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Former Secret Service agent recounts time serving Nixon, Ford

The key to protecting the President of the United States? According to former Secret Service special agent and Iowan John Bay, it's looking for anything that's out of place.

"Threat assessments come down to basically looking for red flags," he said.

On Sept. 22, 1975, in Sacramento, as former President Gerald Ford walked across a park to meet California Governor Jerry Brown at the Statehouse, the flag could not have been redder. The agents surrounding the president were quick to spot a woman dressed entirely in red, including a bright red cape despite the summer heat. She appeared eager to shake the president's hand.

The woman turned out to be Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the Manson Family cult, who intended to assassinate the president with a pistol to make an environmental statement.

Bay witnessed fellow agent Larry Buendorf slide his hand over the top of the pistol to stop it from firing — and the gun, which was not loaded correctly, never went off. Ford met with the governor as he'd planned, with no mention of the assassination attempt.

Former Secret Service special agent John Bay speaks with IPR River to River host Ben Kieffer.
Sam McIntosh
IPR News
Former Secret Service special agent John Bay speaks with IPR River to River host Ben Kieffer.

Bay was assigned to serve both former presidents Richard Nixon and Ford during his time as an agent. He served for more than 20 years, from 1971 to 1993, though the high-profile position was never in his original career plans.

In fact, Bay studied music education at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, and at one time was a classmate of opera star Simon Estes.

Bay, who was born in Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, was also part of the Air Force ROTC while in college during a tumultuous time in American history. With the fight for civil rights paired with negative feelings toward the Vietnam War, Bay remembers items being thrown at him when carrying out the American flag at the start of Hawkeye football games.

He worked for a short time in Denver, Colorado as a Lutheran minister of music before he was drafted and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968. He served as a field interrogator for three years, extracting information from North Vietnamese soldiers. He considered pursuing a career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the war, but was recommended by colleagues to apply for the Secret Service, where he wouldn't be sitting at a desk for hours looking at bank records.

The job took him to more than 100 different countries and eventually to the White House, but it came with significant stress.

"When you are a secret service agent... there's stress every day. You never escape the stress," he said. "The stress stays with you — you may be working an eight, a 12, an 18-hour shift, but during your time off, you're still on duty, because you're on call, and you can be called at any time."

At first, Bay investigated incidents of fraud, then worked his way up to protection services. He was assigned to White House detail under former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. While standing post, he witnessed the resignation of Nixon following the Watergate scandal on live television, and recalled people camping outside the White House for weeks prior, waiting for it to happen, "like a death watch."

"It was morbid," he said. "When we would come to work... for about two or three weeks prior to that resignation, there would be hundreds of people that would be literally camped out on the sidewalk in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every day, the closer we got to August, the more people would be there."

A belated Valentine's Day card from Betty Ford.
A belated Valentine's Day card from Betty Ford.

Bay was then assigned to former First Lady Betty Ford. It was a smaller detail, but he said the threat was just as great.

"In reality, the threat for a president is assassination. The threat for one of the children, or the First Lady, is much higher for kidnapping," he said.

While Secret Service agents typically don't become friends with those they protect, Bay said he felt particularly protective of Betty, who was generally well-liked, friendly and popular.

"She was such a personable person, she was just magnetic," he said.

Despite his considerable career path change, music snuck into Bay's work from time to time. He recalled singing for the First Lady during a Christmas service, and got the opportunity to sing a few other times.

"It was an honor, and how do you say no?" he said.

After his retirement from the secret service, Bay did some security consulting. The 78-year-old lives in North Liberty. He said his time serving under Nixon and Ford made him see the world differently.

"I think it gave me perspective on a lot of things, about life in general," he said. "I think the best education a person can have is traveling to other countries and other cultures. I hope that I have passed that down to my own sons, that education is the key."

Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River