At least one night a year, the House Sergeant-at-Arms commands a worldwide audience when he announces “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States,” ahead of the State of the Union address.
For Bill Livingood, the House’s chief security officer, that moment in the spotlight is rare and brief — the way he likes it.
Livingood, reluctantly thrust into the news following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), personifies three decades of Secret Service experience, shunning publicity and giving infrequent interviews in favor of working quietly behind the scenes.
“He’s not very effusive,” said former Capitol Police Chief James Varey, who once served as Livingood’s deputy. “If you’ve had any dealings with the Secret Service, you know they’re not out there publicly in how they conduct their business.”
But the Philadelphia native’s understated and decidedly nonpartisan style, coupled with his unparalleled institutional knowledge, is the key to his longevity, Members and colleagues said. Since first being appointed in 1995 by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he has weathered four Speakers, three presidents and two changes in majority control of the House, each time earning reappointment with bipartisan acclaim.
Now, Livingood is on the cusp of making history. At term’s end, he will be the second-longest-serving Sergeant-at-Arms in House history. Add another five and a half months and he will top the list, eclipsing the very first Sergeant-at-Arms, Joseph Wheaton.
The 75-year-old has given no indication he can’t hit that mark.
Patronage to State of the Art
Livingood energetically worked the room at a recent event in the Capitol Rotunda commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
Greeting attendees and Kennedy relatives with the same warm smile he flashes when declining interviews (including one for this article), Livingood may have been reflecting on his first day in the Secret Service, Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated.
Livingood finished training earlier that morning and was assigned to Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s security detail. After shots rang out, he received orders to pick up and protect the younger of Johnson’s two daughters, Luci.
It would be the start of a 34-year career for the young agent, who had graduated just two years earlier with a police administration degree from Michigan State University.
“I always wanted to be a policeman,” he told Roll Call in 2005. “I had a feeling that police could help people and you could be doing this full time, helping people, not just here and there.”
He guarded several presidents, then joined management and helped train agents, finally becoming executive assistant to the agency’s director.
“The problem with having a beer with Bill Livingood is he’ll never tell you the stories of all the presidents he used to protect,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said. “He still considers it a trust that he doesn’t want to violate. You’ll never get it out of the son of a gun.”
After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Gingrich sought a nonpartisan officer to staff the Sergeant-at-Arms Office. A headhunting firm tapped Livingood for an interview with Gingrich’s transition team: Reps. Jim Nussle (Iowa), John Linder (Ga.) and a young, two-term Ohio Congressman named John Boehner.
“They didn’t ask me any” political questions, Livingood told Roll Call in 1995. “Never ... I’m bipartisan. I’m not a Republican; I’m not a Democrat. I’m a professional law enforcement officer.”
Since then, Livingood has revamped the security operations of the House, transforming the Capitol Police from a patronage organization to a state-of-the-art police force — all, of course, through the lens of a Secret Service agent, emphasizing Member protection.
Renominating him in December, incoming Speaker Boehner lauded Livingood as “a disciplined and respected guardian of the U.S. Capitol and all who pass through these halls.”
Close to the Action
In his first-floor Capitol office, Livingood displays two reproductions of Old West paintings by Frederic Remington that he enjoys telling guests are symbolic of his job, said Scot Faulkner, a former House Chief Administrative Officer.
One is of cowboys guarding a watering hole. The other depicts cowboys turning back to retrieve a fallen comrade. Of the first, Livingood tells guests, “‘This is really the defense of a public official or a public entity. We are guarding this fount of life,’” Faulkner recalled. The second, he continued, means, “‘You leave no one behind.’”
“He’s really a person who has built tremendous loyalty in his own team,” Faulkner said. It’s not uncommon to find on his staff people who have been there for a decade.
Divorced and with no children of his own, he looks after his force as if they were his own family, colleagues have said. Others said he follows the creed of security with the dedication of a cleric.
“To some degree, what he’s doing is a vocation,” said Varey, who served as police chief during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We never watched the clock. If there was a threat or a security issue, the issue was in our minds 24 hours a day. And we could never be happy until the issue was resolved.”
He travels with the Speaker, flying with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) just last term to Canada, Haiti, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Italy, England, Jordan, Afghanistan and Qatar, according to House travel records.
“I’ve seen him standing watch outside the door of the Speaker’s suite in a hotel and have said, ‘Bill, we’ve got youngsters who are supposed to do this,’” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said. “But he enjoys it, he likes being close to the action and he leads by the example.”
It’s worth noting that Livingood’s approach to the press and media spotlight couldn’t be more opposite from Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief who is media-savvy and never one to shy away from reporters’ questions.
A Quiet Peacemaker
But even if he isn’t granting interviews or holding news conferences, Livingood’s influence can be seen and felt across Capitol Hill. The complex’s security posture expanded dramatically after the 1998 shooting of two Capitol Police officers under the Dome and then even more after the 2001 attacks and the ensuing anthrax scare.
That’s not to say the expansion hasn’t from time to time rankled Members, who weigh constituent access heavily against security. But they respect Livingood’s judgment on the matter.
“He’s done an amazing job and probably under the most challenging circumstances Congress has ever faced in terms of security,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the former chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.
Livingood, chairman of the Capitol Police Board in even years, has often played peacemaker. He once, for instance, smoothed out a dispute with Moran and Kingston on one end and Gainer, who was Capitol Police chief at the time, on the other.
Some 25 officers came to a subcommittee hearing in a show of solidarity for a then-maligned Gainer.
“They were trying to intimidate us, intimidate Jack and I. They’d stand there with their arms folded,” Moran said. “It was counterproductive. Bill understood right away and fixed it and let them know, ‘You don’t try to intimidate Members of Congress, particularly Kingston and Moran.’”
With the talks of what to do after the shooting in Tucson still in a very fluid state, Members are again looking to Livingood for advice on how to balance constituent access and security.
“He’s certainly in the midst of these conversations we’re having about what more we need to do,” House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said.
But Members say there is no one they’d rather have at the helm. A much-earned retirement is inevitable, but until then, they endorse him with a common refrain: “The job is his as long as he wants it.”