5 Slapstick Stories from the Secret Service
The Secret Service was created on the very day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It was created by Lincoln himself, and he created it for the purpose of... investigating counterfeiters.
You of course more associate it with protecting the president (not its original goal, hence Lincoln’s disappointing night at the theater). But these attempts to keep assassins from storming the president’s house, storming the president’s plane and storming the president’s secret castle aren’t always serious affairs. Life guarding the president can also get very silly.
Jimmy Carter Mistook a Panic Button for a Toilet Flush
Presidents first get Secret Service protection before they’re even elected. The agency protects candidates, and in 1976, they had to protect some guy named Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy Carter didn’t like spending money, and when he campaigned in New Hampshire, he didn’t like paying for a hotel. He instead found a private house that would have him, and when the Secret Service showed up to make sure he was okay, they found him asleep in his car. To get over the nearby ice and get him to bed, two agents had to carry him, like an oversize baby.
The country elected him president, and when he moved to the White House, it seemed no one properly explained to him what panic buttons are. When the president hits one of these buttons, the Secret Service receive an alarm, and they storm in to his rescue. No locks can keep them out. Carter was in a bathroom near the Oval Office, and with his pants still unzipped, he hit a button that he thought merely flushed the toilet.
The Secret Service barged in, guns drawn. It’s the sort of incident that some people might laugh over, and that might even break the ice between a new president and his security detail, but Carter acted distant toward the agents after this. It seemed he was embarrassed about their seeing his peanut farm.
LBJ Peed on an Agent
On the complete other side of the spectrum was Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson loved showing people his penis. This is the most important fact you should know about him (the second-most important fact is that he was president of America). You might even assume that LBJ is the reason we use the slang term “johnson” for penises, and we had to check to see if that was the case. It’s not; people were using “johnson” that was a hundred years before LBJ became president.
Worst was probably when he took out his penis uninvited during conversations, just to argue a point. For instance, when reporters asked him why the U.S. was in Vietnam, he once unsheathed his penis at them and say, “This is why.” But for the Secret Service, the most common reason they’d have to lay eyes on Jumbo was when he took it out to pee in public.
One time, agents surrounded him closely to block the public’s view when he got out of his car and peed on the road. Johnson did not take much care over exactly where he aimed his stream. “You’re pissing on my leg,” said one agent. “I know I am,” said Johnson, smiling. “That’s my prerogative.”
The Failed Attempt to Paint the White House in Camo
During World War II, the White House shored up its defenses. They installed bulletproof glass, just in case the German army decided to fire upon the building with pistols. They erected a new concrete barrier, which they referred to as bombproof. Most elaborate, and potentially the most effective, they installed an underground shelter in the East Wing.
Faced with a further suggestion, though, FDR put his foot down (er, metaphorically speaking). The Secret Service wanted to paint the White House with a camouflage pattern. FDR objected because the house isn’t supposed to be painted any color. It’s supposed to be white — that’s right in the name. More importantly, he didn’t want to needlessly alarm the public. Plus, camouflage would probably accomplish nothing. If an airplane can identify the huge stretch of lawns south of Pennsylvania Avenue, camouflaging the central building isn’t going to fool anyone into holding their bombs back.
FDR also vetoed plans to surround the White House with tanks or set up rooftop machine gun turrets. Then the Secret Service told Eleanor Roosevelt she could not invite 350 foreign students for tea, nine days after Pearl Harbor. She sarcastically asked if they were going to next dismantle the Washington Monument, which was pretty much one big Jumbo-shaped landmark showing the way to the White House.
The Secret Service also said they could not erect that year’s Christmas tree in Lafayette Square, since it’s so close to the White House. Fine, said the Roosevelts. They’d erect the tree on the south lawn, even closer to the White House.
They Had to Free a Veep with Chainsaws
When their charges aren’t in the White House, the Secret Service follow them to various other spots to guard those too. For example, they’d head to the unappetizingly named Brown House in Virginia, also known as Camp Rapidan, also known as Camp Hoover. Herbert Hoover had the place built in 1929 using his own money, not the presidential budget, because he wanted a retreat for him and his lover, Lou Henry. This would have been hugely scandalous, except for the fact that Lou Henry was his wife, the First Lady.
Camp Rapidan was a fine fishing spot. One time, Hoover invited a cartoonist named “Ding” Darling to come spend time with him there, and the two ditched the Secret Service to go fishing, leaving the agents to fan out through the place’s 200 acres in search of them. We realize this sounds even more like a scandalous love affair than the thing with Lou, but historians assure us they were just friends.
The camp wasn’t as relaxing a spot in the winter, however. Vice President Walter Mondale thought the place sounded like a good place to hang out, even though some of the various cabins had rotted during the previous few decades. Then a snowstorm hit, and he got trapped inside one of those cabins. Lacking any industrial-strength plows, the Secret Service had to attack the aboveground parts of the cabin with chainsaws to free him.
It makes sense to have a chainsaw or two on hand in a place like this. But we like to imagine a couple agents keep chainsaws nearby at all times, just to give their eventual standoff against terrorists that extra bit of magic.
Agents Tried to Shield Nixon from a Mocking Musical
In 1970, the cast of a Broadway show came to the White House to perform. The show was 1776, a very appropriate musical to perform for the president, but some of the case weren’t so keen on hanging out with Richard Nixon. And before they came, the Secret Service contacted them and asked them to skip a few songs. One was a sad bit called “Momma Look Sharp,” and the other was this:
That song, “Cool Considerate Men,” is about conservatives during the Revolution being reluctant to fight, feeling comfortable in their own wealth. The song might rub Nixon the wrong way, figured his staff, so it would be safest to omit it. When the time came to perform, the case disobeyed this instruction. They instead sang the lyrics extra hard, as though protesting right at Nixon.
Do you remember that story about Vice President Pence attending Hamilton, and then President Trump demanding an apology for the cast harassing him (when in fact Pence seemed to enjoy the performance just fine)? Well, on that day in 1970, the cast of 1776 sang their song, hoping to shock President Nixon, and Nixon responded by... giving them a standing ovation, getting up and yelling “bravo.” Ha, ha! Looks like Nixon didn’t mind the song after all!
According to a producer of the screen adaptation of 1776, Nixon later contacted him and pressured him to cut the song, which is why the film does not feature it.