House’s Top Cop Marks a Decade on the Beat

Posted January 20, 2005 at 3:12pm

Reflecting on his long career in law enforcement, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood can’t envision having pursued a different calling.

“I have wanted to be a policeman ever since I was 12 years old, and I never stopped,” Livingood, 68, recalled during an interview earlier this month.

“I always wanted to be a policeman,” he continued. “I think the reason was I had a feeling that police could help people and you could be doing this full time, helping people, not just here and there.”

More than four decades later, Livingood serves as the top law enforcement official in the House, recently marking his 10-year anniversary in the Sergeant-at-Arms post.

“I cannot imagine myself doing anything else than being a law enforcement officer,” he said.

Livingood first pursued his dream of a law enforcement career while attending Michigan State University in the late 1950s, spending his summer working as a police officer to pay his tuition.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life. I knew it wouldn’t pay a large financial reward, but I thought it would give rewards other than financial: a feeling of pride, accomplishment and heart,” Livingood said.

By the time he graduated in 1961 with a degree in police administration, Livingood had decided on a career as a federal law enforcement officer, eventually settling on the Secret Service.

“I said, ‘Wow. Here is an agency that is small and cares about each other, and above all it cares about this country,’” Livingood said of the job interview that would set his 34-year career at the agency in motion.

While Livingood would rise through the agency’s ranks, eventually serving as executive assistant to the director, the framed photograph in the corner of the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office captures the earliest years of his career, which included one of the most poignant events in American history.

Presented to Livingood upon his retirement, the frame contains a photograph of the 1961 Lincoln in which President John F. Kennedy was riding at the time of his assassination, shown after it had been retrofitted with a bulletproof glass hardtop. (The vehicle was kept in use until 1977.)

Embedded in the mat beneath the photo is an ignition key to the vehicle given to Livingood, who at the time of his retirement was the last agent on active duty on the day of the Kennedy assassination.

Livingood speaks with great reverence of his career with the agency: “I tell everyone, ‘I don’t love every minute I spent in the Secret Service, I love every second,’ and I mean that,” he said. “It was a big family.”

Staying Above the Fray

Those emotional ties would nearly be strong enough to keep Livingood from pursuing the Sergeant-at-Arms post in November 1994 after the search firm Korn Ferry International reached out to him on behalf of the incoming Republican leadership.

“When they first called me, I said that I would look around the senior staff and see if anybody was interested,” Livingood recalled. “And they said, ‘Well, we’re calling you,’ and I said, ‘Why? I don’t think I’m interested right now.’”

Then serving as deputy assistant director of the Secret Service’s Office of Training, Livingood had begun looking toward retirement and the private sector but intended to serve another year until mandatory limits would require him to step down.

But later that month, Livingood returned home for Thanksgiving and sought the counsel of his father, Clarence Livingood, a renowned dermatologist and longtime team doctor for the Detroit Tigers before his death in 1998.

“He said, ‘You ought to consider it,’” recalled Livingood, who also looked to colleagues and longtime friends for advice.

“I talked to a lot of friends, and everybody said, ‘You ought to think about it. It would be an honor for you and the Secret Service,’” he said.

Among those encouraging Livingood were fellow agents, including James Varey, then serving as the Secret Service liaison to Congress, and current Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who at the time directed the Secret Service Congressional Affairs Office.

“Quite honestly, Bill didn’t know what the Sergeant-at-Arms job was,” recalled Pickle, who explained the nuances of the post to his colleague. “I explained to him that you run one of the largest offices in the House. You’ve got hundreds of people working for you and you’re responsible for all these different functions. Bill quickly put himself back into consideration.”

But Livingood remained hesitant, he said, in part because of his concerns that the job — by tradition a patronage position — would require him to take partisan stances.

“Coming from an organization that is as nonpolitical as you can possibly ever get, since they work with both sides, I wanted to continue that — whatever I did — that same philosophy,” Livingood said.

