Zero Fail | Carol Leonnig

Summary of: Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service
By: Carol Leonnig


Enter the mysterious world of the United States Secret Service with ‘Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service’ by Carol Leonnig. Unravel the history of the organization, its modus operandi, and the situations that have threatened its reputation. From the Kennedy assassination and Nixon’s schemes to Clinton’s extramarital ventures, discover how the Secret Service has evolved to adapt to the challenges presented by a series of diverse presidents. Learn about the internal rifts, changing loyalties and shocking scandals as you explore the events that have shaken the foundations of this clandestine establishment.

The Secret Service’s Haphazard Beginning

In 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, the Secret Service was tasked with protecting presidents with no well-defined strategy. For years, the Secret Service seemed to be managing just fine until President Kennedy came into power. Kennedy’s popularity and continuous public presence necessitated a new kind of protection, which the Secret Service was not equipped to handle. Agents started cutting corners, working double shifts, and accruing overtime, leading to exhaustion and a lack of readiness. On the day of Kennedy’s assassination, some agents had been drinking the night before and were on little sleep. The failure of the Secret Service on that fateful day was a massive one and marked the beginning of more troubles to come.

Nixon’s Paranoia and Ford’s Brush with Death

The Secret Service faced division and danger under Nixon’s paranoia and Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts.

During the Nixon presidency, the Secret Service was repeatedly used to gather dirt on political opponents, particularly the Kennedys. Nixon even attempted to put Teddy Kennedy, the last surviving Kennedy brother, under surveillance by assigning hand-selected agents loyal to the White House. The president’s conniving ways created a divide among the Service’s ranks, with some agents more concerned with pleasing the president rather than keeping him safe. Despite this, the Service foiled attempted assassinations during this time.

Following Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford became president in August 1974. In September 1975, Ford survived two dramatic assassination attempts in only three weeks. The first attempt was made by Lynette Fromme, a follower of notorious cult leader Charles Manson. Fromme aimed to draw attention to pollution by attempting to shoot Ford while he was walking to his car from a hotel in Sacramento. But, thanks to the quick actions of agent Larry Buendorf, the shot was never fired. Just weeks later, Sara Jane Moore, a fanatic who identified with Patty Hearst, narrowly missed shooting Ford outside a San Francisco hotel. A disabled Vietnam veteran in the crowd tackled Moore, and the president escaped unharmed. However, there was a dangerous delay in opening the door to the presidential limo, highlighting the need for improved protection.

These attempted assassinations prompted the Secret Service to implement new protocols, including holding the limo door open for the president as he approached. Despite the danger faced by agents and the president, their efforts to keep him safe ultimately paid off.

Reagan’s Assassination Attempt

In 1981, newly elected US president Ronald Reagan was shot at by John Hinckley Jr. and saved by Secret Service agent Jerry Parr. The incident, however, led to further divides within the Service and a purge of disloyal agents under Reagan’s chosen director, Bob Powis. Reagan’s presidency, therefore, brought new divisions within the Service, which caused concern among the agents of the time.

The Secret Service and Clinton’s Affairs

The Secret Service agents assigned to protect President Bill Clinton got more than they bargained for. Even before he moved into the White House, they knew he had a reputation as a womanizer. During his campaigns and presidency, agents witnessed firsthand his voracious appetite for extramarital affairs, which put them in a difficult position as they were tasked with ignoring an obvious security risk. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a young congressional staffer, was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, and when it did, the Secret Service’s sworn testimony led directly to Clinton’s impeachment. The book reveals the inside scoop of Clinton’s personal life, confirming the rumors that they were true.

The Secret Service Scandals

George W. Bush’s trip to Sarasota, Florida, became an unexpected turning point for the Secret Service. The 9/11 event triggered an organizational change that led to a series of controversies. The agency’s reputation got damaged due to the toleration of horrendous behavior from its highest-ranking members. Even after the replacement of its director, Porngate scandal continued to bring shame to the agency. This summary sheds light on the dangerous strategy the Service had back then—looking the other way.

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