Though most aspects of the United States Secret Service live up to the agency’s name, some details are public information. The most enjoyable of these would have to be the code names assigned to the Secret Service’s protection detail, which extends beyond the President and their family — Vice Presidents, cabinet members, presidential candidates, and high-profile visitors like the Pope and Queen Elizabeth II (aka Halo and Kittyhawk, respectively) fall under their purview as well. After being given a list of potential names by the White House Communications Agency, protectees choose one that jives with them. According to former USSS agent Jonathan Wackrow, “over time, the protectees have almost taken on the persona of the call sign that they had selected.”
Though these code names don’t date as far back as the Secret Service itself, which was founded in 1863 as part of the Department of the Treasury’s attempt to combat counterfeiting, the last half-century has produced no shortage of compelling call signals. Here are 13 of the most memorable.
Lancer (John F. Kennedy)
Following her husband's assassination, First Lady Jackie Kennedy quoted his favorite musical to memorialize him: “Don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot.” JFK’s code name was in line with this King Arthur fixation, not least because it can be thought of as a play on Lancelot — the famous Knight of the Round Table who was also known for his dalliances.
Passkey (Gerald Ford)
The 38th President of the United States was known to be highly appreciative of the Secret Service even before one of his agents, Larry Buendord, saved him from an assassination attempt in Sacramento on September 5, 1975. Just 17 days later, another attempt on Gerald Ford’s life was foiled when a retired Marine named Oliver Sipple grabbed the gun of would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore as she fired a second round at Ford after her first bullet missed. Passkey was uninjured in both cases.
Stardust (Happy Rockefeller)
Eleven days after ascending to the presidency, Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be his Vice President. Rockefeller was confirmed four months later, and received the call sign Sandstorm. His wife Happy was initially known as Shooting Star, which quickly caused problems. “Within a few days someone realized [that] wasn't such a good name, because in a broken transmission all you might hear was the word 'shooting,' and that could inadvertently set off a chain reaction and an awful lot of problems,” writes Joseph Petro in his memoir Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service. The Second Lady’s nickname was quickly changed to Stardust as a result.
Sunburn (Ted Kennedy)
During his unsuccessful White House run in 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy spent a lot of time in the sun. This didn’t exactly bode well for the Irish American’s fair complexion, and so he received the less-than-flattering code name Sunburn.
Duster (Geraldine Ferraro)
Geraldine Ferraro made history when Walter Mondale selected her as his running mate in 1984, as no woman had ever appeared on a major political party’s ticket before. Though the story behind her “Duster” moniker isn’t known, a reporter once speculated that it was “duster as in feather duster.” Her bid to become Vice President was unsuccessful — Ronald Regan was reelected in a landslide victory, with Mondale only winning his home state of Minnesota and Washington, D.C. — but Ferraro’s trailblazing legacy was secured nevertheless.
Panda (Kitty Dukakis)
There aren’t a lot of rules when it comes to Secret Service call signs, but one tradition persists: Family members’ nicknames start with the same first letter as the main protectee’s code name. In 1988 that resulted in Kitty Dukakis, wife of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and the Democratic nominee, taking the code name Panda after he chose Peso.
Timberwolf (George H.W. Bush)
Though few would mistake the elder George Bush for a basketball player, his call signal was the same as the NBA team from Minnesota. Bush had a close relationship with his security detail in his later years, even shaving his head in support of an agent’s 2-year-old child who was diagnosed with leukemia. Following his death in 2018, the Secret Service released a touching message: “Timberwolf's Detail concluded at 0600 hours on December 7, 2018 with no incidents to report at the George Bush Presidential Library — College Station, Texas. God speed Former President George H.W. Bush — you will be missed by all of us.”
Smurfette (Karenna Gore)
At least one person regrets their code name: Karenna Gore, daughter of former Vice President Al Gore. “Ever since four years ago, when I was put on the spot and told ‘two syllables’ and ‘It has to start with an s,’” Gore once wrote, “I have been cringing in the back seat when identified as ‘Smurfette.’” In her defense, she was a teenager at the time.
Parasol (Cindy McCain)
In keeping with her husband’s call signal Phoenix, Cindy McCain went with Parasol. “Cindy is really glamorous, she is also very prim and proper to some extent, so, they went with Parasol,” explained The Early Show political consultant Laura Schwartz.
Renegade (Barack Obama)
After being presented with a list of names that began with the letter R, Barack Obama went with Renegade. Given how historic his candidacy and then presidency were, it’s easy to make the connection. He would later go on to name the podcast he started with Bruce Springsteen Renegades: Born in the USA.
Javelin (Mitt Romney)
The meaning behind Mitt Romney's call signal is twofold: Javelin is both a car formerly manufactured by American Motors, which was led by Romney's father in the 1950s, as well as an Olympic event. Romney was president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics prior to his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, receiving widespread praise for his shepherding of the event.
Pioneer (Kamala Harris)
Shortly after being chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate last summer, Vice President Kamala Harris opted for a call signal that alluded to the historic nature of her candidacy: Pioneer. After being elected, Harris became the first female Vice President, first Black Vice President, and first Vice President of Asian descent — as well as the highest-ranking female official in American history.
Celtic (Joe Biden)
Anyone familiar with President Biden’s affinity for Irish poetry will be unsurprised that his code name alludes to his heritage (note that it’s pronounced with a hard C, basketball fans). When news of this first broke across the pond, many publications wrote about it. He first chose Celtic as Vice President and maintains it now that he’s in the Oval Office.
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