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Scandal Puts Secret Service Culture In The Spotlight


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Over the weekend, scandal overshadowed the president's visit to a hemispheric summit in Colombia. Reports accused 11 U.S. Secret Service agents of cavorting with prostitutes ahead of the president's arrival.

Yesterday, we learned that members of the U.S. military may also have been involved as well. The agents were quickly flown home; placed on administrative leave, with their security clearances on hold pending investigation. Officials say the president's security was never at risk. Some in Congress say if that's so, it's just a matter of luck.

In any case, the incident tainted the sterling reputation of an elite force and raises - question about its administration, and about the culture, of the men and women of the Secret Service. We want to hear from you: What questions do you have about what happened or what that says about the Secret Service - 800-989-8255 is the phone number; the email address, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what's your smartphone addiction - Farmville? And what does it say about you? Email us, But first, Ronald Kessler is the author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect"; a former reporter for the Washington Post. He's now chief Washington correspondent of, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

RONALD KESSLER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And what do we know about what happened here?

KESSLER: You know, I broke this story in the Washington Post, and it's pretty straightforward. It's 11 agents with various duties - some advance, some counterassault team, some counter sniper team - who became involved in hiring prostitutes. And one of the prostitutes complained that she was not being paid, and that led to police being notified and finally, the State Department and then the Secret Service.

Some of the agents were married. Each one of them could have tremendously compromised the president. Each one of them, if blackmailed by one of these prostitutes, could have provided access to a terrorist, for example, to do an assassination; or simply told a terrorist exactly where the president was going to be, and at what time at a particular entrance or exit to a hotel, for example; could have provided cooperation to the foreign - to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to plant bugging devices.

And these are things that could have happened in the future. It didn't have to happen right away. And that's the way things are done, you know. For example, you remember Clayton Lonetree, the Marine who was caught spying for the Soviet Union? That was because of a so-called honeypot operation, where a so-called swallow - a very, very lovely woman by the name Violetta Siena - began having sex with him. And before he knew it, he was giving all kinds of secrets to the Soviets.

CONAN: We also - you mentioned Marines. We're told, after a briefing from the director of the Secret Service with Sen. Collins of Maine last night, that 20 women were allegedly brought to the hotel - 11 for the Secret Service agents, others for United States Marines. What - is that correct, as far as you know?

KESSLER: I believe that's right. You know, I'm sure it's going to keep spreading - and they're going to find out more and more and more.

CONAN: And what would the Marines have been doing there in advance of the president's trip?

KESSLER: All kinds of logistical support. The military supports all these foreign operations.

CONAN: In the White House today, the president's press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked about this, and the president spoke to support the director of the Secret Service.

JAY CARNEY: The president has confidence in the director of the Secret Service. Director Sullivan acted quickly in response to this incident and is overseeing an investigation, as we speak, into the matter.

CONAN: And the president - is there anything to implicate the administration of the Secret Service in this scandal?

KESSLER: You know, if President Bush were in office, the press would be calling for his head over this thing. It's incredible that...

CONAN: Really?

KESSLER: Really. There's been one debacle after another. We saw the Salahis go prancing into the White House without being on the guest list; the Secret Service consciously ignoring the fact that they were not on the guest list. Carlos Allen - a third intruder as well; I broke that story. Now, you see this incredible compromise, and they're praising the director because he got the agents out of there quickly.

Is that the standard we should go by? It seems that the standard is, well, there was no assassination and therefore, we did a great job. This is one scandal after another, and in my book "In the President's Secret Service," I reveal dozens of other examples of corner-cutting, each one of which should result in the firing of Director Sullivan.

For example, that - on a regular basis, agents will allow people into events without magnetometer screening. At one particular event involving Joe Biden, when he threw the first pitch at an Orioles game, they did no magnetometer screening at all. That means - that's just like letting passengers into an airplane without metal detection. That, alone, could allow terrorists to come in with grenades and weapons, and wipe out either the president or the vice president.

Beyond that, they are not keeping up to date with the latest firearms. They are not requiring regular physical fitness tests and regular firearms requalification tests. And they cover that up by asking the agents to fill out their own test scores. So what kind of an agency is this? It's an agency where the director has been tolerating corner-cutting, tolerating laxness. And I think that what happened in Colombia is a symptom of that kind of culture.

