Often, I begin by telling you how a book reached me. Zero Fail was positively reviewed and I entered a “reserve” request with my county public library. It was not immediately available, the first book for which I was “waitlisted” in the past year! It took several months for me to get it.
Zero Fail falls into an important target category of mine – books about history I lived through. After a brief prologue, the book begins with the Kennedy assassination. The epilogue ends after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. 487 pages of text are followed by acknowledgements, notes and index.
I greatly enjoy well written documentary history. I would put Carol Leonnig in the same class as Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) and Bricker and Ibbitson, who wrote Empty Planet. This is high praise.
Leonnig began her journalistic career at The Philadelphia Inquirer and has worked as an investigative report for The Washington Post since 2000. She won three Pulitzer prizes, and began publishing books in 2020.
Leonnig is clear about why the Secret Service rose and fell. The Kennedy assassination (1963) was a low point in Presidential protection. Changes were made that probably saved the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
What went wrong thereafter? Why was the Secret Service response to 9/11 so badly compromised? Many “near miss” situations are described in Zero Fail.
Leonnig describes a number of problems that are “baked in” for the Secret Service. It has been chronically underfunded. Presidents want to appear “approachable” and confident. They like friendly agents who are flexible, but these are not necessarily the best people to run an agency. Transitions between presidencies are difficult. Likely assassins (most are mentally ill loners) are hard to spot.
Then there is the issue of “political climate”. Barrack Obama was hated by a certain portion of the American electorate. It’s amazing he (and his family) survived 8 years in office. Some of the near misses that took place during his terms are simply terrifying.
A major issue about the Secret Service is it’s workplace culture. It is macho, insular and self serving. At it’s worst, it’s “frat boy culture” of “infighting, indulgence , and obsolescence” (Leonnig p xvii). It’s also profoundly racist and misogynistic. And, ironically, highly patriotic.
This book describes an important agency that is in trouble. NOW. It’s not clear that improvement is underway. I hope Biden and his team are able to stay safe.