For Secret Service, duty often means keeping up

From cycling to boating, agents train to accompany leaders in leisure pursuits

July 25, 2004|By Robin Abcarian | Robin Abcarian,LOS ANGELES TIMES

No one would mistake them for Lance Armstrong, nor their bicycle outings for the Tour de France. But Secret Service agents assigned to protect President Bush and his Democratic opponent have frequently found themselves exercising their duties on two wheels.

When Bush or Sen. John Kerry decides to work out on a bicycle, a Secret Service agent is required to be pedaling nearby.

Because the Secret Service provides round-the-clock protection, agents are required to participate in whatever athletic or leisure activities their subjects choose. Over the years, that has included horseback riding, speedboat excursions and scuba diving.

Agents on Kerry's detail have told reporters they are taking biking courses to keep up with the 60-year-old candidate. And Bush's security detail has been riding with the president for months. The 57-year-old chief executive took up mountain biking after a bad knee kept him from running, a fact revealed to the world only after he took a tumble on his bike in Crawford, Texas, in May.

`Don't get into specifics'

A spokeswoman for the Secret Service - now part of the Department of Homeland Security - confirmed that agents had been working on their cycling skills.

"We do train agents in mountain biking," said Special Agent Ann Roman. "But we don't get into specifics about the training that we do, for obvious reasons."

The Secret Service maintains a list of agents and their athletic skills, said William Pickering, a special agent based in Los Angeles whose duties have required him to ski alongside President Gerald R. Ford and boat near the elder George Bush when he was vice president and president.

"If we don't have the skills for it, we will train," Pickering said.

`A lot of guys failed'

To that end, agents have attended water-safety courses by the Coast Guard, bicycle courses by the Capitol Police and equestrian courses by the U.S. Park Police.

Pickering recalled that during Ronald Reagan's presidency, a number of agents tried to master horseback riding - not always successfully.

"A lot of guys failed," he said. "It's a hard, tough course, and he was riding these big thoroughbreds up at the ranch." One of the more successful Reagan-era riders, he said, attended the University of Texas on a rodeo scholarship.

When the first President Bush was in office, Pickering said, agents attended a school to learn how to handle speedboats to keep up with the one Bush liked to pilot off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine.

Running with Gore

Tony Chapa, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, spent four years assigned to the permanent detail of Vice President Al Gore, who was an avid runner.

"We would run from his residence to the Capitol steps, about five miles," Chapa said. "What bothered me was the heat, because you have your running shorts and your T-shirt on, but on top of that you'd have to have your weapon, your radio and your handcuffs, plus another T-shirt on top of that." (The second T-shirt was to conceal the gun holster and other gear.)

It doesn't sound like much fun, but as Chapa pointed out, "You're not doing it for the exercise."

Snowboarding fall

Sometimes agents inadvertently become part of the action they are supposed to be monitoring. In March, when Kerry took a week off from the campaign trail at his vacation home in the ski resort of Ketchum, Idaho, a minor flap ensued after he fell while snowboarding and blamed his Secret Service agent.

"I don't fall," Kerry later said. The agent "ran into me." The campaign later said Kerry was joking.

Congress first asked the Secret Service to protect the president in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, who was shot while attending an exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. The scope of protection eventually was widened to include presidents' families; vice presidents and their families; and during the primary season, major contenders for the White House.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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