The unofficial motto of the United States Secret Service is both reassuring and nonpartisan: "You elect 'em, we protect 'em." But it's clear from Joseph Petro's well-mannered, utterly discreet memoir, "Standing Next to History," which draws on his nearly two decades as a special agent, that some famous folks impressed him more than others. Jimmy Carter was an annoying micromanager; Walter Mondale was none too friendly. But rather than berate these men or some others, he passes over them quickly. On the other hand, the Nelson Rockefeller family was great fun to be around; Dan Quayle was athletic and "nobody's fool" and got a raw deal from the press for misspelling potato.
But most of all, Petro loved being at the right hand of Ronald Reagan for four years, getting a close-in view of how "the Great Communicator" charmed critics and won loyal followers. Here is a man whose private demeanor matched his public bonhomie, Petro says, and whose protective wife, Nancy, was "a class act" as well. One memory Petro shares is of the two ex-actors, sitting on a sofa in the screening room at the White House, holding hands and watching themselves perform onscreen in 1957's "Hellcats of the Navy."
Reagan also traveled light, Petro reveals, with just the essentials - no need for car keys or pocket change. "As far as I know, the only thing that President Reagan ever had with him was a handkerchief and a little
plastic-coated card with instructions on how to implement the nuclear codes," says Petro, who often handled Reagan's suit coat when he helped fit him with a bulletproof vest. Reagan loved to visit his California ranch, Petro says, once declaring "The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse." The former cowboy star rode English style, not Western, insisted on spirited mounts even into old age, and practiced an unusual and dangerous style of dismount, says Petro, who took horseback riding lessons to keep up with his "protectee."
The dangers of motorcades and presidents doing "grip and grin" sessions along the "rope line" with crowds are well known. One surprise is that unscripted stops of five minutes or less are considered low risk, since it's highly unlikely an armed and prepared assassin would happen to be present. If the stop is at a restaurant, Petro says, the president may order food but ideally will never eat it (haven't we seen shots of presidential candidates chowing down at diners in New Hampshire and Iowa for years?). When the president dines abroad, Petro says, he never eats the local food but look-alike cuisine brought from the US and prepared by White House chefs.
Working with PR masterminds Michael Deaver and William Henkel, Petro learned how to negotiate so they could go about promoting the president's public image and still not endanger him. Negotiating, it seems, is a large part of what the protection business is all about, and Petro rarely lost at that game. During his years the Service itself was riven with political disputes between agents doing protective or investigative work and also between the president's and vice president's bodyguards. When the president visited Congress, the agents had to wrangle with the Capitol Police, who guard the legislative branch.
Outside the US, the biggest squabbles were with the closest allies - the Japanese, British, and especially the Canadians didn't care for the "gun culture" they felt the president brought with him and tried to limit the Secret Service's level of armament and ability to run the show. Oddly, perhaps, one of the smoothest working relationships was with KGB officials under communism, who seemed to understand perfectly that political leaders require heavy-duty protection.
Contrary to popular myth, he says, agents never promise that they will take a bullet for the president. None has died from being shot while protecting the president, though many have died performing other official duties (six were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, for example).
Petro himself claims he's no fan of guns and has never owned one. But he carried a .357 magnum revolver on the job and trained regularly on how to use it, as well as a machine gun and shotgun. In all his years, he never had to fire "in anger." But in 1976, while he was protecting Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as he rode in an open car, a 15-year-old boy in the crowd went into a "combat stance" with what appeared to be a gun. Petro targeted him and began to squeeze the trigger. In the last split-second he noticed that the "gun" was red and didn't fire. It had been a water pistol. "The nightmare haunted me for years," he says.
The stresses of the job, says Petro, who now heads global security for Citigroup, do take their toll - in missed family moments, a broken marriage, and fitful dreams that the precious "protectee" has been lost or killed. Such a privileged position brings with it a special anguish, he says, for those who "stand next to history."
• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.