Walking through the White House is like looking at the Mona Lisa. There’s a big hype about it, but after security and some museum-like rooms, it’s a bit underwhelming. Moving through the self-guided tour, I see serious-looking people in suits run by with coffee and Secret Service men appearing in every room, looking extra-menacing, probably so that nobody touches the wood paneling or something. From what I’ve watched of West Wing, these people probably don’t get enough time off.
The more quaint little rooms I walked into, the more I wanted to talk to these symbols of White House protection—the imposing, oddly good-looking, young Secret Service agents. Steeling my nerves and reminding myself that I am a strong, independent young woman and that these people have a story to tell like everybody else, I walked up to the friendliest-looking agent with a smooth, “So…got any fun facts about the room?”
He seemed open, launching into a well-rehearsed lecture about the various objects in the room and the kitchens behind the hidden door and how Sasha and Malia get grounded.
His openness eventually gave me the courage to ask, “So how did you get this job?”
“Oh, I was a personal trainer before, and this was the best next job option. The Service is really understaffed. You should apply,” he added jokingly.
A personal trainer. Aren’t these people required to be Navy SEALs? I tried to ask him that tactfully.
“Yeah, some people are ex-military. But most are just those who were looking for a better option after college or were after a minimum wage job.”
It was an odd thought. The protectors of the seat of executive power of one of the most powerful countries in the world are supposed to be like the cross-breed of James Bond and Superman. It’s supposed to be an honor, not a position people apply to when they’re short on options.
“Why understaffed? Isn’t this an extremely lucrative position?” I pushed a little, wanting to see how much information he would give me. I half expected to be dragged out for trying to find out government secrets.
“The acceptance rate is like .1 percent, and the hours are really bad. I mean…very, very bad. Sixteen hours a week of overtime, shifts from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., never knowing if you’re going to get sent to Cambodia or not. Imagine trying to make plans with friends. Most guys drop out after several years.” The more he talked, the more he seemed like a disillusioned retail worker who had spent too much time on the job.
Thanking him, I moved on to other rooms, each one with its tall, dark Secret Service agent watching over it. Approaching them one by one, I realized that the gaze I thought was menacing now seemed like a gaze of boredom.
I talked to four or five more men. Each one said the same thing. Do you like your job? Not particularly. Why? The hours are terrible. What did you do beforehand? I worked at Best Buy. Did you go to college? Yeah, but you don’t need a college degree to look after tourists. A high school dropout could do it.
I was floored, again and again. What I perceived to be one of the most prestigious jobs in the country was turning out to be a terrible position. I don’t know if the agents I talked to regretted joining the Service, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. But no matter how illustrious and important their jobs seem, I learned that they probably hate it as much as some 9–5 cubicle workers hate theirs. Apparently nobody—not even a Secret Service agent—is immune to wanting more out of his or her career.
I thought back to my own job aspirations and the people I know in positions of importance. Am I attracted to the image of a job, as opposed to the reality of it? And how can I possibly know the difference beforehand? Perhaps the key is in how you pick the job. The best next step—like the Secret Service was for those men—is not necessarily the best option for personal happiness.
Anya Marchenko is the blogger behind The Anyion. She is a first-year in the College.