Authors: Ronald Kessler
At first, agents were sure the crash was an attempt on Ford’s life. But after Salamites was questioned for a few hours, he was released, and Hartford police said he was not to blame for the accident.
The press portrayed Ford as a dullard and a klutz, but agents say he was neither. A University of Michigan football player who was voted most valuable player, Ford was an expert skier who taunted agents who could not keep up with him. Finally, the Secret Service assigned a world-class skier to his detail. The agent would ski backward and wave as the president tried to catch up with him.
“Ford was a very athletic guy” says Dennis Chomicki, who was on his detail. “He used to swim every day, he was a good golfer, and he was an outstanding skier.”
But one day after he left office, Ford was driving an electric golf cart in Palm Springs, California, when he accidentally crashed into an electric panel hanging on the wall of a shack for golf carts.
“The whole panel came off its fasteners and fell down on top of the carts,” Chomicki says. “He was mad as hell, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, after all those years, they were all right. All the reporters used to say I was awkward. Well, they’re right. I’m just one big clumsy sonofabitch.’ And he walked away.”
Unlike many other presidents, Ford never engaged in any dalliances. Until
The Miami Herald
revealed Gary Hart’s fling with Donna Rice in May 1987, the media had not exposed extramarital affairs of presidents
and presidential candidates. Indeed, throughout American history, the press had been aware of presidential affairs and covered up for occupants of the White House. Yet the hypocrisy and lack of judgment exhibited by a politician engaging in extramarital relations is a clue to character that the electorate needs to consider.
Ironically, the press’s record was broken only because
The Miami Herald’s
political editor Tom Fiedler wrote a column defending Hart, the Democratic Party’s leading contender, against unsubstantiated rumors of being a womanizer. A woman who refused to identify herself called Fiedler to say she disagreed with his column. In fact, she said a friend of hers who was a part-time model in Miami was flying to Washington that Friday evening to spend the weekend with Hart. The caller described the woman as quite attractive and blond.
Fiedler, reporter Jim McGee, and investigations editor Jim Savage looked at airline schedules and picked out the most likely nonstop flight to Washington that Friday evening, May 1. McGee took the flight and spotted several women who matched the description. One was carrying a distinctive shiny purse. When they touched down in Washington, she disappeared into the crowd.
After taking a cab to Hart’s townhouse, McGee saw the same young woman with the shiny purse walking arm in arm with Hart out the front door of his Washington home. Joined by Savage and Fiedler on Saturday, McGee watched their comings and goings at the town-house for the next twenty-four hours. When Hart came outside and seemed to have spotted them, they confronted him and asked about the beautiful young woman sitting inside his home.
Hart denied that anyone was staying with him.
“I have no personal relationship with the individual you are following,” Hart said. He described the woman as “a friend of a friend of mine” who had come to Washington to visit her friends.
That night, after the story had been filed with Rice still unidentified,
Savage, Fiedler, and McGee met with a Washington friend of Hart’s who had introduced the candidate to Rice. Savage pointed out that the effort to identify the woman would create a media feeding frenzy, and it would be in Hart’s interest to name her. The story ran in
The Miami Herald
on Sunday, May
. That morning, a spokesman for Hart told the Associated Press that the unidentified woman was Donna Rice.
On the same Sunday,
The New York Times
ran a story quoting Hart as denying the allegations of affairs. He challenged the reporters to “follow me around … it will be boring.” Hart continued to deny he had been having an affair with Rice, but CBS ran an amateur video of them together aboard the luxury yacht
in Bimini. CBS noted that Rice, who was not identified, later disembarked from the yacht to compete in a “Hot Bod” contest at a local bar. The
followed with a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s knee on the boat. Hart was forced to withdraw as a presidential contender, a victim of his own arrogance and deceit.
In fact, there was more to the story. According to a former Secret Service agent who was on Hart’s detail, well before his encounter with Rice, Hart routinely cavorted with stunning models and actresses in Los Angeles, courtesy of one of his political advisers, actor Warren Beatty.
“Warren Beatty gave him a key to his house on Mulholland Drive,” the agent says. “It was near Jack Nicholson’s house.” Beatty would arrange to have twenty-year-old women—“tens,” as the agent described them—meet Hart at Beatty’s house.
“Hart would say, ‘We’re expecting a guest,’” the former agent says. “When it was warm, they would wear bikinis and jump in the hot tub in the back. Once in the tub, their tops would often come off. Then they would go into the house. The ‘guests’ stayed well into the night and often left just before sunrise. Beatty was a bachelor, but Hart was a senator running for president and was married.”
Sometimes, the agent says, “There were two or three girls with him at a time. We would say, ‘There goes a ten. There’s a nine. Did you see that? Can you believe that?’ Hart did not care. He was like a kid in a candy store.”
Asked for comment, Gayle Samek, his spokesperson, said, “Senator Hart tends to focus on the present rather than the past, so there’s no comment.”
O ENTER THE West Wing, a visitor presses a white button on an intercom mounted at the northwest gate and announces himself. If the visitor appears legitimate, a uniformed Secret Service officer electronically unlocks the gate, allowing the visitor to enter. He then passes his driver’s license or other government photo identification through a slot in a bulletproof booth to one of four uniformed Secret Service officers.
