Dear Straight Dope:
Somewhere long ago I heard that a sitting president of the U.S. is not supposed to become drunk at any time, and that his Secret Service agents are supposed to prevent him from becoming drunk, by force if necessary. Is this true?
SDSTAFF Elendil's Heir replies:
In a word, no.
I think we can all agree that if you’re the president, you have a responsibility to the country not to get drunk. After all, you never know when that red phone is going to ring and someone is going to give you some really, really bad news. But it’s not the Secret Service’s job to keep the president sober.
The United States Secret Service was established in July 1865 (too late to save Lincoln, alas). Created as part of the Treasury Department, it was initially charged with battling counterfeiting, a major problem at the time – an estimated one-third of all U.S. currency in circulation during the Civil War was bogus. The service got its name due to the undercover operations it conducted in fighting the spread of funny money. Its agents were assigned to protect presidents beginning with Grover Cleveland in 1894, but only during certain public appearances. Many politicians at the time objected that having a permanent cadre of presidential bodyguards smacked of un-American royalism. After the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, however, the service was assigned to keep an eye on the president around the clock. This protection was extended to major presidential candidates in 1968 after the murder of senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was vying for the Democratic nomination. Then-senator Barack Obama was given protection beginning May 3, 2007, the earliest in an election cycle for any candidate other than Hillary Clinton, who was already under the service’s watchful eye due to her status as a former president’s spouse.
Today, the Secret Service protects the president, the vice president, their spouses and children, former presidents and their spouses, foreign diplomats, and anyone else whom the president designates. It takes more than 3,000 plainclothes special agents, 1,000 Uniformed Division officers, and more than 2,000 other technical, professional, and administrative support personnel to get the job done. It don’t come cheap, either: the service’s 2008 budget request for presidential protection alone (i.e. not including the cost of guarding presidential candidates) was $837.6 million. Ex-presidents used to get lifetime protection, but that was reduced by act of Congress in 1995 to a period of ten years after leaving office, effective in 2001. There were suggestions in the wake of 9/11 that lifetime post-White House protection should be reinstated, and it may yet be.
In 1984 the Secret Service’s responsibilities were expanded to include the investigation of crimes involving banking, computer, and telecommunications fraud. On March 1, 2003, as part of a broad restructuring of the nation’s security apparatus, the service was detached from the Treasury Department and made a part of the Department of Homeland Security. The service operates 116 field offices in the U.S. and 20 overseas.
Famously, Secret Service agents are expected to take a bullet for the president and any other protectee if necessary. But do they have to keep the president from getting schnockered? Our letter to Secret Service director Mark Sullivan on this question has, to date, gone unanswered – unsurprising, perhaps, but hey, at least we asked.
There is, however, no evidence that the service has to keep the President from knocking back too much booze. And we know of at least one time when it didn’t. On October 11, 1973, shortly after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war between Israel and its Arab foes, the U.S. raised the alert level of its nuclear forces, and there were fears that World War III might not be too far off. Aides to British prime minister Edward Heath called the White House shortly before 8 PM EST wishing to arrange a conversation between Heath and president Richard Nixon. Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, recorded a subsequent discussion with his assistant Brent Scowcroft. The tapes were declassified in 2004, revealing this exchange:
Kissinger: Can we tell them no? When I talked to the President, he was loaded.
Scowcroft: Right, O.K. I will say the President will not be available until first thing in the morning but you will be this evening.
Nixon’s nighttime drinking habits seem to have been an open secret among senior White House staff, but no one ever suggested that the Secret Service had a duty to wrestle his shot glass to the floor.
It’s important to remember that the Secret Service is not the boss of the president; presidents can ignore the service’s advice if they wish to, and they have. In 1950 Harry Truman overruled his guards and went to speak at Arlington National Cemetery, as scheduled, just hours after a failed assassination attempt against him by Puerto Rican nationalists. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon repeatedly ignored service advice and waded into crowds. In 1977, Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in his inaugural parade despite a service recommendation against doing so. On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush overrode the service’s strong encouragement to stay away from Washington before the full extent of the terrorist plot was known. That night, he ignored his protective detail’s emphatic advice to sleep in the White House’s basement bomb shelter; the Decider decided he would rather spend the night in his own bed upstairs, and did. President Obama told Jay Leno in his Tonight Show appearance earlier this year that he insisted on walking a short distance from a March town hall meeting to Air Force One in Orange County, California, even though the Secret Service wanted him to make the trip in his limo.
If bullets are actually flying, agents will grab the president and bodily remove him from harm’s way, as President Reagan’s agents did during the 1981 attempt on his life, but otherwise the president can generally tell his agents to lighten up or back off. And let’s face it, the service is not at the president’s elbow day and night – witness Bill Clinton’s get-togethers with Monica Lewinsky, or Bush’s potentially lethal 2002 encounter with a pretzel while watching a football game alone.
So if POTUS decides to tie one on, however inadvisably, it won’t be the Secret Service that stops him.
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