And it's not partying. It's not that agents are goofballs; they're not. They're very impressive people. They'll take a bullet for the president. But they're being let down by their own director.

CONAN: We're talking with Ronald Kessler - again, his book, "In the President's Secret Service" - 800-989-8255, if you have questions about what happened in Colombia over the weekend or what it says about the administration, the Secret Service, or about the culture of the men and women who protect the president. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email Eric's(ph) on the line with us from Rock Springs in Wyoming.

ERIC: Yeah, hi, I just wanted to make the point that I was in the military. My dad and my grandfather were both military men. And we all visited prostitutes. It's just a thing that American servicemen do overseas. And I've been to Colombia. It is legal there. I mean...

KESSLER: Yeah, but these people had top secret security clearances. I don't know if you had a security clearance like that or, you know, could have provided access...

CONAN: If you'd let the caller talk for just a minute. Eric, go ahead, please.

ERIC: I had top secret security clearance. I was an advanced electronics specialist on a destroyer. I've been to Colombia...

KESSLER: And were you married at the time?

ERIC: Yes. I think the fact that these men visited prostitutes...

KESSLER: Well, you should've...

CONAN: Would you please let him talk for just a second, and then you can have your say?

KESSLER: I'm just trying to speed it along.

CONAN: Eric - I'll take of that. Thank you. Eric, go ahead.

ERIC: I think the fact that these men visited prostitutes is being blown out of proportion. All the other failings of the Secret Service aside, American servicemen visit prostitutes overseas in countries where it's legal.

CONAN: This is - it is legal in Colombia. But as you point out, because it is regarded as a major disqualification for the Secret Service, that would leave these men open to - well, beyond the fact if a bug was planted on their clothes or whatever or not, but it would leave them open to blackmail.

KESSLER: Sure. I mean, why have a Secret Service at all if you're going to let them be blackmailed and compromised in this way? And it's a little questionable, just how legal it is in Colombia. There are areas that are designated as being legal but beyond that, they're not supposed to be - it's not supposed to be legal.

But that's not the point. The point is they are supposed to adhere to our own standards, our own requirements. And people are routinely fired, and their clearances lifted, for just this kind of conduct.

CONAN: And Eric, had your commanding officer, or the executive officer of your vessel, known about this, do you think your clearance would have been lifted?

ERIC: I don't think it would have mattered, no.

CONAN: I think you might be wrong about that, but...

ERIC: It's part of military culture. You know, it's known. Like, our wives knew that we were probably going to visit prostitutes. And as long we didn't bring a disease or a child home, it wasn't really something that we talked about.

KESSLER: OK, well, this is the mindset that the agents had, and they are now without their clearances and about to be fired.

CONAN: Let's go next to Carvin(ph), Carvin with us from Rochester, New York.

CARVIN: Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CARVIN: I just believe that when taken in the aggregate, this is very, very, very dangerous. You have members of Congress - he's a liar. You have the birther movement. You have every form of attempt to discredit this man as president of the United States. And now, we have lax security. What is it going to take for appropriate members of our country, and in positions of responsibility, to recognize what's going on?

I am extremely concerned about this, and it is fortunate that nothing terrible did happen. But they're setting the stage for something to happen.

CONAN: Do you think this represents the agency, the Secret Service, having some kind of disrespect for this particular president?

CARVIN: I think it's absolutely true. How can it be viewed any other way?

KESSLER: You know, this is the kind of conspiracy theory that we hear from the extreme right when they come up with the idea that Obama was born someplace else; that somehow this, you know, obvious misconduct, as the Secret Service put it, is somehow involved in some kind of great, grand conspiracy.

It so happens that Mark Sullivan, the director, was appointed by President Bush. And it also so happens that both Republicans and Democrats seem to be supporting him. For example Darrell Issa, Peter King on the Hill, they're both Republicans, and they're both what I would call apologists for Mr. Sullivan.

CONAN: They are - and Carvin, thank you very much for the call. But they both say that this is an agency that has done its job very well, and this is an administrator who's done his job well.

