Like human surveillance cameras, Secret Service agents see what goes on behind the scenes and are uniquely positioned to assess a president’s or a vice president’s character.
What agents experienced while protecting Joe Biden as vice president was quite different from the jovial “regular Joe” image Mr. Biden seeks to project. In fact, agents considered being assigned to Mr. Biden’s detail the second-worst assignment in the Secret Service.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose detail is considered the worst assignment in the Secret Service, Mr. Biden chatted with agents and went out of his way to spend time with their kids when they visited the White House.
But routinely, Mr. Biden would abruptly decide to go to his home near Wilmington, Delaware, or elsewhere without giving agents any advance notice.
“Biden or his staff continually change the schedule, and that’s a grueling four years for agents to be assigned to his detail because of travel back and forth to Delaware, last-minute movement, and no set schedule,” an agent told me for my book “The First Family Detail” when Mr. Biden was in office. “Sometimes he gives literally a few minutes notice that ‘Hey, we’re going to Wilmington.’”
Because Mr. Biden was so thoughtlessly unpredictable and his personal trips back to Delaware so frequent, the Secret Service rented more than 20 condominiums near his home in Greenville for agents who had to accompany him and stay overnight. Often, Mr. Biden would travel back and forth on Air Force 2 several times a week, costing taxpayers nearly $1 million for these personal trips from the time he took office to March 2013 alone, according to Air Force records I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr. Biden’s unpredictable schedule and lack of consideration turned agents’ personal lives into nightmares.
“It’s tough on people’s family lives and marriages,” a Secret Service agent told me. “Because of the fluid schedule, we don’t have the manpower to allow any time for firearms requalification or physical fitness training.”
“Biden likes to be revered as everyday Joe, and that’s his thing,” another agent said. “But the reality is no agents want to go on his detail because Biden makes agents’ lives so tough.”
Mr. Biden’s lack of consideration was even more stunning when it came to female agents, who were offended that the vice president bizarrely swam naked in front of them often daily at his pools at the vice president’s residence in Washington and at his home in Delaware.
“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them,” publisher Malcolm S. Forbes once said.
In contrast to Mr. Biden, Secret Service agents say Barack Obama, who is still protected as a former president, and Donald Trump both treat them with consideration and respect.
At the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach last January, Mr. Trump invited his agents and the agents protecting his family members who were there to help themselves to the spectacular buffet. Besides the prime New York strip steaks grilled to order, they feasted on the lobster Newburgh, oysters on the half shell, huge cocktail shrimp, sushi, scallops, deep-fried soft shell crabs, paella, rack of lamb, prime rib, pork roast, cakes and pies, and make-your-own hot fudge sundaes, a Trump favorite.
In contrast, because she is so nasty on a daily basis to agents who still protect her as the spouse of a former president, Secret Service agents consider being assigned to Hillary Clinton’s detail a form of punishment.
No one can imagine the kind of pressure that being president of the United States imposes on an individual and how easily power corrupts. To be in command of the most powerful country on Earth, to be able to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice on Air Force One, to be able to grant almost any wish, to take action that affects the lives of millions, is a heady, intoxicating experience that only people with stable personalities and good character values can handle.
The poor personal character of presidents like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson translated into the kind of flawed judgment that led to the Watergate scandal and the continuing fruitless prosecution of the Vietnam War when American security interests were not at stake.
Whether choosing a friend or a new employee, we look for signs of good character. But when it comes to voting for president, we tend to ignore character failings and focus instead on what candidates promise.
Joe Biden gets an A+ for making wild promises and claiming he will help the working man and woman. His character as seen by Secret Service agents and how he treats those people is another matter.
• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is The New York Times bestselling author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.”
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