How Two Teenagers Beat the Secret Service

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Paul Raeburn Author, 'Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked.'

By Paul Raeburn and Jim Novak

Tareq and Michaele Salahi are not the first gate-crashers to discover that the Secret Service isn't so tough.

We know, because at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, when 400 protestors shouted "Off the pigs!" outside a dinner for then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew--we snuck in. Getting past the Secret Service and sitting down with Agnew and several hundred Michigan Republicans turned out to be easier than sneaking into bars underage. At Agnew's dinner, we didn't need fake IDs.

It was the evening of June 15, 1970, at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. We were college students home for the summer, and we'd been to dozens of antiwar protests. But neither of us had ever laid eyes on a president or a vice-president. Were Nixon and Agnew as bad as we thought? Rather than join the protestors outside, we figured we'd give Agnew his due: we'd hear what he had to say. It seemed fair. And it seemed like a great scam.

That summer was a tense time. News of Nixon's "incursion" into Cambodia had angered protestors in the spring. Across the country, students went on strike, leaving college before the end of the semester to protest this escalation of the war. (We were among them.) Agnew was a particular target of the protestors who, he said, "take their tactics from Fidel Castro and their money from daddy." I guess that included us, although we can't claim to know what Fidel's tactics were. Instead, on this particular night, we took our tactics from our experience as busboys for the Friday night fish fry at a local Moose lodge.

We put on black pants, white shirts, and black bowties--our Friday night uniforms. We concocted a story about Jim's Aunt Mae, who had once worked in the mayor's office in Detroit. We'd say that she had arranged for us to help bus tables so we could hear Agnew's speech.

Our spycraft was instinctual and flawless. We were so deep undercover even the protestors in the streets didn't recognize us as allies when we passed them.

We walked into Cobo Hall in a crowd of two or three dozen workers, all dressed as waiters. Just inside the door, two Secret Service agents intercepted us. "My aunt works in the mayor's office, and she arranged for us to come and help bus tables so we could hear Vice President Agnew," Jim said politely. "They need to see Mary," one of them said to the other. Aha! We had a name!

They walked us into the hall where the tables were being set for dinner and handed us off to another agent. He took us to a table where "Mary," apparently the captain of the staff, was making assignments to the real waiters and busboys, and checking off names on a list. This could be trouble; we knew we were not on that list.

But Mary was overwhelmed. She was turning over papers, searching for names, shouting orders to the staff, and clearly falling behind. We waited. Mary fell further behind. And then--the agent was gone.

We pocketed the bow ties and drifted into the crowd of guests now arriving. We did our best to mimic young Republican idealists, putting on wide-eyed, innocent smiles.

"What are you guys doing here?" one friendly Republican asked us.

"We're looking for our fathers, who brought us," we said.

He invited us to sit with him, just a couple of tables away from the Vice President.

Neither of us now remembers what Agnew said, except that the speech was disappointingly free of any nattering nabobs or other Safire-crafted rhetorical flourishes.

We meant Agnew no harm, and maybe the Secret Service agent who abandoned us did so because he could see that. Or maybe he was careless. We got in through the kitchen. Two years earlier, Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in a hotel kitchen.

But we didn't think about that then. We had tried, on a lark, to beat the Secret Service--and we succeeded. That's why we now feel a special bond with Tareq and Michaele. We were impressed with their spycraft, too.