I got word of Sen. Barack Obama’s new Secret Service protection in an appropriate spot: the Reagan Library, on a stage beneath a gleaming Air Force One. The retired plane, polished to a mighty shine, is a symbol of the presidency’s role as the most crucial job on the planet. We (and I mean the world) invest it with the power to summon us to soaring flights of hope, but those flights can shake loose deep forces of hatred and violence.
We probably care too much about the presidency, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. In a busy and fragmented American life, it is our relentless focus.
And that can be dangerous.
We tend to forget that Ronald Reagan’s presidency nearly was snuffed out at its start by an assassin in 1981. The Gipper was lucky to have survived the attack by a lunatic gunman, which took place at the entrance to the Washington Hilton—the same doorway that partygoers use each year for the White House Correspondents Dinner. Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the sunny upland of a generation’s worth of conservative dreams, nearly faded to black on that day.
Now, after growing concern about the vast size and unruly enthusiasm of Obama’s crowds (and some disturbing, threatening chatter on the Internet), the Secret Service has decided to offer early protection to the first African-American with a genuine chance of becoming president. Obama’s campaign made the request, but it didn’t take the Feds long to agree, especially since Obama’s rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has long had such protection as a former First Lady.
I talked to my fellow reporters here about this last night, and they were uniformly relieved. So was I. For all of his Ivy League polish and connections, there is an innocence, almost a naiveté, to Obama and his campaign. (Except for Michelle, his wife, who is as coolly realistic and hard-eyed as they come.) I doubt that there is a reporter who hasn’t thought, fully consciously or not, at one time or another, that the Obama story could take a tumultuous turn.
His February announcement pageant in Springfield, Ill., was, looking back on it, a security disaster waiting to happen. Even with the help of a few private security guards deployed by the campaign itself, the Illinois state and local police did not have an easy time herding and controlling the huge throng that turned out for the event. The hotel lobby was a crush of people that at times overwhelmed the private guards. The candidate and his wife and young daughters had a hard time getting through the crowd to their rooms. The kids did not look happy, and Michelle looked more than a little annoyed.
It was a joyful scene, but on the edge of scary.
Veteran reporters of a certain vintage, survivors of the ’60s, tend to see the world in terms of “Kennedys and King,” and Obama’s supporters often tend to see him as a blend of the two great families. We have miles to go before we know whether Obama deserves to be mentioned in that company in any sense, and he is careful not to overdo his reliance on the cadence and emotion of crusade. He knows he can uncork things, and is careful. Still, the echoes are there.
One colleague of mine, one of the best reporters in the business, told me that he had been listening to a tape of a Bobby Kennedy speech the other day when he realized that the candidate, speaking in Indianapolis in 1968, had a timbre and cadence in his voice that eerily foreshadowed Obama. “I was shocked when I heard it,” he told me at dinner last night. That was a good thing, but ominous: not long after giving that speech, RFK was assassinated in Los Angeles.
All of which, let us hope, is the fearful nattering of an aging baby boomers. But it was a concern that I shared—and a concern that the Secret Service now takes seriously.