Tim McCarthy heard it. He was vacationing on Marco Island, Fla., when Obama’s joke came on the news, replayed again and again by cable channels.
McCarthy, 62, is the former Secret Service special agent who was struck in the abdomen by a bullet from John Hinckley’s .22-caliber pistol March 30, 1981 — right there outside the very same Washington Hilton where Obama made his dig. Look it up on YouTube: McCarthy’s the guy in the steel-blue suit turning his body into the path of the gunshots as his partners, Special Agents Jerry Parr and Ray Shaddick, pushed Ronald Reagan into the waiting limousine, saving the president’s life.
That video clip used to stand for what the Secret Service was all about — before 12 agents and officers were caught boozing and womanizing in Cartagena, Colombia, last month, turning the august institution into a national laughingstock.
McCarthy said he chuckled at the president’s wisecrack, but he acknowledged that it felt like another punch in the gut.
“It bothered me,” said McCarthy, who has been the police chief in Orland Park, Ill., for 18 years. “I’m disappointed something like this happened and personally embarrassed that the service is the butt of jokes.”
He’s not the only one. Across the country, former Secret Service agents are coping with perhaps the most salacious scandal in the 147-year history of an agency whose motto, “Worthy of trust and confidence,” is held as dear as “Semper fi” is by the U.S. Marines.
Long regarded by friends, co-workers and even strangers in the highest esteem, these men and women — whose careers were distinguished by doing everything they could to stay out of the news — are now on the defensive, tarred by association with the agents-gone-wild night of carousing in Cartagena that purportedly included visits to strip clubs and payments to prostitutes.
Congress is demanding answers. The Department of Homeland Security is investigating. Newspapers are questioning the culture of the service. Cable television is giving airtime to critics of the agency. And one of the alleged prostitutes is reportedly considering posing naked for Playboy — or Hustler.
Even Sarah Palin got into the act, responding to a report that one supervisor implicated in the scandal had posted a picture of her on Facebook and joked that he was checking her out from behind.
“Check this out, bodyguard — you’re fired!” Palin crowed gleefully on Fox News.
“It’s like a feeding frenzy, a pile-on,” sighed Pete Cavicchia, a 30-year veteran of the service who now serves as president of the 3,000-member Association of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service.
Cavicchia sent an e-mail this week to his members, pleading with them not to talk to the media, although he agreed to talk to The Washington Post to defend the agency’s reputation.