KESSLER: Well, it's done its job well in the sense that there has not been an assassination in many years. But we don't want another assassination. And the way you prevent that is to insist on high standards, which the Secret Service used to do. And now - in my book, you know, I interviewed dozens - actually up to 100 current agents, former agents. And the ones who are current and are aware of the practices are absolutely beside themselves.

And that's why I keep getting these leaks about what is going on, because they are so worried that this president will be killed.

CONAN: And this is the result of an administrator who is - and we just have a few seconds left - sloppy, or...

KESSLER: He's just out to lunch. You know, he's a very nice guy, and I interviewed him for this book, and we schmoozed about all kinds of ice hockey that he likes to do. He's from Arlington, Mass, next to Belmont, where I grew up. And so everyone likes him. OK, great. But A, you have to look at the results, and the results are scandalous; and B, you have to - if you get into it, as I did in my book, "In the President's Secret Service," - you get the details of how this happens; why the laxness is tolerated, how it's communicated to the agents, the fact that the agents are terribly overworked to begin with. And that all contributes to this.

CONAN: Ronald Kessler, thanks very much for your time today, we appreciate it. Again, the name of the book, "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect." When we come back, we'll be speaking with Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of another book, "Standing Next to History." We're talking about the Secret Service. This is NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The U.S. Secret Service has a long and storied history. These days, agents are in the news for alleged misconduct in Colombia in advance of a presidential visit there. The agency was actually established in 1865 to combat counterfeiting, a huge problem in the years following the Civil War.

It wasn't until President William McKinley's assassination in 1901 that the agency took up its second - and now, its most pressing - mission: to protect the president. We'd like to hear from you about - if you have questions about the current scandal and what it says about the culture and duties of the men and women of the Secret Service, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now, Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JEFFREY ROBINSON: Neal, it's always a pleasure. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks. And as you hear about this scandal in Cartagena, is this something that you regard as a one-off, something anomalous; or is this something that's part of a pattern?

ROBINSON: Unlike Mr. Kessler, I do not see the sky falling in - Chicken Little, Chicken Little. No, no, no, no. This has all got to be put into perspective. First of all, it should not be politicized. This is not a political event. It had nothing to do with the president. At no time whatsoever was presidential security breached. There was no threat, directly or indirectly, to presidential security.

These 11 guys, you know, when you get 11 guys together with a lot of testosterone, things happen. It happens in the Secret Service, it happens with the New York Yankees...


ROBINSON: It happens in fraternities. I suspect it would happen in the House of Representatives.

CONAN: And yet let me be the first to say that the Yankees and the fraternities are not tasked to protect the president of the United States...

ROBINSON: You're absolutely right about that, but this...

CONAN: As Mr. Kessler said, one of these could have been a double agent. There could have been blackmail. There could have been a bug.

ROBINSON: Yeah, right. And Elvis is alive, and the Earth is flat. Listen, these guys were supplementary. They were in support of the operation. When the president travels, there are 800 to 1,000 people who travel with him, including a huge contingent of Secret Service who have been on the ground for a long time.

As I understand it, some of these guys were uniformed officers. Those are the people who handle magnetrons - you know, the metal detectors. They handle the dogs. They handle support services. They were not part of the official advance team who had been there for 10 days. They had nothing to do with presidential protection directly.

The PPD, the Presidential Protective Division, is in charge of the president. And they completely and totally control the environment in which he functions. These guys - I find it very difficult to believe that they could have done anything even if one of them had been blackmailed and wanted to. That said, businessmen who go to Colombia - and I wrote a big book about drug trafficking down there - the Secret Service, anybody going to Colombia puts themselves in a certain amount of risk when you start fooling around with prostitutes. That's true.

But to draw a line from that personal risk all the way back to a possible assassination attempt on the president of the United States, is stretching one's imagination a little too much.

CONAN: So members of the Secret Service but not members of the - if you will, the A-Team.

ROBINSON: Well, listen, the Secret Service are a great bunch of men and women. They really are. They are very, very special people. The A-Team, that Presidential Protection Division - or the Vice Presidential Protection Division, which is exactly the same - are really the cream of the crop. And you don't get there - it's not a direct route just because you join the Secret Service.

