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Monday, July 6, 2015

July 6, 2015: Secret Service Stories: The JFK Assassination



[In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Secret Service’s founding, this week I’ll highlight a series of histories and stories related to that unique department within our federal government. Leading up to a new Guest Post on the organization this weekend!]
On an article that raises a number of frustrating, vital questions.
At the end of this week’s series, I’ll feature a post on the recent scandals that have rocked the Secret Service and, it seems to me, unmistakably shaken the public confidence in this shadowy but significant government organization (at a time, as I’ll also discuss more in that Friday post, when threats against the president have reached an all-time high). Without downplaying the seriousness of those scandals, however, it’s important to note that the real 21st century difference might lie not so much in the presence of such misbehavior among Secret Service agents, but rather in the more public coverage of those activites by cable news networks, the internet, and all the other media through which our 24/7 news cycle society operates.
For evidence that the Secret Service has featured, and indeed been tragically affected by, such issues for at least half a century (and likely throughout its history), I turn to this late 2014 Vanity Fair article on the activites of the agents on JFK’s detail before and during his November, 1963 assassination. The article was excerpted from historian Susan Cheever’s forthcoming Drinking in America: Our Secret History (2015), and so focuses in particular on the role that alcohol (and especially excessive drinking by a number of agents the night before the assassination) may have played in the Secret Service agents’ inability to respond effectively or even adequately to the events as they unfolded on November 22nd. But Cheever also nicely describes the agency’s longer-term history, and more exactly the ways in which images of Secret Service agents as seasoned, consummate professionals have often butted up against realities of less professional behavior and activities.
I need to be clear here: I’m not in any way blaming JFK’s assassination on the Secret Service; various conspiracy theories have done so over the years, and so it’s important for me to make that distinction. It’s equally important not to pretend that Secret Service agents are superheroes, rather than men and women doing a demanding, always potentially life-threatening, and largely thankless and unnoticed (until something goes wrong) job. Yet at the same time, there are few individual moments in our nation’s history more striking, and with more of immediate and destructive effects, than the assassination of a president; and the Cheever article, like the many other studies and responses she cites, makes plain that in this particular case the inactivity and missteps of multiple Secret Service agents at best failed to prevent, and perhaps worsened, the horrific events as they unfolded. As much as it might seem that the JFK assassination has already been over-included in our collective memories, this seems like a specific aspect of that tragedy which deserves the further attention and analysis that Cheever nicely provides.
Next story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Secret Service connections you’d highlight?

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