Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, by Carol Leonnig

Nine stars

Always one to gravitate towards books of a political nature, I have come to enjoy those penned by Carol Leonnig. While I have read some of her collaborative work previously, this was my first foray into her independent writing, which was just as captivating and revealing. Many would think of the Secret Service as the protection detail behind the scenes, saving those of some political ilk from threats and keeping the riffraff away. However, Leonnig explores not only the new ‘poltiical protection’ role of the Secret Service, but also some of the gaffes in which they have been involved, which brought some unwanted attention to the role. Leonnig does a masterful job in her explanations and description analysis of the Secret Service, choosing to educate the reader, rather than use it as a tell-all or smear piece.

The Secret Service are by no means a new arm of the US Government, but their role as political protectors has really come to fruition in the last number of decades. Carol Leonnig explores when the shift took place to move the Secret Service from primarily involved in the realm of the US Treasury to being point people for political figures, especially the President of the United States (POTUS). The significant shift can be traced back to the Kennedy Administration, though this was also the start of the major gaffes in which the Service found itself, namely the Kennedy assassination in 1963.

Leonnig moves through each of the presidents from Kennedy to Trump with some cursory explanation of the evolving role of members of the Service, as well as some detailed discussion of any major assassination attempt made or plot revealed regarding POTUS. Leonnig opens the reader’s eyes to just how busy the Service tends to be, chasing down leads and keeping things straight for all those involved in the preparation of trips, both foreign and domestic. In addition to protection, Leonnig explores some of the ‘secret keeping’ roles that members of the Service had to keep, from Obama’s smoking to Clinton’s nightly rendezvous with a variety of women. While readers may not be shocked to read about this, substantiating media rumours solidifies much of what is known about a number of those holding the highest office in the land.

In the latter portion of the book, Leonnig explores the three most recent Administrations with additional analysis, including some of the more scandalous sides of the Secret Service. Leonnig seeks not to out those who worked on the various details, but to offer some substantial explanation as to just how rampant issues and abuse of power can be, which may not be well known to the reader. Use of taxpayer dollars to drink, cavort, and put the protected at risk because of a lack of acuteness cannot be lost on what comes out in the narrative, though there is a need to understand that these men (and some women) are human and will likely ‘play while the cat is away’. Leonnig offers up some raw and straightforward explanations from what she has been able to garner, putting the Secret Service under the microscope to se how effective they have been and could be into the future.

No shock to the attentive reader, when it comes to Trump, things within the Secret Service took a highly political direction. As Leonnig discusses, Trump uses the Service as a private security force and made sure the taxpayer footed the additional bill. Using blind loyalty to ensure job security, in an organisation that is to be apolitical, Trump soiled things to the point of making another mockery of a core American institution. Leaving bitterness and destruction in his wake, Trump left the Service divided and forced America to clean up the mess, riddled in falsehoods.

I was not looking for a tell-all book or something that would seek to dismantle the structure of the Secret Service. Carol Leonnig did not provide that either. Instead, she left the reader feeling well-informed about what is taking place within the Service and how the machine works, both when well-oiled and as the wheels are falling off. Her frank narrative opens up many questions, but also seeks to educate the reader as to what is going on, which proves highly educational. Seen mostly as being the wallflowers they hope to be, members of the Secret Service have a special role, particularly when protecting POTUS on a day to day basis. However, in being given that responsibility, there is a high standard that must be met, something that Leonnig discusses on a regular basis. Lengthy chapters offer great insight into what has been going on and how things have evolved (and perhaps devolved) since the Kennedy Administration. Leonnig takes the reader on a ride like no other and substantiates much of what she says through interviews and detailed research. As with the other books of hers I have read, I leave this experience with a great deal more knowledge and a thirst to obtain more, as time permits.

Kudos, Madam Leonnig, for shedding some light on this most interesting topic. I look forward to reading more of your work soon.