A wake-up call for the White House [Commentary]

The latest disclosures of Secret Service breakdowns in the agency's prime mission, the physical protection of the president, are grim reminders of a most disturbing and particularly American malady — the assassination of the nation's political leaders.

Four presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy — have been assassinated. Attempts also were made on the lives of three others: Franklin D. Roosevelt as president-elect in Miami in 1933, Gerald Ford twice in 1975, in San Francisco and Sacramento, and Ronald Reagan in Washington in 1981, only weeks after taking office.


A presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, was gunned down in 1968 in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles. In 1972, another candidate, George Wallace, was crippled for life by a would-be assassin in a Washington suburb. That's not to mention the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., slain in 1968 in Memphis. To this day, threats pour into the Secret Service of other real or contemplated attempts to kill American political leaders.

The deaths and near-deaths of presidents and presidential candidates have raised questions in political circles about the matter of presidential succession. In eight instances, nearly 20 percent of all presidencies, the death of the president has ushered the vice president into the Oval Office.


Beside the four assassinations, four elevations resulted from deaths of nonviolent causes — William Henry Harrison in 1841, Zachary Taylor in 1850, Warren G. Harding in 1923 and FDR in 1945. A ninth came in the only resignation, that of Richard Nixon in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

In some of these cases, vice presidents were elevated to the consternation of incumbent party leaders. Harrison, a Whig, was succeeded by John Tyler, a Jackson Democrat placed on the ticket for political reasons. In 1975, Nixon, appalled at the notion that his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, might become president, plotted to remove him from the line of succession by, among other bizarre ideas, appointing him to the Supreme Court. Instead, Agnew's own crimes of accepting bribes as governor of Maryland removed him, also by resignation.

By and large, for most of the nation's history, the nomination of individuals to be "a heartbeat from the presidency" was a frivolous if not reckless exercise. Perhaps the most baffling example was the senior George Bush's choice of lightly regarded Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988. Only eight years earlier, Mr. Bush himself had been Reagan's vice president at the time of Reagan's near-assassination. One might have thought he would have been more mindful of that fact.

Fortunately, with that exception, most recent vice presidents and vice-presidential nominees have been experienced, well respected and considered as capable of assuming the presidency if circumstances so dictated. Vice presidents Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden all came into the office with strong credentials from earlier offices and party leadership roles.

Even so, presidential nominees on occasion have continued to choose running mates for obvious political reasons. Democrat Mr. Mondale in his 1988 presidential campaign against the elder Bush chose little-known Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York in the hope of a strong women's vote.

In 2008, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain chose little-known Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska in a long-shot gamble to rescue his sinking campaign against Barack Obama. She proved to be a charismatic candidate but embarrassingly ill informed on major issues as a potential president-in-waiting.

This history alone confirms how critical it is that presidential nominees choose their running mates responsibly, making sure they have the qualifications necessary to sit in the Oval Office if destiny so dictates. Meanwhile, the failure of the Secret Service to guard this or any president against harm from any physical threat is both inexcusable and incomprehensible, considering the stakes for the country as well as the occupant.

The latest disclosures of laxity and incompetence go far beyond earlier reports of Secret Service agents getting tipsy or overly amorous on foreign junkets with the Commander-in-Chief. Anyone who has witnessed agents meticulously scanning crowds at public appearances can attest to their relentless vigilance. That's all the more reason for the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for the Secret Service, to thoroughly review its procedures for choosing, training and tightening up this most critical policing by the corps of presidential watchdogs.


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

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