By Jonathan Wackrow
Former first lady Barbara Bush once said, “Nobody likes, you know, the ugly parts of politics.” On Tuesday night, the ugliness of our current political landscape dissipated for a moment as people reflected on the life of this remarkable woman. We quietly smiled at the pictures flashing across our screens of her with her famous family, her turns in the national spotlight and the testimonials about her grit and forthright warmth.
As a special agent with the United States Secret Service, I had the opportunity to work on many protective assignments with Mrs. Bush. While I was never permanently assigned to her detail, I am thankful for two specific moments with Mrs. Bush, ones I will cherish as defining experiences in my career and testaments to her legacy, her candor and grace.
The first occurred when I was a new agent, assigned to work a midnight shift at the Bush family’s summer residence in Kennebunkport, Maine. I was walking in the front yard at daybreak, preparing to end my shift, when Mrs. Bush suddenly appeared.
In my world, it was better to be unseen, but in this instant, I was in the former first lady’s full view with nowhere to hide. Mrs. Bush gave me the warmest smile and said, “Well, it is good morning for me, but it looks like you have been up all night, so I will wish you a good night’s sleep.” Stunned, I thanked her.
She was the first Secret Service protectee I had ever spoken to. That encounter is only one of scores of examples my fellow agents could give of the genuine admiration and respect Barbara Bush showed to the people who protected her and her family — and her recognition of the sacrifices the agents made for the presidential security operation. I can report that this ethos and gratitude resonates within the entire Bush family.
Many years later, I encountered Mrs. Bush again when she made a visit to the New Jersey area. This time, I was driving her limo from New York City to an appointment in New Jersey. The motorcade was small and unassuming — traits that Mrs. Bush appreciated — consisting of a few Secret Service vehicles and one unmarked New York police vehicle. But upon exiting the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, we were joined by an assortment of New Jersey State Police vehicles and motorcycles operating with full lights and sirens.
Typically, this was not the way that the former first lady liked to travel, as it drew undue attention. However, in this instance — with her husband’s presidency behind her — she was thrilled. Taking a quick glance in the rear-view mirror, I could see an amazing smile illuminating her face as she turned to her staff in the back seat, exclaiming, “They remember me! We have not had this much excitement since the White House!”
After her meeting, as the motorcade started to travel back to New York, Mrs. Bush leaned forward and asked the head of her protective detail if we could stop before getting back into New York City, as she wanted to thank all the police officers who, she said, “so warmly welcomed me to New Jersey.”
Peering out the limo’s back windshield, I will never forget the image of Mrs. Bush shaking hands with the officers. It was a genuine moment of sincerity and unguarded kindness delivered out of the public eye, which, to me, defined this great woman.
When I was selected to the Presidential Protective Division, I attributed my desire to join the first lady’s detail to those moments with Mrs. Bush. I wanted to protect the institution of the first lady to ensure that an administration’s compassion and conscience would never be jeopardized.
With the utmost seriousness, Secret Service agents assigned to the first lady take the sacred responsibility of protecting a political and cultural icon, knowing full well that any harm that comes to the first lady could impede the President’s ability to govern.
The United States Secret Service code name for Barbara Bush was “Tranquility.” It exemplified her demeanor and its calming, humanizing and gentle effect on those around her. She will be forever missed.
Jonathan Wackrow is a CNN law enforcement analyst and former agent with the US Secret Service, serving in the Presidential Protection division. He is a managing director at Teneo Risk, a strategic risk mitigation advisory firm.