America's Slow Drain of Competence Hits the Secret Service

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch

America's Slow Drain of Competence Hits the Secret Service

Frank Horrigan was the main character in the 1993 film In the Line of Fire, portrayed by actor Clint Eastwood.

In the beginning, everyone was competent. At least the good guys were. The bad guy would always make some kind of mistake. He would not, say, tie the Lone Ranger’s hands securely, enabling Tonto to untie the ropes with his teeth.

Then, when the bad guy would bring the kidnapped school marm into the cabin, the Lone Ranger would spring out of his chair, grab his gun and shoot him in the pinkie. Tonto, who could tie excellent Native American-type knots, would tie up the bad guy while the Lone Ranger gave the school marm one of his silver bullets. Then he’d head on down the trail.

The Army was competent, too, at least in John Wayne movies and Sgt. Rock comic books. No one faked his way into a 4-F deferment. No one profiteered on arms contracts. Everyone was brave. Not as brave as Sgt. Rock, of course, but who is?

Teachers were competent. Bankers were competent. Detroit was competent, shipping new models every fall for Dinah Shore to sing about. Dinah Shore was competent. Even the president and Congress, as far as I could tell, were competent.

The Strategic Air Command was competent, NASA was competent. America was competent.

Then President Kennedy was shot.

The Warren Commission said the Secret Service could have done more to investigate threats against the president and to secure buildings along the motorcade route in Dallas. The Secret Service reacted with grim chagrin. It turned itself into the most competent law enforcement agency in the country.

The competition had fallen on hard times. First there was J. Edgar Hoover’s snooping and personal habits. Then there was the FBI’s complicity in the Watergate coverup. The CIA came in for a grilling. More grilling would come.

Vietnam revealed that the Army had drug problems, discipline problems and command problems. Soon Japanese cars began eating Detroit’s lunch, helped along by Detroit’s insistence on producing things like the Plymouth Fury. NASA lost three astronauts in a fire but recovered to land 12 men on the moon and bring three of them back from almost certain death. Then there were two horrible space shuttle disasters that revealed NASA wasn’t all that competent any more, either.

By then I had dealings with the Secret Service from time to time. The agents were totally competent, all business. Two nutballs had taken runs at President Ford. Agent Tim McCarthy had been wounded along with President Reagan. The agency cracked down.

I watched them seal manhole covers and make mail carriers open mailboxes along motorcade routes. They prepared for elaborate plots, which seemed odd. Historically presidents are always attacked by nuts with guns. Maybe, I figured, they’ve got that covered, so they have time to worry about guys popping out of manholes.

Then came the ’90s. Wall Street was making money hand over fist and real estate prices were soaring. We all figured bankers must be competent; look how much money they were making.

In 1993, Clint Eastwood made a movie called “In the Line of Fire.” Clint takes a bullet for the president, is hauled off as a hostage by assassin John Malkovich onto a glass elevator, where he tricks Malkovich into exposing himself to Secret Service snipers. Also Clint beds his boss, Rene Russo, all pretty good for an agent in his 60s.

All that plus the fact that Clint’s character was named Frank Horrigan, which was my father’s name, made me love this movie so much I overlooked a key point: Clint’s supervisors had removed him from the protective detail because they thought he was obsessive.

This should have been a tip-off. Even in the movies, the Secret Service can be as incompetent as every other institution in America.

Here were are in 2014. Wall Street screwed up the economy. We sent troops off to Iraq and Afghanistan, but everything we touch in the Middle East turns sour. Now we’re bombing the enemies of our enemies. The Supreme Court is a tool of the plutocracy, like Congress. Professional athletes spend as much time on the news pages as they do the sports pages. Intelligence agencies couldn’t cooperate before 9/11 so now we have to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Gallup says that only 29 percent of the public have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the president, 30 percent in the Supreme Court, 26 percent in public schools, 23 percent in the health care and criminal justice systems, 22 percent in newspapers and 7 percent in Congress.

However: 35 percent of this public can’t name any of three branches of government. Only 47 percent of the public believes in evolution. Forty-two percent believe in ghosts, 36 percent in creationism and UFOs and 29 percent in astrology. So much of the public isn’t competent, either.

Now people are upset that the Secret Service is sometimes incompetent. Yeah, it needs to get better. So do the rest of us.

Kevin Horrigan

Kevin Horrigan is a member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page staff.

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