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  1. Opinion

Secret Service secrecy wasn't doing a real service

Published Apr. 24, 2012

I had a run-in with the U.S. Secret Service once.

President Jimmy Carter was visiting Fort Hood in central Texas. I was the news editor of the newspaper in nearby Temple. Everyone on the staff was assigned to go to the landing strip to see the president greet the crowd before he was taken off to watch some field exercises. We had to write a story even if it was an interview with someone who got to shake hands with Carter. The editor didn't go. Someone had to stay in the office to answer the phone.

When we got to the fort, the runway was lined with military personnel and families. A platform was built for the local press to stand and take pictures. I preferred to walk around and mingle with the crowd and ask silly questions: Why are you here? Are you excited?

Before I knew it, a guy in a T-shirt and shorts introduced himself as a sergeant and started telling me things I knew my newspaper would never print. For instance, Fort Hood staff had to take parts from three vehicles to put together one that would run. He thought they were giving President Carter the wrong image of the Army's capabilities. Also, he said he was concerned about the level of competency of recruits. He said he had some men in his command didn't now how to use a latrine.

Even at that age, I had my smile-and-nod routine down pat. I could never put any of that in a newspaper article because I was a coward with a family to support. Watergate would have never been disclosed if I had been there instead of Woodward and Bernstein.

In the middle of his discourse, a Secret Service agent and an Army officer — both of them huge men — interrupted, saying this was an illegal meeting. The young sergeant evaporated into the crowd. They told me the press was only supposed to be on the reserved platform. Like I said, I was a coward so I obediently went to the platform.

Incidentally, when I got to the platform, the military families were screaming at us to get out of the way.

"Stupid media! You think you're better than everybody else!"

Carter's plane finally landed, and he went down the line shaking as many hands as he could. He was shorter than I thought and didn't smile much. One child froze as he had the president in front of him and kept pressing the shoot button on his Instamatic camera, but nothing happened. Carter took the camera advanced the film and handed it back to the boy who froze again. The boy's father grabbed him and pushed through the crowd to catch up with Carter, where the picture was finally taken.

My story was very insipid, and I was embarrassed to have it on the front page, but after all I was the news editor. The main story, written by the full-time Fort Hood reporter, said the president was impressed by the military power exhibited during the field exercise.

Within six months the rescue mission for the Iran hostages failed when the equipment broke down. Carter took full responsibility as commander in chief. I remembered what the sergeant had told me and wondered if the Secret Service agent would have better served the president that day by introducing him to the sergeant and not quashing our illegal meeting.

I can't blame him much though. Maybe the agent's judgment was impaired because he had been out partying too hard the night before.

Jerry Cowling is a writer and storyteller from Brooksville.