would not mind either.