Most of your work - in fact, for the first five years, usually you're in an office somewhere, a field office, doing counterfeit investigation. So, you know, presidential protection is a secondary job for most Secret Service people. They may stand post when the president comes to town. These guys were in a secondary situation. They were not directly involved with the security of the president.

And again, to politicize it, I think, is really unfortunate. Is it an embarrassment? Yes. And I'll tell you something about that. When you get to know Secret Service agents, there is a certain amount of pride that reminds me of the Marines. Now, I was in the military back in the '60s - I'm sorry that I'm that old - and I did have a top secret clearance, and I didn't know that that entitled you to go to prostitutes.


CONAN: Well, we had - interesting, we had an email about that from David, who said: The man who said prostitution is part of military culture is wrong. The people in my unit...

ROBINSON: It wasn't part of mine.

CONAN: If I could just finish this email: The people in my unit who I trust with my life are the ones who are loyal and devout to their family. Saying it's part of our culture is degrading to the military and the American people. So yeah.

ROBINSON: Yeah, well, it's also personally degrading. But that said, you've got a lot of testosterone with these people, and we know about the wheels-up parties. That's one thing. Before it happens is an embarrassment to the agency. And as I was saying...

CONAN: Well, the other phrase - we heard you mention wheels-up parties, and that's after the president leaves.

ROBINSON: That's after the president leaves.

CONAN: But we also heard about wheels up, rings off.

ROBINSON: Listen, you know what? If married guys want to fool around like that, they have to answer to their wives or their own conscience. That has nothing to do with me or presidential security. What can I tell you? No, it's not unique.

CONAN: Does it have to do with a culture of a Secret Service that is - you mentioned testosterone - very male-dominated?

ROBINSON: Well, it's not. There are many, many women agents. And, you know, the president's got women protection. Does it have to do with the culture of the Secret Service? No, I think it has to do with the culture of 28-year-old guys who are in a - you know, who have played football and are athletic and are macho and are - share that kind of pride.

And what I wanted to say about the pride that they share with the Marines, that's what's so upsetting about this, especially to the agents that I've spoken to since this broke. They are all saying, how dare they - not because of any threat to the president but because of the damage they've done to the reputation of the Secret Service, and these guys hold that very highly.

CONAN: Let's get to a caller. This is Robert, Robert with us from San Antonio. Robert, are you there?

ROBERT: Hello?

CONAN: Robert, you're on the air, go ahead please.

ROBERT: Yes, sir, this is Robert. I've done 22 years in the Army, and I still work now as a Department of the Army civilian. But all military and civilians, they go downrange, especially in this hemisphere, they have to undergo training, specific training on what are the do's and don'ts. And one of the things that we are chartered with is not supporting activities that propagate the exploitation of women and children. And that's mandatory training. So we know we're not supposed to engage in those activities.

CONAN: I think he's right, Jeffrey Robinson. I'm sure these Secret Service agents were trained that way, too. You mentioned that culture of the elite, like the Marines. These are very special people in a very special job. Are - after a while, given that mentality, do they come to believe, the rules don't apply to me?

ROBINSON: No, because they're also team players. This is - you know, these are not individuals. These are team players, which is one of the reasons, for example, that the Secret Service really likes football players, because they understand that team mentality. And like the Marines going into an operation, you are very dependent on the guy next to you. So the rules do apply because they are so highly trained - especially when you're dealing with presidential protection, where concentration is so vital.

The rules do apply because the result of a failure is inacceptable. I mean, they - Joe Petro, the guy I wrote about in "Standing Next to History," wrote the book with - Joe, who's my old college buddy, would often say that, our job is to bring the president home safely, and there is no acceptable alternative to that.

CONAN: Robert, if you're still there, could you tell us why you think people might come to disregard that training?

ROBERT: Well, I think it's not a norm. You always have your occasions, once in a while, that somebody breaks the rules. And when they do that, obviously, and we find out about it, and we investigate - and we take action because, you know, first of all, it's designed for your safety and the safety of others, and of course you don't want to compromise the mission. So all of those - three factors are the basic premise behind it.

