As told to Thomas Sugrue, Starling of the White House recounts the time spent by the Colonel Edmund Starling on the Presidential protection detail of the Secret Service at the White House. Starling was brought to Washington D.C. as part of a new idea: a permanent detail of federal law enforcement personnel, tasked with securing Presidential travel and protecting the President (this followed the assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and the successful assassination of William McKinley in 1901). In light of recent revelations of how that service seems to be regularly falling down on the job, it’s interesting to learn something of the origins of the role.
Starling’s fascinating account of serving under five American Presidents in the early years of the 20th century is chock-a-block with interesting insights into Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and the early years of Roosevelt’s administration. The rise of a former railway detective, and natural Democrat, to head the newly formed Secret Service is an interesting and instructive tale, especially in light of some of the much-publicized failings of that body in recent years.
Clearly, Starling held the most sympathy for his first employer, the ill-fated Woodrow Wilson, and his account of both his service during the Wilson Administration and his occasional meetings afterwards is fascinating. That Starling was retained by the Harding administration, despite the more usual political maneuverings that one might have expected in the “spoils system” of governance, must be a testament to his ability and utility in the job of protecting the President.
The is much to be gleaned from Starling’s account, including his casual but damning demolition of the buffoonery of Gaston B. Means’ claims about the death of Harding in The Strange Death of President Harding (q.v.). Starling’s insights into the tragic Coolidge administration, and the seemingly cold and unsympathetic Hoover years, are also valuable.
What I didn’t realize on my reading of Starling of the White House was that Starling’s interviewer and co-writer (in this context, I hesitate to say “ghost writer”), Thomas Sugrue, also wrote There Is A River, the biography which helped popularize and raise the national profile of the alleged psychic Edgar Cayce, during his lifetime. Sugrue went to the interview with Cayce with the intent of debunking a fraud, but was either convinced or taken in by him – at any rate, he made a best-selling book of the conversations that he had with Cayce. While this fact will set off many readers’ B.S. detectors, I can sincerely say that I don’t recall anything about Starling which concerns me about either writer’s objectivity or honesty.
Sadly, Starling died before he was able to recount the largely separate history of his time serving under Franklin D. Roosevelt, which must surely be viewed as a loss to posterity. But for anyone interested in a somewhat sideways view of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, from inside the White House, this book is one that is well-worth tracking down.
Originally reviewed 16 September 2014.
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