Before being allowed into the White House, a visitor with an appointment must provide his Social Security number and birth date in advance. The Uniformed Division checks to see if the individual is listed by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) maintained by the FBI or by the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (NLETS) as having been arrested or as having violated laws.
Besides the threat list compiled by the Secret Service, the Uniformed Division maintains a Do Not Admit list of about a hundred people who are barred from the White House because they have caused embarrassment. For example, the White House press office may place a journalist on the list because he or she made it a practice of disobeying rules about where reporters may wander in the White House.
If a visitor is on the appointment list and has been cleared, he is given a pass and allowed into the security booth. The visitor swipes the pass and goes through a metal detector before being allowed to walk outside again toward the West Wing. For years, when most people thought of the White House, they thought of the main building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which serves as the president’s home and once served as his office. Abraham Lincoln had his office in what is now known as the Lincoln bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Only with the recent TV series has the public come to understand that the West Wing now houses the presidential offices.
The West Wing was added onto the White House in 1902. In 1909, the president’s Oval Office was constructed in the center of the south side of the West Wing. In 1934, it was moved to its current location on the southeast corner, overlooking the Rose Garden. Finally, in 1942, the East Wing was built to house the offices of the first lady as well as the White House military office.
A visitor to the West Wing passes more than a dozen TV cameras on tripods sprouting along the driveway that leads to the entrance to the West Wing lobby. This strip, where correspondents broadcast from the White House, was once known as Pebble Beach. Now, because flagstone has replaced the pebbles, wags in the press corps call it Stonehenge. A separate entrance to the left of the lobby entrance goes directly to the James S. Brady press briefing room. White House correspondents must pass a Secret Service background check before being issued press credentials that let them go through the security booth when the pass is swiped.
Even with appointments, the Secret Service will not admit visitors if they have violations involving assaults or fraud. If an individual had a conviction for marijuana use ten years earlier, for example, officers will inform the White House employee who is expecting the guest.
Then the decision to admit the person falls to the aide, who may invent an excuse to cancel the appointment.
Occasionally, a wanted fugitive makes the mistake of setting up an appointment at the White House, which is code-named Crown. During the administration of George H. W. Bush, a man who was wanted for grand larceny planned to enter the White House with a friend of Bush’s. He submitted his Social Security number in advance of the appointment. The Secret Service arrested him on arrival.
“If there is a warrant, the [computer] screen says, ‘There is a warrant for this man’s arrest. Call an agent,’” a Secret Service agent says.
Richard C. Weaver, a self-proclaimed Christian minister, made it through all the security layers and walked right up to President George W. Bush during his inauguration in 2001. He proceeded to shake his hand and hand him an inaugural coin and a message from God. Known to the Secret Service as the Handshake Man, Weaver had pulled the same stunt when Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Apparently, he was on the inaugural committee’s access list. After the Bush inaugural, he tried a few other times to gain access to presidents and senators.
“His picture is plastered in every security booth we have,” a Secret Service agent says.
As with the question of how much protection a president should have, the amount of security around the White House has always been an issue of contention. For decades, the District of Columbia government resisted closing off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. When a threat arose or a demonstration took place, the Secret Service would close off the street or encircle the White House with buses. During the Reagan administration, Jersey barriers were installed around the perimeter of the White House complex. In 1990, they were replaced with bollards. The gates were reinforced with steel beams that rise from the ground after the gates are closed. After 9/11,
the Bush administration turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a pedestrian plaza.
“One reason we reinforced the gates is people have tried to drive their cars through the gates to see the president,” a longtime agent says. “An iron beam comes out of the ground behind those gates when the gates close. A two-ton truck could slam them at forty miles per hour, and they will withstand it.”
The Secret Service’s Technical Security Division (TSD) installs devices at White House entrances to detect radiation and explosives. Populated with real-life versions of Q, James Bond’s fictional gadget master, TSD sweeps the White House and hotel rooms for electronic bugs. While electronic bugs have never been found in the White House, they are occasionally found in hotel rooms because they were planted to pick up conversations of previous guests. When Ronald Reagan was to stay at a hotel in Los Angeles, for example, the Technical Security Division found a bug in the suite he was to occupy. It turned out the previous occupant was Elton John.
TSD samples the air and water in the White House for contaminants, radioactivity, and deadly bacteria. It keeps air in the White House at high pressure to expel possible contaminants. It provides agents with special hoods called expedient hoods to be placed over the president’s head in the event of a chemical attack. Each year, TSD screens nearly a million pieces of mail sent to the White House for pathogens and other biological threats. In conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories, it runs top secret risk assessments to find any holes in physical or cyber security measures.
In case an assassin manages to penetrate all the security to see the president, TSD installs panic buttons and alarms in the Oval Office and the residence part of the White House. They can be used if there is a medical emergency or physical threat. Many of the alarm triggers
are small presidential seals that sit on tables or desks and are activated if knocked over.
The panic alarms bring Secret Service agents running, guns drawn. Besides agents and uniformed officers stationed around the Oval Office, the agents deployed to W-16 under the Oval Office can leap up the stairway in a few seconds.
As a last resort, the White House has emergency escape routes, including a tunnel that is ten feet wide and seven feet high. It extends from a subbasement of the White House under the East Wing to the basement of the Treasury Department adjacent to the White House grounds.