And you know, so if it happens - again, it doesn't happen as a norm; you're always going to have a renegade or two, or people tend to find themselves, come together, and they form a clique, perhaps. And they do engage in such activity. And it's a matter of time before they get caught.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

ROBINSON: Neal, Neal, can I add something to what Ron Kessler said about the - Joe Biden throwing out the first pitch?

CONAN: Yeah.

ROBINSON: He's being slightly, slightly misleading - and doing that on purpose, I fear. When the president or the vice president goes to throw out the first pitch - and there's a story in "Standing Next to History," of Joe taking Reagan to throw out the first pitch in Baltimore - first of all, the visit is usually unannounced. Even the Orioles, when Joe took Reagan out there, did not know he was coming. He had - they gave him an hour's notice.

People filling up in the ballpark don't have to go through a magnetron because they have no idea that the president's going to be there. In fact, the whole visit was decided two hours before opening. Joe took Reagan there, and because of the way - he didn't want Reagan out on the pitching mound; that was too exposed. So he threw the first pitch from the third-base coach's box.

But a really interesting story is, as you know, the Secret Service controls the president's food. At one point, Reagan turned to the owner of the Baltimore Orioles and said: How would you like a hot dog? - which threw Joe into a slight turmoil because they don't really want him eating just anything.

So he said to one of his guys up in the stands, he says: Go find a really old hotdog salesman - you know, one of the old guys - and bring him down here. And they brought him down into the dugout, figuring the chances of this guy having poisoned a hotdog, on the odd shot that he would give it to the president, was pretty remote. The neat part of it was that Reagan bought three hotdogs, pulled out a $5 bill and handed it to the guy.


CONAN: He hadn't been to a ballpark...

ROBINSON: And the guy...

CONAN: ...for quite a while.

ROBINSON: That's right. And the guy said I'm sorry, Mr. President. They're 3.50 each. Reagan didn't have more than five bucks in his pocket. He had specifically put the five bucks - to buy the hotdog, because he knew he was going to do that.

CONAN: Yeah.

ROBINSON: So Michael Deaver slipped him the money for the hotdog...

CONAN: Well...

ROBINSON: ...very discreetly. He paid it.

CONAN: You talk about poison.

ROBINSON: And that's...

CONAN: You talk about poison. I'm not - no comment on the Camden Yards hotdogs. So...


CONAN: Let's see if we can get Teresa on the line, Teresa with us from Jacksonville.

TERESA: Thank you for having me, Mr. Conan. It's a real honor.

CONAN: Thank you.

TERESA: I am taking offense to the boys-will-be-boys testosterone excuse, because I know many outstanding men in their 20s and 30s that would never dream of sleeping with prostitutes and blaming it on their hormones. And my father was in the Navy, and he would never dream of sleeping with prostitutes or doing anything of this sort, because I think as human beings - man or woman - we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and really demonstrate character, especially if you're going to be in the Secret Service or any other branch of the military. We can't just blame it on a culture, or blame it on hormones.

CONAN: Jeffrey Robinson.

ROBINSON: I absolutely agree with you that we have to be responsible for ourselves, and that's what happens. These men were not responsible for themselves, and they deserve what they're getting. They're all probably looking for work as of right now. They certainly will never rise higher in the Secret Service. But I don't honestly think that they, at any time, exposed the president to any sort of real danger. I think it was simply boys being boys, and I'm afraid boys will be boys. I know, because I was one. I still am, I guess.

TERESA: Well, I appreciate the response, but keep in mind I don't get to say girls will be girls. You know, I don't blame PMS or my hormones on my behavior. So I really think it's time that we hold men to a higher standard. And thank you for...

ROBINSON: Well, that's what - and they're being held to a higher standard. They're probably going to be fired.

CONAN: What's the - thank you very much for the call, Teresa.

TERESA: Thank you.

CONAN: And what's the process now? I mean, this investigation is under way. It's an internal investigation run by the Secret Service itself. Obviously, Congress has great interest. But what's going to happen?

ROBINSON: Well, these men are going to have to face those men who were insulted by this incident. I mean, they have a very rough road to go, because with the pride that they have - and it's facing senior Secret Service officers, who are very proud of the agency - and the damage that they've done, I don't think they stand much of a chance of keeping their jobs.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service," co-authored with Joseph Petro, a longtime friend, and former assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Presidential Protection Division. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Ken's on the line, calling from Chicago.

