Our Not-So-Secret Service

The recent bungling by our country's Secret Service of its mission to protect our president stirs up haunting memories for those of us still emotionally wounded by the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I remember vividly where I was at the moment I learned of his death. I was sitting in a classroom at UCLA, waiting eagerly for the arrival of Dr. James Phillips, the popular English professor who taught an undergraduate course titled "Advanced Shakespeare." He walked through the door, his face ashen, and said simply, "There will be no class today. President Kennedy has been assassinated." As he spoke, the bells in the Royce Hall tower began to toll, and stunned students and faculty streamed onto the quadrangle in front of the building, seeking comfort from the presence of others. Many were weeping. Kennedy, a charismatic figure who had filled his countrymen with hope and optimism for the future, was gone from us, replaced by the canny but uninspiring Lyndon Johnson, with his sad, bloodhound face.

Barack Obama invoked the ghost of Jack Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on the promise of hope restored after eight years of deceitful rule by the administration of George W. Bush. And the country responded, giving him the White House and, for a brief interval, Congress. He has faced daunting challenges both foreign and domestic, none more formidable than a bitter and disloyal Republican Party determined to see him fail. Over the last six years, as unwanted foreign wars have dragged on to no apparent purpose, as domestic programs have floundered from poor execution, as the mounting threats from climate change have been largely ignored, as elites have prospered while the common man suffers a declining quality of life, Obama's star has dimmed. That no one was at home to protect the nation's official residence from a madman crystallizes for Americans the sense that we are adrift as a people.

There have been other instances during Obama's tenure when we have felt a lack of leadership, a sense of promises broken or unfulfilled, notably the government's response to the financial meltdown, the Marx Brothers rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act, the shocking neglect of our veterans, the waffling over the Keystone Pipeline Project, which so obviously takes us in the wrong direction with energy policy. But the break-in at the White House, because of its powerful symbolism, because it displays our embarrassing ineptitude before the entire world, brings back the sense of shame, of despair even, that rose up in me on November 22 more than fifty years ago.