The Secret Lives of US Presidential Bodyguards

A historical journey through US politics includes many tales of sinister deeds and secret service agents. Only four leaders have fallen victim to nefarious assassins however - Abraham Lincoln (1865), James A. Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901), and John F. Kennedy (1963).

Despite the persistent threats, it wasn't until McKinley’s 1901 murder that Congress enlisted the Secret Service to protect US presidents. Two men were assigned to the White House detail full-time with President Theodore Roosevelt’s grudging approval: "The Secret Service men are a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh," he wrote in 1906.

The threats kept coming, however. Here are a few of the highlights.

Franklin D. Roosevelt 


1. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrapping up a speech in Miami when unemployed bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara shouted "Too many people are starving!" and fired six rounds. Chicago politician Anton Cermak was hit. A Secret Service agent leapt up to protect Roosevelt while others grabbed Zangara and his still-hot gun. The agents wanted to drive Roosevelt to safety but he demanded they place Cermak in his car and drive to a hospital. Cermak didn't make it.

Funeral for Private Leslie Coffelt, White House Police


2. President Harry Truman, 1950

There was murder in the air again in 1950. Officer Leslie Coffelt of the White House Police - a branch of the Secret Service - was shot dead by two assassins intending to murder Truman. Congress permanently authorized Secret Service protection of the president, his family, the president-elect, and vice president at that point. In 1953, a three-week Special Agent Training School was also held. Trainees now undergo months of classroom, fitness, firearms, and simulation training.

John F. Kennedy arrives in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963


3. The assassination of JFK, 1963

JFK’s 1963 death forever altered the Secret Service’s approach. Open-top limousines were phased out, making room for The Beast and innovative counter-assault strategies. In 1965. US Secret Service agents - many still traumatized by the shooting decades later - finally met at a 2010 reunion. One of the agents, Cliff Hill, said he was tormented, wondering if he could have done more. He drank himself into a depression before meeting his future wife and recovering.

Fromme was paroled in 2009 after serving more than 30 years


4. ‘Squeaky' Fromme & Ford, 1975

President Ford faced two astonishing assassination attempts in three weeks. The first was by Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme - a follower of cult leader Charles Manson, the man convicted of directing the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murderers. Fromme tracked Ford to Sacramento and pulled a gun. She was grabbed by the Secret Service and Ford walked away. He became the first US President to testify (via video) in a criminal proceeding but before that happened another incredible event occurred…

5. Sara Jane Moore & Ford, 1975

Gerald Ford

Seventeen days later, Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at the US President in San Francisco but her shot was thwarted by a bystander, Oliver Sipple, a former Marine. Moore - an FBI informant - was reportedly evaluated by the Secret Service earlier, but agents decided that she posed no danger. Moore said she felt that she was part of a revolution.

The Secret Lives of US Presidential Bodyguards

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A historical journey through US politics includes many tales of sinister deeds and secret service agents. Only four leaders have fallen victim to nefarious assassins however - Abraham Lincoln (1865), James A. Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901), and John F. Kennedy (1963).

Despite the persistent threats, it wasn't until McKinley’s 1901 murder that Congress enlisted the Secret Service to protect US presidents. Two men were assigned to the White House detail full-time with President Theodore Roosevelt’s grudging approval: "The Secret Service men are a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh," he wrote in 1906.

The threats kept coming, however. Here are a few of the highlights.

Franklin D. Roosevelt 


1. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrapping up a speech in Miami when unemployed bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara shouted "Too many people are starving!" and fired six rounds. Chicago politician Anton Cermak was hit. A Secret Service agent leapt up to protect Roosevelt while others grabbed Zangara and his still-hot gun. The agents wanted to drive Roosevelt to safety but he demanded they place Cermak in his car and drive to a hospital. Cermak didn't make it.

Funeral for Private Leslie Coffelt, White House Police


2. President Harry Truman, 1950

There was murder in the air again in 1950. Officer Leslie Coffelt of the White House Police - a branch of the Secret Service - was shot dead by two assassins intending to murder Truman. Congress permanently authorized Secret Service protection of the president, his family, the president-elect, and vice president at that point. In 1953, a three-week Special Agent Training School was also held. Trainees now undergo months of classroom, fitness, firearms, and simulation training.

John F. Kennedy arrives in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963


3. The assassination of JFK, 1963

JFK’s 1963 death forever altered the Secret Service’s approach. Open-top limousines were phased out, making room for The Beast and innovative counter-assault strategies. In 1965. US Secret Service agents - many still traumatized by the shooting decades later - finally met at a 2010 reunion. One of the agents, Cliff Hill, said he was tormented, wondering if he could have done more. He drank himself into a depression before meeting his future wife and recovering.

Fromme was paroled in 2009 after serving more than 30 years


4. ‘Squeaky' Fromme & Ford, 1975

President Ford faced two astonishing assassination attempts in three weeks. The first was by Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme - a follower of cult leader Charles Manson, the man convicted of directing the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murderers. Fromme tracked Ford to Sacramento and pulled a gun. She was grabbed by the Secret Service and Ford walked away. He became the first US President to testify (via video) in a criminal proceeding but before that happened another incredible event occurred…

5. Sara Jane Moore & Ford, 1975

Gerald Ford

Seventeen days later, Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at the US President in San Francisco but her shot was thwarted by a bystander, Oliver Sipple, a former Marine. Moore - an FBI informant - was reportedly evaluated by the Secret Service earlier, but agents decided that she posed no danger. Moore said she felt that she was part of a revolution.

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Reagan waves moments before he is the target of an assassin; Tim McCarthy (far right)


6. Ronald Reagan, 1981

Agent Tim McCarthy spread his stance and made himself the target to protect Ronald Reagan as gunman John Hinckley Jr. fired six bullets. White House Press Secretary James Brady was permanently disabled in the incident. Hinckley - not guilty by reason of insanity - thought that killing the president would impress actress Jodie Foster. He was released after 30 years. McCarthy recovered and was interviewed about Hinckley’s release in 2021: “Forgive me if I don’t have a lot of good Christian thoughts about someone who shot me,” McCarthy said. “But at the same time, I don’t seek revenge either.” 

7. Bill Clinton, Manila, 1996

There were multiple attacks on President Clinton during his presidency including a near miss during a visit to the Philippines. Secret Service officers intercepted a message suggesting an attack was imminent and re-routed Clinton’s motorcade.

A team found a bomb under a bridge that was part of the initial route. A US investigation revealed the plot was masterminded by a “Saudi terrorist living in Afghanistan named Osama bin Laden," The Telegraph reported.

Evy Poumpouras on duty with Barack Obama

8. The Bush/Obama Years

Former Special Agent Evy Poumpouras said her job included mapping out vulnerable arrival and departure points and memorizing routes and locations of hospitals and safe houses. Every detail was scripted so the days of US presidents jumping out of the car to greet voters or changing the route are long gone, Poumpouras said: “I’m going the route I want to go. I’m not listening to you.”

9. The Trump Presidency

Not all murder plots are sophisticated. During Donald Trump’s presidency, a North Dakota man planned to use a forklift to flip over Trump’s limo during his 2017 visit. Gregory Lee Leingang, who confessed to the Secret Service, stole a forklift but got stuck and had to abandon his plan. A public defender argued that Leingang was suffering a serious psychiatric crisis and set two fires that same day. His estimated release date is in 2038. The former president, meanwhile, is tackling his own legal woes and court appearances.

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