Political reality undercuts presidential protection

ROGER SIMON

April 17, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

What is wrong with this picture?

Former President Ronald Reagan, 81, is standing on a stage in Las Vegas after receiving an award, when a burly man walks up the steps to the right of the stage and then runs for the lectern.

The burly man picks up the 2-foot-tall, 30-pound crystal statue of an eagle that Reagan just has been awarded, lifts it over his head and smashes it to the floor.

Shards of glass explode upward, one grazing Reagan's head.

"Excuse me, President Reagan," the man says, stepping in front of Reagan and speaking into the microphone.

At that point, three Secret Service agents close in on the man, one knocking him into the podium and wrestling him to the ground.

Reagan is jostled and tugged away from the scene by another agent as a third wraps Reagan in his arms to shield him.

The burly man, who turns out to be Richard Paul Springer, 41, of Arcata, Calif., founder of an anti-nuclear group called the 100th Monkey, is arrested on the preliminary charge of assault on a federal officer, namely a Secret Service agent.

Reagan, who survived an assassination attempt in 1981 when a bullet missed his heart by 1 inch, returns to the microphone a few minutes later and says: "Was that a Democrat by chance?"

The audience gives him a standing ovation.

A Secret Service spokesman later says he does not know how the man got past the Secret Service agents who guard the ex-president's life around the clock.

There. That is what is wrong with this picture.

When in 1985 Richard Nixon voluntarily gave up the Secret Service protection that all ex-presidents receive and hired private bodyguards, his agents were costing U.S. taxpayers $3 million a year.

That was seven years ago, and we can only guess what they cost now. But what does this money really buy? Not much.

Along with Reagan, agents guard former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and they must do so 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And yet the Secret Service could not prevent a big guy from walking right up to Ronald Reagan and getting near enough to do anything he wanted to. Instead of smashing that crystal statue to the floor, Springer could have easily crushed Reagan's skull with it. Fortunately, harming Reagan was not Springer's intention. He was only looking to get people's attention.

John Hinckley, the man who shot Reagan, was only trying to get the attention of Jody Foster.

How did both men manage to get so close to Reagan?

Well, it's not because the Secret Service agents aren't good. They are very good.

But these men and women, these trained specialists, as good as they are, cannot completely protect American politicians because those politicians will not live lives that lend themselves to complete protection.

And we do not really want them to.

This is America, and we want to pretend things are safe here. We want to pretend that attacks on public figures are aberrations and not part of the American character.

We want to believe that it can't happen here, even though our history keeps telling us it can and has and will.

We do not want our politicians to be afraid to come out among us.

And they do not want to be afraid. So they often ignore the advice of the Secret Service.

Presidential candidates (who were offered Secret Service protection only after Robert Kennedy was killed in 1968) use their agents as drivers and logistical experts and, sometimes, to keep the press at bay. And, now and again, candidates will even listen to them when it comes to security.

But if a presidential candidate or even a president wants to plunge into a crowd to show what a man of the people he is, no Secret Service agent is going to stop him.

That is not his job. His job is to protect his charge the best he can, no matter how difficult the person makes it.

We don't want our public servants standing behind bulletproof shields or communicating with us only by television. Not in America.

We want them out among us in the flesh, where we can see and touch and feel them.

And as long as we do, really protecting them is going to be impossible. No matter how many millions we spend -- make that squander -- on it.

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