Assured by search firm officials that the Republican leadership had requested a nonpartisan, professional law enforcement official to fill the post, Livingood relented.

In the ensuing years, Livingood has sought to maintain his apolitical stance, holding his ground even as partisan warfare has at times reached a crescendo on the Hill, one observer noted.

“This is a minefield up here. It’s certainly a minefield for politicians, but its even more of a minefield for officers of the House,” said Pickle, who suggested Livingood’s keen sensibilities have often kept him above the fray.

From his perspective, Livingood asserts it would be nearly impossible to implement security on the Hill in a partisan manner.

“I don’t know how you can separate from a security standpoint either side,” Livingood explained. “You have to be nonpolitical because you need to serve the community as a whole, equally. And that includes staff, everyone in this community, everyone.

“I’ve always felt that way very strongly. I would take it very personally if anything happened to anybody, and that’s not just Members but anyone. I love this community,” he added.

Guarding Against the Unthinkable

In the decade since taking office, Livingood asserts his primary focus has shifted little and that only the intensity has changed as recent events, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have amplified the importance of security across the Hill campus.

“I’m doing the same job, but it’s more involved,” Livingood said.

And in small ways, Livingood’s first months on the Hill hinted at the challenges that would await in the years ahead.

Along with Varey, whom he’d tapped to be his deputy, Livingood initially trained his efforts on bolstering the Capitol Police and enhancing security measures across the Capitol campus, responding to the bombing, nearly two years earlier, of the World Trade Center parking garage and later to the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“This has an impact on the Capitol,” recalled Varey, who later served as chief of the Capitol Police. “We were bringing something to this community they weren’t used to: intensified security.”

That need for heightened measures was brought home by the two events which have perhaps most shaped the Sergeant-at-Arms office during Livingood’s tenure: the 1998 shooting deaths of Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson, and more recently the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

“It was a combination,” Livingood said. “I think after 9/11 and after the police officers were killed, the community came together.”

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) noted that in the aftershock of the Sept. 11 attacks, security discussions no longer centered on basic safety concerns, but turned instead to the consideration of nightmare scenarios such as the use of “nuclear briefcases” and other catastrophic weapons.

“A lot of matters we talked to Bill about were seniority and labor unions,” Ney said of conversations before the attacks. “There were security issues people worked on, but it was moon and sun after 9/11.”

Although subsequent incidents such as the 2001 anthrax attacks and the discovery of ricin in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) office in 2004 have also challenged Congressional security planners, Ney asserted Livingood’s long tenure has helped to maintain a sense of openness on the Capitol campus while prevention measures have reached new heights.

“Bill has seen both sides of this fence, it gives him a balanced perspective,” Ney said.

When discussing the watershed moments in his career, Livingood focuses intently on the Capitol Police, describing a deep admiration for the rank-and-file officers who patrol the Congressional campus.

“I have come to [have] a huge respect and admiration for the dedication, professionalism and experience that the Capitol Police show,” Livingood said. “Particularly since 9/11 it’s come to the forefront more for them and for the Congressional community.”

Although it is a narrative he relates often, the House Sergeant-at-Arms is visibly moved in recounting the actions of three Capitol Police officers during the Sept. 11 attacks.

After ensuring the building had been cleared of non-police personnel, Livingood and a colleague exited the Capitol.

“We thought there was a plane inbound at that time,” Livingood recalled. “There were three Capitol policemen standing at the House door right over there — two officers and a lieutenant — and I said, ‘OK, is everybody out?’ and they said, ‘Yes, we think everybody’s out.’

“I said, ‘Let’s move outside. We’ll move outside the building’ and the lieutenant said, ‘We’ve talked it over sir, and we’re going to stay right here in the event we missed somebody and we hear someone.’”

Despite ordering the officers to leave, Livingood said, the trio remained at the post.

“That’s says an awful lot about the Capitol Police,” Livingood said, and later added: “There’s no question in my mind, the effect that made on me, I will never forget that as long as I live.”