Book review: Protecting the Presidential Candidates, by Mel Ayton

November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face.
Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship.
Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.

Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.

Blu-ray review: The Americans: Season 1 (15)

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DVD/Blu-ray. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment

Starring: Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale.

It’s 1981, Ronald Reagan has just been elected president and the Cold War is colder than ever. In Washington DC, seemingly ordinary suburban couple Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) bring up their two children and get on with their busy lives.

Yet in reality, “Philip” and his “wife” “Elizabeth” are much “busier” than anyone, even their own children, realise. For they are not American at all but are in fact Soviet undercover KGB agents planted during the Khrushchev era and dedicated to the destruction of (as Superman memorably put it) “truth, justice and the American way”.

As if life wasn’t complicated enough, look who’s moving in next door! Why it’s the Beeman family headed by patriotic American Stan (Noah Emmerich), who is (of all things) an FBI agent! Stan’s s own marriage is recovering after a difficult period during a long spell undercover himself with the Klan in the Deep South. But while the Jennings know what he does (he is quite open about it), he has no idea that the Jennings are in fact the enemies in his midst, although he does sense something is a little “off” about Philip. With the two suburban families apparently growing friendlier, the stage is set for an enormous game of cat and mouse to begin.

As The Sopranos demonstrated, there’s plenty of fun to be had by mixing apparent suburban bliss with a morally ambiguous double life. Although they were formally paired together in the 1960s, the Jennings’ marriage isn’t a total sham. They love their genuinely all-American kids (who are totally unaware of their parents’ secret lives) and do at feel genuinely jealous of each other when one or each of them takes part in the occasional sexual liaisons with other people which are an inevitable part of their work. Although the air of mystery is slightly undermined by the silly wigs and disguises they are forced to wear (think Val Kilmer in The Saint), we are left under no illusions: even Philip who has nagging doubts about the cause and has contemplated defecting to the West for good, is still prepared to do horrendous things in the name of the USSR.

Emmerich (once again playing a neighbour/spy as he did in The Truman Show) is actually one of the best things about this in this and in some ways, the ups and downs of his life are more compelling than those of the Jennings who all too often vent their frustrations by simply whingeing at each other. This and a general lack of a sense of humour are probably the main flaws of the series.

But with Season 2 of ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg’s series already screening on ITV 1, this certainly shows promise. And it’s hard to be too critical of a series which gives Richard Thomas his best role (as Stan’s boss at the FBI) since his heyday as John-Boy Walton.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Audio Commentary on Episode “The Colonel”, Executive Order 2578: Expanding The Americans Featurette, Perfecting The Art of Espionage Featurette, Ingenuity Over Technology Featurette, Gag Reel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.