RFK Assassination Sparked Secret Service Change Before Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed, only incumbent presidential candidates were given Secret Service protection. Over the years the agency has developed criteria for which White House hopefuls receive security services.

RFK Assassination Sparked Secret Service Change

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This is Day to Day, I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. On this day 40 years ago, Robert Kennedy gave a speech in Los Angeles. He had just won the California Democratic presidential primary.

Senator ROBERT KENNEDY (Democrat, New York): My thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago and let's win there. Thank you very much.

BRAND: But outside that ballroom, an assassin waited.

Unidentified Male Voices: He is now moving out of the ballroom with Ethel, his wife. Something terrible is happening in here. Hold it! Robert Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Are there any more doctors? There's blood all over the floor. There is no confirmation at this moment. Senator Kennedy had very little protection. He's been shot in the head. In the head? He is still alive. They are moving the gurney out. Evidently, Senator Kennedy has been taken now to... Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968.

CHADWICK: The murder of Robert Kennedy followed the killing of his brother President John Kennedy five years earlier. And just two months before the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. And so these questions - how can we in a free and open society keep our leaders safe from harm?

BRAND: Robert Kennedy had several bodyguards with him that night, including football star Rosey Greer. But no Secret Service agents stood guard at the Ambassador Hotel. At that time, the Secret Service wasn't assigned to protect presidential candidates. But as Alex Cohen reports as part of the NPR series "Echoes of 1968," Robert Kennedy's assassination changed that.

(Soundbite of chaos during Robert Kennedy assassination)

ALEX COHEN: It seems almost unimaginable today that not a single Secret Service agent was protecting Kennedy that night. But keep in mind the Secret Service wasn't always in the business of protection. The agency was created back in 1865 as part of the Treasury department with just one mission: to stop counterfeit currency. Then, in 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated.

Special Agent EDWIN DONOVAN (Secret Service): We then stepped up and began to protect the president, and then, of course, in 1968, with the assassination of a major presidential candidate, we began to protect all the major presidential candidates.

COHEN: Special Agent Edwin Donovan has been in the Secret Service for 17 years. He guarded both Bill Clinton and Steve Forbes in their bids for the White House and says Secret Service protection for candidates is incredibly thorough.

Special Agent DONOVAN: They get 24-hours-seven-days-a-week protection from Secret Service at their residence, all the campaign stops, all the places they go, the vehicles they drive in, the planes they fly in. We check their mail; we just provide total security package for that person.

COHEN: It's a lot of work, especially back in 1968 when the Secret Service was quickly called upon to protect all 12 men who ran for president and vice president that year.

Special Agent DONOVAN: But we only had 547 agents at that time. We already had the president and the vice president and their families to protect, so that made it even a smaller number of agents to draw from.

Special Agent JERRY PARR (Secret Service Agent): This thing in 1968 put agents under a tremendous amount of stress.

COHEN: Jerry Parr was one of the special agents assigned to Hubert Humphrey in '68. At the time, Humphrey was both sitting vice president and a presidential candidate. Parr says it was a violent, volatile time; protecting candidates wasn't easy.

Special Agent PARR: We didn't have any criteria for choosing who'd get protection. So we had protection, I can't name them all, but we had them, certainly, with Harold Stassen and Lester Maddox and Shirley Chisholm and Dr. Spock, to name a few.

COHEN: Yes, even Benjamin Spock, the baby expert, got Secret Service protection when he ran for president in 1972. But all that protection took its toll on the Secret Service. In 1968, agents put in more than 270,000 hours of overtime. Eventually, the criteria for who got protection became tougher. Today, says special agent Edwin Donovan, a presidential candidate has to have some degree of prominence in opinion polls.

Special Agent DONOVAN: They have to be actively campaigning and entered in at least 10 state primaries. They have to be seeking the nomination of a qualified party. They have to have qualified for matching funds in the amount of $100,000 and have received contributions totaling $2 million.

COHEN: And even if a candidate meets those requirements, he or she may not want Secret Service protection. After all, it's hard to shake hands and kiss babies when a phalanx of tough guys are trying to protect you.

Mr. JOE TRIPPI (Democratic Strategist): It's pretty messed up.

COHEN: Democratic strategist Joe Trippi has worked on presidential campaigns ranging from Edward Kennedy's in 1980 to John Edwards's in 2008. Trippi says Secret Service protection can be quite oppressive, but it can also be impressive to the media and to voters.

Mr. TRIPPI: It also gives you the aura that you're president. I mean, it's sort of the same feeling that people would have if they were near a president of the United States, so it helps in that regard. But it hurts, particularly in the early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, where mingling with voters, talking to themdirectly, is pretty important.

COHEN: Unless a candidate is an incumbent and therefore already being protected, the Secret Service isn't often around for early contests like Iowa and New Hampshire. By law, candidates are only required protection within 120 days of the general election. I'll save you the math. That means July of an election year is when the guys in suits and sunglasses usually start showing up. But this election is anything but usual.

Unidentified Woman (Newscaster, NBC): Barack Obama is adding to his entourage. Listen to this - the senator is now under Secret Service protection. It's the earliest in a campaign ever that such protection has been given to a presidential candidate.

COHEN: As heard here on MSNBC on May 3rd, 2007, a year and a half before the general election, news broke that Senator Obama was placed under Secret Service protection. Congressman Benny Thomson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told NPR's Tell Me More that he wrote a letter to the Secret Service urging them to protect Senator Obama.

Representative BENNY THOMSON (Democrat, Misissippi): By virtue of my position, I get a lot of information that causes me concern that there still are some people in this country who don't want certain things to happen. And obviously, they don't want an African-American to be president. You know, there are some kooks out here.

COHEN: Senator John McCain resisted Secret Service protection until just a few weeks ago. Because she's the spouse of a former president, Senator Hillary Clinton has had protection since long before she announced her candidacy. And regardless of what her official nomination status is, thanks to her husband, she's the only candidate guaranteed protection after the election in November. Alex Cohen, NPR news.

BRAND: You can hear an agent's first-hand account of an assassination attempt at our Web site, also see pictures of the Secret Service in action, at NPR.org.

CHADWICK: Later in the hour a conversation with writer Pete Hamill, who was at the Ambassador Hotel with Robert Kennedy 40 years ago.

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