Editor’s Note: 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. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
Just before midnight on Friday evening, I received the news from a current US Secret Service agent. His message said, “We lost Timberwolf – a part of us is gone.”
Reading these nine words, I was heavy with sorrow – for both the Bush family and for the agency. In addition to losing a father, statesman and public servant, we lost a man who had become the shining example of integrity and kindness during the 38 years we had the honor of protecting him.
George H.W. Bush, whose protective call sign was “Timberwolf,” was arguably the agency’s most beloved protectee.
Since the Secret Service began protecting the then vice-presidential candidate in 1980, Timberwolf would be at the center of both world history and cherished memories for generations of special agents.
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a present-day Secret Service employee who does not have a personal story of the late president. But more importantly, each of these stories would share a common theme: the deep and genuine respect that the President had, not only for members of the Secret Service, but also for law enforcement more broadly.
Throughout every phase of my career with the Secret Service, I came across stories of George and Barbara Bush, and the affinity that they had for the agents who protected them. When I was assigned to the presidential protective detail during the Obama administration, senior agents who had worked at the White House during the Bush 41 administration told stories of how the former President would adjust his schedule during the holiday season to ensure the agents could be home with their families.
During his time in office and the years that followed, Bush was always extremely personable toward the agents that protected him. Current special agents assigned to his protection shared with me that the President often took the time and care to inquire after their well-being and quality of life – just one daily reminder how he recognized and valued the men and women who stood willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for him and his family.
In August 2002, I met the former President for the first time. I was assigned to stand post in Kennebunkport, Maine, during a visit by then-President George W. Bush. One morning, the former and current Presidents went to play golf, and a group of us accompanied them to the golf course. I was standing post close to the first tee box, when the former President approached me. Leaning in and shaking my hand, he said, “Just because he’s the current President doesn’t mean I’m going to let him win.” Then, with a quick wink and a smile, he continued to the first tee.
Beyond our individual memories of the late President, two very public examples demonstrate his unwavering respect for the men and women of the Secret Service.
The first example came in his May 1995 letter to the National Rifle Association, resigning his lifetime membership. The former president took issue with a NRA fundraising letter circulated in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, which portrayed federal agents as armed terrorists who use automatic weapons to kill law-abiding citizens. In response, he penned the following:
“To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people…is a vicious slander on good people.
“Al Whicher, who served on my [United States Secret Service] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City… He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country – and serve it well he did.”
The former President felt honor-bound to defend not only the reputation of Secret Service agents but also the integrity of American law enforcement. Risking political capital and potential backlash from conservative supporters, he remained steadfast in his convictions and took a chance because he felt it was the right thing to do. To this day, I am sure Whicher’s family appreciates his stand.
The second example of Bush’s unparalleled support for the agency came as an act of kindness for an agent’s 2-year-old son, who was battling leukemia. When the President noticed members of his protective detail shaved their heads in solidarity for the 2-year-old, who was undergoing lifesaving treatment, he joined in without hesitation. After shaving his own head along with us, Bush simply stated, “It was the right thing to do.”
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Over the 38 years that members of the Secret Service had the privilege of protecting Bush and his family, he, in turn, became part of the Secret Service family. Each day, he led by example, teaching us how to live with dignity and respect.
With his passing, a part of the soul of the Secret Service is gone as well. However, it will never be forgotten. Instead, his legacy will live on in the hearts of the countless people he touched.
It was an honor and privilege to protect you, Timberwolf.