KEN: Hello?

CONAN: Ken, you're on the air, Ken. Go ahead.

KEN: Yes. I also take offense at Jeffrey's comments. I have a top secret security clearance, working for a different agency. I went through the whole process to become a special agent, and I was offered a position. Part of the interview process, you sit down with several agents in a panel interview.

CONAN: Offered a position in the Secret Service?

KEN: That's correct, special agent.

CONAN: OK, go ahead.

KEN: Part of the interview process, you sit down with the panel and interview with several agents. And I was very dismayed. My superior academic, my character, my leadership qualities were less of a concern to them as if I could participate with the boys' club - or, the wheels-up-type parties and so forth.

CONAN: Really? And how did that get communicated to you?

KEN: The questions. You sit in the room with several agents for several hours, and there's many questions that they ask you. And that was the - not only the impression, but it was part of the conversation among them.

CONAN: Can you recall any specifics?

KEN: I won't give them, sorry.

CONAN: I'm not asking for people's names. I mean, it's - what kind of questions were you asked that led you to that conclusion?

KEN: Well, just as your guest is suggesting, that they compare it to football parties and some of the things you would see in inappropriate college parties, and so forth.

CONAN: So frat boys?

KEN: Correct.

CONAN: All right. Jeffrey Robinson.

ROBINSON: Was it an invitation to party, or was it a will-you-party kind of question?

KEN: It was, will you party.

ROBINSON: That's right. And I suspect if you said yes, I will, you wouldn't have gotten the job.

KEN: I said it wasn't something that I thought I felt comfortable with. And I told them what interest that I had in the agency.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, listen, I can't speak for that interview; I wasn't there. I don't know, you know, the people involved or what happened. But I do know that that - the kind of behavior that those 11 men exhibited in Cartagena is not tolerated.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call. This email from Ruby: The president should not just say, I'll be angry. It should be: These men protect my wife and children and should be fired outright if they have so little respect for the law, my office - and for women, most of all. On the other hand - I'm sure we're getting a lot of emails like that - on the other hand, the president needs to await the results of an investigation, no?

ROBINSON: Well, I would suspect that what he said in public had nothing to do with what he said in private. And I would honestly believe that he let it be known he was furious that this happened - all the more so because it overshadowed whatever was being done in Cartagena.

CONAN: This email is from Wendy: I think this issue is a classic case of hubris. As Wikipedia reminds us, hubris means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality, an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. How is this any different than the type of thinking that led to the whole Wall Street fiasco?

ROBINSON: Hubris - perhaps. Perhaps. But that doesn't mean that hubris is pandemic within the Secret Service. It may very well have been these 11 guys at that time who felt yeah, it doesn't apply to me; or, isn't this fun; or, we're away from home and let's party. Again, the agents I know - especially the ones who have been with PPD and are with PPD - would never, ever, ever tolerate this kind of behavior.

CONAN: And you mentioned earlier, they like to hire people who played football at...


CONAN: ...various levels. And I was particularly interested: Why?

ROBINSON: Because football players are used to working in patterns, and in plays. And if you watch the president - if you watch him work a rope line, for example - you'll see that there are positions taken up by the agents around him. There's always one in front of him; there's one behind him. One's got his hand on - usually, his hand on the president's back. They're there. And then the agents around are working the crowd, looking for hands and eyes. And they will say that. If they see someone in the crowd and they can't see their eyes, they'll say, may we see - your hands, may we see your hands, please?

They're looking for the guy on a perfectly sunny day who's wearing a heavy raincoat. People, when they see the president, regardless of political bent, are happy. I mean, the guy's a rock star. All presidents are rock stars. You want to shake his hand. You want to wave. You want to get some recognition from him. They're looking for the person who is not reacting that way to the president. And they're all in a position. They like football players, because football players understand how to play a position.

CONAN: Jeffrey Robinson, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

ROBINSON: Anytime. It's always a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: The author of more than 25 books, including "Standing Next to History," Jeffrey Robinson joined us from his home - excuse me - from his office in New York. Coming up, your phone buzzes with a prompt to draw something or "Angry Birds" or something - stupid games next, on TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.