The crash reverberated like an explosion. What had begun as a gorgeous day in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1902, became an occasion of utter carnage. Seconds before, 43-year-old President Theodore Roosevelt had been tipping his beaver top-hat in acknowledgement of the crowds gathered curbside as his horse-drawn landau proceeded south toward Lenox. But suddenly, at the foot of Howard’s Hill, all hell broke loose when a speeding trolley car collided with the open presidential carriage. The President and four other passengers seated therein and atop the driver’s seat were ejected on impact. Women screamed. Horses neighed in pain. The trolley’s brakes squealed. Bedlam erupted.
The normally high-spirited President rose from the street in a daze, his face bruised, lip bleeding, left shin throbbing. The youngest man ever to assume the presidency had sat within inches of becoming the youngest to die. Teddy Roosevelt glanced around, finding his White House secretary, George Cortelyou, clutching at a deep gash on the back of his head. The governor of Massachusetts suffered mere scratches. The coachman was in serious condition. One horse lay dead.
And then there was William “Big Bill” Craig, President Roosevelt’s Secret Service agent. Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 260 pounds, Craig was a handsome, herculean-like man. Always amicable and kind to children, the entire First Family grew fond of him. Discovering Agent Craig’s horribly mangled body beneath the trolley car’s wheels, Roosevelt mournfully dropped to his knees beside the trolley, grieving over the first agent to lose his life in the duty of protecting a president.
Incredibly, despite the fact that both the assassination of President William McKinley and Agent Craig’s death occurred within one calendar year, four additional years would pass before Congress finally approved official around-the-clock Secret Service protection for America’s chief executives. Later, in 1912, ten years following his tragic visit to Pittsfield, former President Roosevelt, then the nominee of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, had no cordon of protection when a fanatic shot him pointblank in the chest as he stood in an open car in Milwaukee. A half century would pass before former presidents and major candidates for the presidency were accorded Secret Service Details.
Fast forward one century to 2012, when prior to President Obama’s visit to Cartagena, Columbia, a dozen Secret Service agents who frequented the seedy PleyClub became involved in illicit escapades with several prostitutes. Their reprehensible shenanigans would likely have gone unreported if not for the agency’s courageous South American chief, Paula Reid, who justifiably blew the whistle on her demeritorious colleagues.
The aforementioned agents who have disgraced the time-honored reputation of the United States Secret Service owe an apology to their fellow agents, past and present: In memory of Theodore Roosevelt’s agent, William Craig. To Leslie Coffelt, who was fatally wounded during the attempted assassination of Harry Truman. To Clint Hill, who saved First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s life and suffered years of personal anguish over his inability to intercept the bullet that killed John Kennedy. To Nicholas Zarvos, who took a bullet in the throat while protecting presidential candidate George Wallace. To Timothy McCarthy, who was seriously wounded during the shooting of Ronald Reagan. And to countless other agents whose bravery and dedication have gone unheralded in the annals of American history.
The current shame rendered by segments of today’s Secret Service is reminiscent of that which occurred on the evening of Good Friday, April 14, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln’s only assigned protector at Ford’s Theatre was a Washington, D.C. police officer whose name was John Parker. Midway through the play he abandoned his post outside the President’s box to imbibe alcohol at the Star Saloon next door. The consequences of Parker’s blatant disregard for Lincoln’s safety could not have been more tragic.
As agents culpable in the Columbian fiasco have been fired or reassigned, a wave of new allegations have surfaced regarding years of on-duty depravity among Secret Service personnel. An apex of public outrage will surely result, hopefully leading to a complete overhaul of the tainted agency and the dismissal or retraining of every “John Parker” therein.
Presidential Historian John Burke Jovich is the author of Reflection on JFK’s Assassination: 250 Famous Americans Remember November 22, 1963. His website is http://www.presidentsupclose.com.