When I was a teenager, I wanted to be president of the United States. That sounds pretty normal, but this was really more of a joke – I always knew perfectly well it wouldn’t be possible, because I’m Canadian. I also don’t possess the money or the skills in any degree whatsoever. I’m not fit to run an office, never mind THE office. But my love of the US has remained. Their culture and history are incredibly rich and complex, with no end to the fascinating things there are to learn about it. That culture is the dominant one in our world today, so that also means that no matter where you’re from, this information is completely relevant. Because of their power, their politics are relevant to us all as well.
On the surface this book reads like gossipy trash. Much of the first half is devoted to information about the private lives of presidents and those close to them, and the truth about what kind of people they really were as told by secret service agents who worked very closely with them on a routine basis. The information is at times hilarious, at others infuriating, but not altogether surprising when you consider the very nature of politics. The agents quoted in the book often saw these politicians and their families in their most intimate moments, far from anything the American public would ever have the opportunity to see. It’s full of anecdotes about not only the private lives of the presidents but of assassinations, assassination attempts, and through these even an exciting gun fight or two. What I thought going in might be a fairly dry book turned out to be a hell of a fun read.
I always knew, through just plain common sense, that politicians were not all they appeared to be. That they had secrets, and they were dishonest. But this was a fairly vague concept to me, and as someone not blessed with the ability to understand politics, it was something I had few if any real examples of. This book really puts it out there in brazen detail, and it can be a lot to take in. Even those you were sure of as being at least less evil than most sometimes have the most appalling secrets. It just might turn your perceptions of the presidency upside down. It may or may not utterly destroy any illusions you had.
The second half of the book gives details about the other side of what it’s like to work in the secret service – poor management, major dysfunction, and horrifying oversights that daily risk the lives of some of the most important people on earth. The information is shocking, and it’s clear that a complete overhaul needs to be done. The book also does a very good job of trying to get to the root of all of these problems, explaining their origins, how agents at various levels of the organization feel about them, and what needs to be done to fix them. It really is hard to overstate how serious the many of the secret service’s faults are.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some first families were truly decent and fantastic people, and they’re given the credit due to them. Some are those you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The book has received criticism over its content, stating that it’s cruel to expose details of anyone’s private life for all to see. But Ronald Kessler makes valid points here defending its existence. There’s a lot of substance in this trash heap. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it. In a way I can see the argument. Bringing attention to the many loopholes in security seems irresponsible at best, however this information is important, as is the information about who the presidents and their families really are. You just can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is or that it’s even there.
And it has a pretty big lesson to teach. Just because you’ve reached the top of your career doesn’t mean you’ve reached your full potential. Many US presidents got there by incredibly dishonest means and were far from being good people. To me, this takes away much of the value of achieving that highest of positions. Really meeting your potential has to do with being the best person you can be, honestly. It’s not related to your career or money or people’s praise. Your value is independent of others noticing it. This book explains that assassins and would-be assassins feel the opposite, that you’re nobody until you’re noticed, but their mistake is the same as those abhorrent presidents, just a lot more obvious. I’m not the least bit disappointed that I could never be president (or any other well-known somebody) because I would be an awful one. My value lies elsewhere. Guilty pleasure as reading this book may feel, this lesson alone makes it worth reading. Kessler’s brutal honesty about those we trust to run the country might be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one we desperately need.
Other recommended reads: Nothing here yet!