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A timely history lesson for the Secret Service [Commentary]

Secret Service agents nursing their wounds from the recent disclosures of incompetence in protecting the president should read Carl Sandburg's account of how one of their forebears failed in his assigned task on the fateful night in April 1865 when Abraham Lincoln went to Ford's Theater.

Mr. Sandburg in the third volume of his masterful biography, "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 1864-1865," gives a chilling account of how John F. Parker, a District of Columbia police officer and one of four assigned to safeguard Lincoln, botched the job.

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According to Mr. Sandburg, quoting White House doorkeeper William H. Crook at the time, Lincoln occasionally took solitary night-time strolls in the vicinity of the White House. "The night guards were expected to protect the president on his expeditions to and from the War Department" (next to the White House), Crook said, "or while he was of any place of amusement and to patrol the corridor outside his room while he slept."

Parker, a 34-year-old Virginian and carpenter who had served as a three-month enlistee in the Army before joining the local police force in 1861, had a suspect career there. In March and April of 1863, Sandburg wrote, he was on trial for "being found asleep on a streetcar when he should have been patrolling his beat; of conduct unbecoming an officer through five weeks of residence in a house of prostitution," and drunkenly firing a revolver there despite "no evidence that there was any robbery there or disturbance of the peace" in the neighborhood.

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Records showed that when Parker was called up in the draft, Mrs. Lincoln had signed a certification on Executive Mansion stationery that Parker "has been detailed for duty" to the White House. On the fated night, he accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's Theater, where outside the presidential box, Mr. Sandburg wrote, it was "the assigned duty and expected responsibility of John F. Parker to stand or sit constantly, with unfailing vigil."

Instead, Mr. Sandburg wrote, "this guard could not see the stage or the actors; but he could hear the words the actors spoke, and he became so interested in them that, incredible as it may seem, he quietly deserted his post of duty, and walking down the dimly-lighted aisle, deliberately took a seat."

Furthermore, Mr. Sandburg wrote, "between acts or at some time when the play was not lively enough to suit him or because of any urge for a pony of whisky under his belt, John F. Parker (left) his seat in the balcony and (went) down to the street and (joined) companions for a little whiff of liquor."

Meanwhile, Mr. Sandburg wrote, a "lurking and vigilant Outsider" later revealed to be actor John Wilkes Booth, who earlier had drilled a small hole in the door to the presidential box, fired the shot that mortally wounded Lincoln. Charges of neglect of duty were brought against Parker, Mr. Sandburg wrote, "but there was not trial on these charges, and it was not until three years later that Parker was to be dishonorably dismissed from the police force for sleeping on his beat."

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Sandburg observed editorially that "the watchguards of public welfare all had other fish to fry, and it was to be many years before the dereliction of John F ... Parker, a non-entity and as such a curiously odd number, was to be duly assessed."

One hundred and forty-nine years later, no single culprit has been identified and blamed for the latest breaches of presidential security that have shocked the country, though at much less cost. The head of the Secret Service has resigned amid promises that the breaches will never happen again.

But the case of John F. Parker should be tattooed on the brains of all current and future guards of the presidential protection service, and of the bureaucrats responsible for assuring foolproof around-the-clock vigilance wherever the president may be.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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