A week before President Barack Obama landed in San Francisco for a campaign stop in October, Natalie Tyson got a message from a childhood friend working at the White House.
“He just texted me and said, ‘Do you want to volunteer as part of this and drive in the motorcade?’” Tyson told the New York Times. “It was kind of sudden. I didn’t even know the president was going to be in town.”
You can probably guess what her answer was.
Tyson was understandably excited — and made sure to document her adventure with plenty of Facebook photos, noting how her friend "hooked me up as a volunteer driver for the president's motorcade during his visit to SF!"
The 24-year-old graduate student from Oakland, California, was tasked with shuttling White House reporters. She posted that she "followed the president around in the press van and caused traffic jams all throughout the city (sorry). And I got to meet Obama this morning! He was very skinny and his hands were very soft. And he said we were the best drivers in San Francisco, but I think the reporters in my van might say otherwise."
While it may seem odd — or even dangerous — to put volunteers behind the steering wheels in presidential motorcades, the Secret Service told the New York Times that the practice has been in place since the 1980s. Drivers “are briefed by the Secret Service agent responsible for the motorcade prior to any movements” in regard to attacks or other emergencies.
But Tyson said she didn't get much in the way of pointers in regard to emergency procedures. If something were to happen, she assumed she should simply follow the vehicle in front of her.
In fact, she said, the top priority communicated to her was to not hit any motorcycle cops.
“Whatever I am,” she told the Times, “is good enough for them.”
The White House declined comment to the Times.
"The secret service was surprisingly nice. One guy had to direct me on backing the van into a parking spot - I don't think he realized his job was going to be so hard when he signed up." (Image via Natalie Tyson/Facebook)
One former Secret Service agent said using volunteer drivers like Tyson — who told the Times she read a textbook between stops — is actually a national security threat.
“You are face to face with a young person who is just completely full of themselves and enthralled,” said Dan Emmett, author of “Within Arm’s Length: A Secret Service Agent’s Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President."
Emmett, an agent from 1983 to 2004, was with the motorcade’s counterassault team, positioned in vehicles in front of those helmed by volunteers. Emmett said the volunteer drivers can cause accidents, and because they're in the middle of the pack — and in front of the Secret Service ambulance — their lack of emergency know-how could prove problematic.
“We were more concerned with that than an attack on the motorcade," he told the Times.
But if there were an attack, things could get ugly.
[sharequote align="center"]"...a young person who is just completely full of themselves and enthralled."[/sharequote]
“If the motorcade ever comes under fire, it’s going to be a problem,” Emmett said. “There are so many non-law-enforcement vehicles that it’s going to be a goat rope. Everyone will be responding, police officers and the Secret Service, and it will be all these people running around in a panic like the last scene of the ‘Blues Brothers’ movie, when there’s the big police chase that ends in a wreck of 50 police cars.”
At the same time, the importance of the presidential motorcade means there's usually no other traffic around when when they hit the road, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told the Times. In addition, the "secure package" traveling at the front of the motorcade — which includes the president, agents and a doctor — can quickly speed ahead in an emergency, he added.
It's worth noting that at least two photos Tyson posted on Facebook appear to have been taken while she was behind the wheel on the streets.
Privately, Secret Service officials said they did not use agents or uniformed personnel to drive the vans because it was not the agency’s responsibility to protect the White House staff members or journalists. White House officials said they were forced to use volunteers because staff members needed to be with the president at all times, and reporters demand that they travel with the president wherever he goes.
Often, the White House reaches out to campaign volunteers or friends to be drivers. One woman who drove a van during Mr. Obama’s trip to Arkansas in May said that a mass email had gone out to students at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock asking whether anyone wanted to drive.
There is a long history of accidents in presidential motorcades dating back more than a century.
In 1902, a trolley car in Lenox, Mass., struck and killed a Secret Service agent in President Theodore Roosevelt’s protective detail. And during the 2008 Democratic primaries, a motorcycle police officer escorting Hillary Rodham Clinton was killed in Dallas after performing a “leapfrog” maneuver to speed from one intersection to the next, sometimes done at over 100 m.p.h.
The Times article comes after recent revelations of high-profile Secret Service mishaps, including a White House intruder who managed to jump the fence and penetrate deep into the mansion, armed with a knife. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned Oct. 1 after a series of lapses — before Obama's San Francisco trip.
While there were no apparent mishaps during Tyson's short stint as a volunteer driver, some of her Facebook photo captions give the impression she's more than a fish out of water.
Commenting on one photo of her in the driver's seat, Tyson wrote: “Me, wondering why anyone would trust me with a 15-passenger van full of reporters.”
Besides the high-profile memory, Tyson told the Times she scored with a unique bit of conversation power.
“You know how sometimes you are starting a new job or starting a new course, and you have to come up with three truths and a lie about yourself?” she told the Times. “This will be my truth that sounds like a lie.”