04/09/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Protecting the President: "My Bodyguard I Desire to Be the People"

Being assigned a Secret Service code name and a detail to go with it suggests you've hit the big time. These days this special club includes not just the president, his family and a number of the people who work closely with him; even candidates for the job get coverage. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich all have code names, although a couple of them will probably be dropped from the list soon.

Having guys with ear pieces and sunglasses following you around might seem cool, but the fact that they are there, visible in thousands of photographs of the president and his would-be replacements, highlights a great failure.

Nineteenth-century Americans took pride in the fact that their freely chosen presidents did not have to be protected from their fellow citizens. They would have been horrified to see the vast security apparatus surrounding the current occupant of the White House.

When President John Tyler visited New York in the 1840s, he said, "My bodyguard I desire to be the people, and none but the people. That is the bodyguard that a plain, republican president of the United States can alone desire to have."

For more than a hundred years after Washington, presidents (with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) were essentially unguarded. On the morning of his inauguration in 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked alone from his boardinghouse down Pennsylvania Avenue to the stands where he was sworn in as the third president of the United States.

One hundred and sixty-eight years later, the total force deployed for Nixon's first inauguration numbered around 15,000. The rooftops of buildings along the parade route swarmed with snipers, two helicopters filled with agents hovered over the presidential motorcade, and the streets were lined with police and military personnel.

The assassination of William McKinley in 1901 was a turning point. One of his predecessors, Grover Cleveland, responded to the news with "stunning amazement that in free America, blessed with a government consecrated to popular welfare and contentment, the danger of assassination should ever encompass the faithful discharge of the highest official duty." Worse, Cleveland added, McKinley was the third president to have been gunned down "within the memory of men not yet old."

Following McKinley's death, Congress informally requested that the Secret Service protect the president, but it wasn't until several years later that it voted to fund the effort. Lawmakers' hesitation stemmed not from a lack of concern about the president's safety, but from a deep-seated reluctance to give up a vision of American society's exceptional nature. No one wanted to admit that the president of the United States needed palace guards, as if he were an Old World emperor or king.

The winner of this election will take office in 2013, exactly 100 years after Congress voted permanent protection for the president. Sadly, beside his contemporary European counterparts, America's chief executive appears more regal than ever. Maybe it's time to redefine the job.