Say the words “Secret Service,” and — thanks to countless television and Hollywood dramas — it’s a safe bet that nearly every American will instantly summon up the image of a clean-cut, watchful agent in a dark suit, murmuring discreetly into a small microphone. For most of us, the Secret Service is synonymous with sober professionalism and selfless courage. But in “Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service,” Carol Leonnig offers a powerful antidote to Hollywood fantasies. There’s plenty of courage in the Secret Service as Leonnig describes it, but not as much professionalism as you might think, and not nearly enough sobriety.
The modern Secret Service was born out of failure: After the assassinations of three presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley — in less than four decades, Congress tasked the agency, initially created for the sole purpose of combating counterfeiting, with presidential protection. It remained small and focused mainly on providing presidents with bodyguard services until another failure: the 1963 assassination of a fourth president, John F. Kennedy. Only after Kennedy’s assassination, Leonnig notes, did the Secret Service grow “from three hundred agents and a $5 million budget to seven thousand agents, officers and other staff and a budget of over $2.2 billion.”