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Commentary: Give the Secret Service a break

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - Listen, everybody who’s anybody in Washington, D.C., is duly shocked and alarmed by the tawdry conduct of Secret Service agents on a recent trip to South America -- except, perhaps, the president himself. He responded to bated-breath inquiries about the scandal by remarking that he’d wait for the findings of an investigation before passing judgment. Occasionally, this guy makes me proud.

By now, it’s common knowledge that an advance team of Secret Service agents and military attaches hired prostitutes while prepping for the Big Guy’s recent trip to Colombia. Two salient facts should be noted at the outset: All U.S. personnel were off-duty at the time and -- not inconsequentially -- prostitution is legal where the misadventure took place.

Further, there is no indication that public funds were misappropriated to pay for the diversion. On the contrary, it’s reasonable to infer the opposite because the incident only came to light after one agent became involved in a heated dispute with a hooker over how much she was owed for services rendered. If the taxpayer were picking up the tab, it would have been easier simply to pay the lady and move on rather than draw attention to yourself by haggling over price.

It strikes me that much of the public contretemps over this boys’-night-out-gone-bad is fueled by chronic hypocrisy regarding sex and a fundamental ignorance of the realities of law enforcement or the military.

Woody Allen was once asked if he thought sex was dirty. He reflected for a moment before responding, “It is, if you do it right.” But Allen is a comedy writer-turned-filmmaker. He thus works in an industry where people are more or less expected to behave like coyotes in heat.

However, politicians, the clergy and other respectable types are expected to be above the fray. They actively burnish their holier-than-images in large part because they fear the puritanical instincts of their audiences.  It’s unclear exactly how many salacious revelations it will take before we finally take a deep breath and admit that people generally like sex. We now know, for instance, that many activities in the Kennedy White House were better suited for the Playboy mansion than the Lincoln bedroom -- but it’s still commendable that JFK managed to avoid nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis.   

Major Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was a prominent Union commander in the Civil War. Biographers advise that he had a reputation as a “hard-drinking ladies man” who was demanding of his troops on the battlefield but indulgent of their off-duty appetites.              

Legend has it that prostitutes came to be known as “hookers” because of the legions of camp followers who trailed in his army’s wake. Though etymologists have documented that the term actually appeared in print years before "Fighting Joe" achieved notoriety, he may have helped to makethe term a permanent part of the lexicon.       

So what? Troops under Hooker’s command did the heavy lifting during the first day’s brutal offensive at Antietam, later suffered bloody defeat against the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, then rebounded nicely with a critical victory at Lookout Mountain -- a battle that allowed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to lift the siege of Union troops in Chattanooga, thus opening the Deep South to the invasion that would ultimately end the war. Does none of this courage and sacrifice matter because the men who displayed it were human?  Isn’t it that very fact that makes their exploits worth remembering?

The Secret Service was established days after the end of the Civil War. In fact, legislation authorizing its creation was found on President Abraham Lincoln’s desk after his assassination. Had the service come into being earlier, it would have done nothing to prevent the tragic events at Ford’s Theater as the agency’s original purpose was to combat the counterfeiting rife during the war.

In the 36 years between 1865 and 1901, three American presidents -- Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley -- were gunned down by assassins. After McKinley's assassination, the service was given the responsibility of guarding the president.    

In the ensuing 111 years, John Kennedy was killed and Ronald Reagan wounded. Numerous other attempts and plots were foiled by a variety of means. As no one I know would argue that domestic tranquility has greatly improved in recent times, it seems obvious that somebody in the Secret Service must be doing something right.

To the uninitiated, members of the distinct but kindred enterprises of the military and law enforcement are expected to be larger-than-life heroes.  Those who actually served know the opposite to be true -- soldiers and cops are just ordinary mortals who are sometimes called upon to perform extraordinary feats. Their suicide and divorce rates reflect the human toll their professions extract.

The conduct in Colombia was indefensible, if for no other reason than it could have resulted in a serious breech of security. Hookers are notoriously unreliable confidantes, and the naked truth is difficult to conceal when you’re naked as well.

An official inquest into the matter is now planned on Capitol Hill.  While I neither condone nor excuse the agents’ indiscretions, I’m not quite sure the Congress is the proper vehicle for expressing moral outrage.