The Bodyguards: Shadows And Shields
By James Carney/Washington
(TIME, July 27) -- As scandal was swallowing his presidency, Richard Nixon sometimes liked to be taken on long drives around Washington. In the privacy of his limousine, he would discuss Watergate with his closest advisers. It never occurred to him to be concerned that his Secret Service bodyguard, who heard everything from his perch in the front seat, might be forced to testify against him. And the bodyguard never was.
Life in Washington is more complicated these days. Bill Clinton's chief bodyguard, Larry Cockell, the special agent in charge of the presidential-protection division, took himself off the job last week after Chief Justice William Rehnquist ruled that Ken Starr could interrogate Cockell about what he has seen and heard at Clinton's side. Cockell could lose the SAIC job forever because putting him back on after all the publicity over his subpoena could be too disruptive to his sensitive assignment.
Agents who have been in Cockell's shoes say establishing trust is essential to ensuring the President's safety. For that reason, only the finest agents have a chance to become the SAIC. Cockell is the 24th agent (and the first African American) to hold the post in the protection division's 96-year history. The service's 2,100 plainclothes agents are recruited mostly from the military and law-enforcement departments. All of them have college degrees. Lewis Merletti, the current Secret Service director and a former SAIC, joined the service after a stint in the Special Forces in Vietnam. Cockell, 47, served in the Army and was a St. Louis, Mo., homicide detective before he came aboard 17 years ago. After stints guarding Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Cockell ran the agency's San Francisco office before returning to the detail in June 1996, two months after Monica Lewinsky left the White House. Last February he became the SAIC.
All recruits spend six or seven years in the field before getting their first taste of the presidential detail. Three additional years of seasoning are required before an agent is given the responsibility of preparing security for a major presidential event. (It falls to the SAIC to plan for such dicey foreign ventures as Clinton's 1997 Bosnia tour.) The schedule is routinely grueling. When the President is traveling, a normal eight-hour shift can easily stretch to 18 or even 24 hours. After every six weeks on the job, members of the detail return to the service's facility in Beltsville, Md., to receive two weeks of intensive retraining.
"Stepping into the line of fire is not something you do by instinct," Merletti has said. "It's a perishable skill." The bodyguards earn $90,000 on average plus limited overtime pay. Cockell makes about $110,000 but is exempt from overtime.
Presidents never get to choose their SAIC--a fact that has led to dustups between the service and past Administrations--and relations between a President and his bodyguard can get awkward when professionalism conflicts with familiarity. Gerald Ford used to invite his chief agent up to the family quarters for a drink, but the agent always declined. As a former SAIC says, "You want the President's respect but not his friendship."