Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 08/20/2009 by Tim Challies.
Not Recommended. More tabloid fodder than serious investigative reporting.
The dust cover for In the President’s Secret Service proclaims, "Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service. … After conducting exclusive interviews with more than one hundred current and former Secret Service agents, bestselling author and award-winning reporter Ronald Kessler reveals their secrets for the first time." It may be true that no journalist has penetrated that wall of secrecy until Kessler. The problem, though, is that while this wall of secrecy broke down enough for him to write a book, it remained in place enough that he was not able to cite or document what he discovered. Hence we have a book, a bestselling book, that is crammed full of unsubstantiated assertions. Now this is not to say that Kesller has just fabricated what he presents as fact. But any historian worth his degree will balk and know that little that Kessler says has any historic value.
In the President’s Secret Service is, in a sense, two books. On one hand it is a book about the Secret Service, detailing how the organization came to be, how it has evolved over the years, and telling how it works, even today. This side of the book offers little that is original. On the other hand, this is a tell-all of sorts, where Kessler shares what he learned during his interviews with former Secret Service agents. This is the part of the book that has received much attention in the press. With one chapter dedicated to every President since Kennedy, Kessler shares some of the behind-the-scenes facts about each of them. He tells how Jimmy Carter was considered the most arrogant and obnoxious of the presidents; how Kennedy’s agents were constantly on the guard during his trysts, guarding against his wife blundering into one of his affairs; how Lyndon Johnson engaged in constant philandering at the White House and at his ranch; how George and Barbara Bush were very kind to their agents, almost welcoming them into their family and even remaining at the White House over Christmas so the agents would not have to be on the road for the holiday. They are mostly the kind of facts we would assume based on the character of the presidents. The reader who is surprised to learn that Kennedy was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe or that Jenna Bush was hardly an ideal person to guard is a person who has not done a lot of reading. But even here, Kessler, by his inability (or refusal) to cite his work, gives us little reason to trust him or to believe that he has done any more than read a couple of books and filled in the gaps in a could-be-true way.
In the President’s Secret Service is tabloid history packaged with undergraduate-level research on the Secret Service. It is interesting at a gossipy, human-interest level, but as serious history it fails badly. The writing is mostly passable but, as I see it, a sentence like this deserves no place in a serious work of non-fiction: "As with all Presidents, some people totally lost it when meeting Reagan" (116). That is, like, totally unacceptable. Where was Kessler’s editor?
The serious chapters in this book seem like an attempt to legitimize the tabloid qualities. The sordid stories of America’s leaders have been used to sell the book, drawing people into a title that would otherwise be of little interest. Kessler also attempts to lend the book some legitimacy by seeking to show that the Secret Service is underfunded and underequipped for their role and that, if the situation is not remedied, at some point they will lose one of the people they seek to protect. While this may be true, Kessler fails to be convincing, perhaps largely because of the very nature of the book which is, at its heart, just not very serious.