The politicization of the Secret Service scandal

What was once one of the right's favorite government agencies becomes a symbol of waste and moral degradation

Published April 24, 2012 5:08PM (EDT)

President Obama, surrounded by members of the Secret Service, upon his arrival in San Diego, Sept. 26, 2011.    (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Obama, surrounded by members of the Secret Service, upon his arrival in San Diego, Sept. 26, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It's hard to work up much outrage about the Secret Service prostitution scandal, in which 11 members of the president's elite protective service and various military personnel were found to have picked up escorts in Colombia, where they were doing advance work for the president's visit. I guess it is probably not a good idea for the people in charge of protecting the president to leave themselves vulnerable to sexual blackmail, but on the other hand we do not live in a John Le Carré novel or "24" episode, and I don't think the threat of a honey-trap assassination conspiracy plot is very credible. If members of the Secret Service want to get drunk and hire escorts after work, that is their business. (As Melissa Gira Grant says, the only actual scandal here -- and the reason this became an international incident -- is that all these guys tried to bilk one of the women out of the money she was owed.)

But the predictable Washington mixture of prurient interest and moral posturing has turned this incident into grist for the scandals-and-investigations mill. And now we have the attempts at somehow making this a winning partisan issue for Republicans. Chuck Grassley, the senator from Iowa who triumphed over adversity and became the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee despite being functionally illiterate, would like to know whether any White House staff also slept with escorts that evening. No one has made the claim, but Grassley's asking just in case. (For a live peek at a future paranoid right-wing myth in its embryonic stage, read the comments on that Washington Times story: "I can just hear those paper shredders going a mile a minute in the white house, and the document forgers are being called in, you know the same ones that did the birth certificate.") Grassley was on Fox last night to make sure viewers repeatedly heard baseless speculation as to the involvement of White House staff.

Rep. Pete King, Long Island Republican and stalwart publicity monger, has sent Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan a list of 50 questions about the scandal in order to make it appear that he is very seriously investigating this very serious incident.

For those outside Congress, for whom insinuating escort patronage by unnamed White House staff seems a bit of a reach, the game is to attempt to use the scandal to prove some point the fecklessness of Obama as a leader and his shameful failure to make everyone in Washington stop being so awful and wasteful all the time.

NRO's Mark Steyn, after praising the fiscal discipline of the agent who attempted to bilk his escort (ugh), suggests that the moral of the story is that we pay too much for presidential security, and that all those agents and fancy bullet-proof Suburbans are wastes of taxpayer funds and evidence of broke post-Imperial America's profligacy. Sarah Palin, who had every right to be personally aggrieved for once, after it was reported that the agent at the center of the scandal wrote gross sexist things about her on Facebook, was among the first to declare that the problem was with the "culture" Obama has created at the White House. (Karl Rove, smarter than most of these people, suggested that politicizing a Secret Service scandal was dumb and counterproductive. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, coincidentally, was elevated to his position under George W. Bush.)

The makeup of the Secret Service, obviously, has very little connection to the political party of the person occupying the White House. Like most American law enforcement agencies, it's primarily white and overwhelmingly male, and, historically, the culture of the agency has had more than a whiff of machismo. These are not exactly the sort of public sector employees right-wingers get off on demonizing.

In fact, the right has had for years a sort of Clint Eastwood-inspired fantasy of the Secret Service agent as folk hero. Decent, hard-working men putting their lives on the line to protect a bunch of elitist ingrates. That ingratiating phony Bill Clinton and his frigid, hectoring monster of a wife weren't deserving of such stolid, unflinching loyalty and service.

The fullest expression of this fantasy is in this classic chain email that made its way to every inbox in the nation during the second president Bush's first term. According to this email, attributed to the unnamed author's former neighbor, the president's security detail was constantly disrespected by those awful Clintons and their terrible staff. Hillary Clinton was "arrogant and orally abusive." "She forbade her daughter, Chelsea, from exchanging pleasantries with" agents. "Al Gore resented Bill Clinton and thought he was to centrist. He despised all republicans." Agents prayed for Bush to win the election, and their reward was the joy they all felt in the presence of President Bush and his amazing, wonderful wife.

This nonsense has its roots in fake anti-Hillary attacks, attributed to imaginary Secret Service members, that Republican operatives spread to sympathetic media voices starting more or less the day Bill took office. Former Secret Service agents do plenty of gossiping and bitching, most frequently to Ronald Kessler, but their complaints don't tend to track quite so directly to right-wing fantasy narratives.

But a popular trope is of the upstanding agents blanching at being asked to look the other way as libidinous Democratic presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton -- womanized. (Clinton was said to have threatened to fire agents who stymied his attempts to have trysts with Monica Lewinsky, though the agent who made the claim admitted to having invented it.) The pat moralism of the conservative Secret Service fantasy makes the agency's lurid misadventure a bit funnier. It also explains why various people have to somehow convince themselves that the Obama administration somehow degraded the agency, through a lack of "management skills" or the widespread embrace of sexual deviance that is the logical end result of repealing the military's ban on out gays and lesbians.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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