Well shit. I expected pay grades for entry-level Secret Service agents to be modest, but not this modest. Annual salaries start as low as $33,979. If this were offered to a junior secretary or paralegal, it might sound all right, but we’re talking about some of the most intrusively vetted federal agents responsible for some of the most sensitive and stressful jobs in the federal government, most of them assigned to posts in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. A good friend of mine who lives on Scott Circle, a few blocks north of the White House, is paying something over $1,200 a month for a cramped studio apartment in a building where the central air conditioning isn’t always in good working order. I visit this friend at least once a year, usually spending the night, and I can assure you that his apartment is nothing special. If anybody has a compelling reason to live within walking distance of the White House, it’s Secret Service agents with White House assignments, but at pay scales that low, junior agents must have a hard time affording rent anywhere nearby on their own salaries.
The executive branch retains a top-notch palace guard, arguably the best palace guard in world history, at bargain-basement prices. As a former San Diego Police applicant, I hate to imagine the disgusting questions that Secret Service recruits have to answer for their own background investigations for a chance at high-stress, high-stakes assignments as underpaid bodyguards for some of the most entitled people on the face of the earth. Karen Garcia notes that a number of former Secret Service agents have taken jobs with the New York State Police, whose academy salary is $50,374, or $6,010 more than the top entry-level salary at the Secret Service. But the higher pay, lower costs of living around most New York State Police posts, and inherently mellower work assignments aren’t all of it. State troopers have opportunities to interact on a regular basis with members of the general public, some of whom are genuinely grateful and quite pleasant: stranded and lost motorists, innocent parties to car accidents, distressed boaters and swimmers who need swiftwater rescues, that kind of thing. They have to deal with assholes and thugs and hotheads and desperate drunk drivers, but they also have to deal with normal people who are well-adjusted and down-to-earth.
An unlucky few are assigned to guard governors and their families, and a few lucky ones (maybe the same ones) are assigned to guard, say, the California state capitol grounds, which often amounts to parking and keeping an eye on things in a world-class public arboretum, but staties are unlikely end up with long-term assignments on the household staffs of internationally renowned narcissists at the pinnacle of power. They’re unlikely to be assigned to put their lives on the line for supremely ungrateful and privileged mandarins, certainly not ones whose scope of power is imperial. They may be assigned to work inconsistent hours, but they won’t be summoned onto transcontinental or transoceanic flights at all hours of the day and night so that they can keep a hawk’s eye on any threat to a craven asshole who’s probably on the road in order to peddle influence and raise money for himself and other craven assholes, not to execute the legitimate duties of his office, or to guard the same craven asshole’s relatives as they go on quarterly to semimonthly vacations.
The Secret Service is a palace guard that does not mutiny or commit regicide. This is very unusual and very lucky in world history. It doesn’t even stoop to the level of extortion. It recruits consummately trustworthy, loyal, and diligent junior agents at salaries that they’d be able to match as store managers for Dunkin’ Donuts. It recruits these agents from American subcultures whose values are diametrically opposed to the values of those whose lives they’re guarding, with their own bodies if need be. It recruits the children of Mormon yeomen, graduates of ROTC programs and service academies, young meritocrats who are intelligent and alert but too ingrained with natural, unforced modesty to make a big deal of any of it. I knew a guy in college who, last I heard from a mutual friend, was assigned to a guard detail with the Secret Service. He came from a middle-class Nazarene family in a modest exurban township between Reading and Philadelphia, took a lieutenant’s commission in the US Army after graduation, and then he made the cut for one of the most selective law enforcement agencies in the country but apparently told almost no one about it. This dude’s salt-of-the-earth. Nobody on the bougie professional power track, least of all on the Northeast Corridor, is raised to live with that kind of modesty.
The Secret Service finds these people who are of even better character than their acquaintances knew in high school and college. Then it assigns a good number of them to stand guard at all sorts of odd hours, ready to put their lives on the line on a moment’s notice for some of the most entitled, ungrateful, venal, haughty, hypocritical, unstable, disloyal, and cowardly mandarins in the country. And it pays its cheaper junior employees to do this, and much more (including casing venues prior to presidential visits, investigating counterfeit currency, and interviewing hospitalized psychotics who make threats against the president, probably meaning Nixon or FDR) for salaries that they might equal as elementary school teachers’ aides. Then these agents watch colleagues get caught in embarrassments or minor scandals and Congressmen, another venal, chickenshit bunch, hit the roof on cue. There was the hooker thing in Colombia, which was presented in the mainstream media as a prostitution scandal but was really a scandal of stiffing and intimidating the help; the girl was legal and working in a decriminalized legal regime, and she only called the local cops because her clients were drunk, belligerent, and refusing to pay her fee, and she wasn’t in a mood to be extorted by blitzed Yanqui G-men. To get a better idea of the agents’ character, someone should talk to waitstaff at restaurants and coffeehouses where they eat while sober; they’re probably rude and tip for shit. The more recent scandals, so called, hardly even rise to the level of dereliction of duty. In one case, some crazy jumped the White House perimeter fence and evaded a couple of redundant layers of security before being caught by a deeper layer and tackled by a Secret Service agent. In another case, an armed ex-con was allowed to ride an elevator with President Obama, but there have been no claims whatsoever that this guy was behaving inappropriately or had any intent to assassinate anyone: he was a private security guard who carried a gun on the job.
The hand-wringing over these “scandals” at the Secret Service comes from politicians and journalists who never in a million years would have the self-control and moral fiber to be hired as Secret Service agents. Quite a few of them consort with prostitutes, more of them screw anything that moves around their offices, and more yet are up to their eyeballs in hard liquor, pharmaceuticals, and maybe some hard street drugs. If these people were merely horndogs with drug problems, they wouldn’t be a problem for their countrymen, but they simply cannot mind their own fucking business. They can’t come around to Rob Ford’s admission that, yeah, I smoked crack, probably because I was blacked-out drunk. They have too much invested in destroying other people’s careers and lives when doing so is expedient.
What this mandarin class, from the president’s office on down, has been doing to the Secret Service since at least the Clinton administration is moral parasitism of the lowest order. They aren’t even parasitizing an agency that has become intransigent or insolent or extortionate; they’re parasitizing one whose agents continue to show well above-average self-control and honor in exceptionally difficult jobs in exchange for below-average pay for their line of work. How long the Secret Service can continue to hold the line against the human weaknesses of its own agents or infiltration by a Philby or Hanssen type is impossible to say for sure, but the Washington establishment isn’t helping the cause by shitting on one of the most diligent and trustworthy law enforcement agencies in world history for cheap political points. Yeah, as taxpayers we pay their salaries, but it isn’t much of a salary, and in exchange they do their jobs pretty goddamn well, better than most of us could dream of doing. My friend on Scott Circle makes half again to double the salary of an entry-level Secret Service agent, and he’s a code monkey for corporate litigation projects.
This is a case in which the proper response is to tell John Stossel, no, you give me a break, you whiny bastard. You give me a fucking break.