Standing 2 Feet From The President Ought To Be More ExcitingFormer Secret Service agent Dan Emmett's memoir, Within Arm's Length, chronicles his 21 years on the job. But critic J.P. O'Malley says good government agents don't necessarily make good storytellers.
Picture the following scenario: you are a Secret Service agent being paid to protect the President's life, when suddenly you feel an urgent call of nature. Well, that's exactly what happened to Dan Emmett on a state visit to Europe with Bill Clinton during the 1990s.
In a newly revised edition of his 2012 memoir, Within Arm's Length, Emmett recalls pulling together a semblance of respectability as he met the Commander in Chief on the way back from the little boys' room after the unfortunate incident: "As I moved aside to allow him [in] I quickly thought of a cover for action and blurted out in my most professional voice, 'all clear sir.'" Emmett's matter-of-fact honesty helps the story stand out in what ends up being an unfortunately dull, drawn-out book.
It begins with the best of motives: Potentially taking a bullet for the President on a daily basis was never really a career move, Emmett explains in the opening chapter. But his course was set at eight years old, when he saw the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination on TV.
Two decades later, during the 1984 presidential election campaign, Emmett found himself in the role of protector for JFK's brother, Teddy Kennedy, who was on the campaign trail for Walter Mondale.
At a party in Cape Cod after the election campaign, Kennedy asked Emmett if he would like to take a tour of his late brother's home. And Emmett recreates this scene of walking through what was essentially a Kennedy shrine — frozen in time for two decades — with an intensely personal and intimate touch. It's another one of the book's rare standout moments.
While Emmett never openly admits to pulling the trigger on any would-be-assassins during his career, there are a few genuinely hairy moments. In an extremely disturbing passage, he describes a fraud bust in the Bronx during the 1980s, and how close he came to killing a young Latino boy whom he feared was holding a gun. "I thought that there would be less gore if I hit him center of mass rather than in the head," Emmett recalls dryly.
It turns out that the boy spoke no English and couldn't understand what Emmett was saying. And still, even after realizing the boy might have been killed due to a simple communication error, Emmett tells us that "in the world of law enforcement this incident was nothing special."
In these do or die situations, where vital decisions must be made in a matter of seconds, his unfiltered, no-nonsense approach can be bracing. But for the most part, Emmett's 21 years in the Secret Service (and six more in the CIA) don't make a very absorbing read.
When Emmett's not reminding us how many times he's worked a month straight without a day off, he's criticizing junior White House staffers. And then there are the moments when he's shooting straight — in an unfortunate fashion. Explaining his role as a Secret Service physical trainer, he sneers that "there were some weak sisters in the class, and I don't mean women."
Emmett approaches anything that doesn't fit into his alpha-male worldview with an endless stream of bad puns, clumsy similes and stereotypes. He describes an airport in Haiti as "like something out of a bad movie;" an unlikeable Jordanian government official becomes "someone who was capable of cutting a man's throat and leaving him for the vultures;" and JFK is compared to a Boeing 707 because, the author tells us, "both airplane and president were young, good looking, and in a hurry to get places."
The book's biggest problem is a lack of overarching narrative. Emmett bounces from vignette to vignette, and when he runs out of stories, he starts regaling the reader with details of foreign shopping trips, or the intricate processes of refueling the Secret Service limousine.
Emmett comes across as an old school, patriotic Southern tough guy with a love of the military, hard discipline, guns, religion, and people who can shut their mouths if they know what's good for them. Unfortunately, while that might make you a good government agent — and a colorful character — it doesn't necessarily make you a good storyteller.
J.P. O' Malley is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on twitter:@johnpaulomallez