One night in New York City in 1980:
"There I was, lying in the foyer of Richard Nixon’s townhouse, and thinking, ‘God, this is it, this is the weird way I’m going to die!’
"Let me back up a minute. This was about 10:30 at night. I’d just finished supervising the last shift and three new agents had just checked in. I was down in Nixon’s basement. Thats where we set up the Secret Service command post, right next to the wine cellar where Nixon used to spend hours -- caressing his vintage years. That night I was getting ready to go home. So I looked up at the video monitor that showed what was going on out on East 65th Street…
"The monitor showed the coast was clear. So I climbed the basement stairs to the foyer. I unlocked the front door. I bent over to pick up my flight bag at the same time that I pressed down on the door latch. That’s when it happened. Bam! This fat lady burst in.
"She blindsided me. Knocked me right on the floor. She must’ve weighed two hundred and fifty pounds.
"Now twenty feet down the hall, past the vase of flowers, Nixon was in his study, talking on the phone. The fat lady started yelling, ‘I got to see him now!’ She was blathering something about Cambodian socialism and the Pope being gay. Which was standard. I mean, she used to loiter outside the townhouse. David Rockefeller, the Chairman of the Chase Bank, he lived right next door to Nixon. And when Rockefeller would step out of the limo, this fat lady would tell him she used to be his wife.
"Right then, when she was on top of me, I didn’t know if she had a gun or something .…S o I got mad and lifted her off me, then I pushed her back out the door …. Of course by this time, the other agents had heard the commotion. All of a sudden, the fat lady was staring down the barrels of an Uzi submachine gun and a Remington .870 pump shotgun. We gave her a second to compose herself. Then she climbed up the steps and wandered down the street.
"Next day, Richard Nixon phoned the command post and asked if I’d come up to his study. About seven years before this, I’d questioned a guy who’d written Nixon threatening letters and who’d turned up at an airport to greet Nixon -- armed with a hunting rifle. This fat lady hadn’t been armed, but she’d probably gotten as close to Nixon as any of these people ever had. So Nixon wanted a briefing.
"I walked into his study and there he was -- the face that sold a million Halloween masks. He said, ‘Well, what was the problem?’
"I told him.
"He said, ‘It’s a shame. You didn’t have to hurt her, did you?’
"Well, what did she want?’
"I told him what she mumbled about the Pope and Cambodia.
"Now he was curious. Nixon had been real reclusive when he was living in San Clemente. And even now that he’d come back to New York, he wouldn’t show much of himself to the reporters who used to lay in wait for him outside his townhouse. But, inside, you knew Nixon was plotting, targeting the East Coast power circles. Checking the pulse of the citizenry.
"Well,’ he said, ‘what did she think about Cambodia?’
"I said, ‘What?’ He made her sound like she’d been a guest on ‘Meet the Press.’ I did a double-take.
"He said it again, ‘What did she think about Cambodia?’ I don’t mean to make too big of thing of this, but it struck me as funny. I mean, here’s this guy who, as vice president, used to have the Secret Service drop him off at a Park Avenue psychotherapist, Arnold Hutschnecker … Right then, while he was waiting to hear what the fat lady felt, I was wondering if the doctor made house calls.
"So I said, ‘Sir, she was crazy.’
"Nixon sort of collected himself into a Presidential posture. Then he said what he always said, ‘Of course, of course!’”
* * *
The fat lady, when she landed on Marty, seemed to carry the full weight of the decade he’d spent training and working for the Secret Service. Marty’s job had come to seem gargantuan and bizarre. He’d left behind the asylums where he’d interviewed unhinged threat-makers. But the White House just seemed to cater to a more sophisticated patient. The Presidents sometimes needed protecting from themselves…
Marty had faced mobs all over the world. Yet the most riotous crowd existed within Marty himself. In the auditorium of his mind, the man in the gray flannel suit kept being hassled and drowned out by this wild, leather-jacketed dude who broke into song. In college, Marty had led a band called The Soul Seekers, but for several years after he’d joined the Service, he’d lost interest in music. He’d decided, like so many of his generation, to grow up and become a professional.
He’d picked one of this country’s more peculiar law enforcement jobs. There is other police work -- much more glamorous than that of the Secret Service agent -- which gives a person a much better chance of getting killed. No other law officers in America, though, make a more explicit vow of suicide. Secret Service agents promise to step in front of the President, puff up their chests, stretch out their arms and catch a spiraling bullet as though it were a touchdown pass on homecoming weekend. The agents’ oath is at one patriotic and un-American. The democracy where all men are created equal still puts the life of its elected emperor above the lives of all others. It gives a small cadre of samurai the chance to become martyrs. To keep their nation speeding into the future, a few Americans preserve the code of a medieval palace guard.
In exchange, those guards see the emperor as a man, unguarded. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were just a few of the people whose court intrigues glued Marty to the Service. He watched as Menachem Begin, hands in his pockets, and Anwar Sadat, smoking his pipe, unexpectedly crossed paths in the Camp David woods and began to walk in the same direction. He also saw the real-life sound stage for Dr. Strangelove -- the underground nerve center in the Maryland mountains where, when the Doomsday missiles flew, the President would go to run what was left of America. Unforgettable moments of war and peace postponed Marty’s burn-out.
But, eventually, he did snap.
"Other agents have come a lot closer to dying than I have. There’re some real heroes in the Secret Service, and I’m sure they’ve got stories better than mine. All of them, every agent, worked for a different Secret Service. This is the one I worked for."
For five years after he left the Service, Marty himself kept most of his memories classified. Few people in his present life knew what he’d done before. But silence and secrecy aren’t what Marty is about anymore. Right now he feels ready to play some old records.