‘My Mission Was to Keep Them Safe’
Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood Recounts His 17 Years Serving in the House
When House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood leaves his Capitol Hill office of 17 years in January, he’ll likely return two framed digital prints of paintings by famed 19th-century Western artist Frederic Remington.
The works, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston since he assumed the post in 1995, capture Livingood’s personality better than the other accoutrements in his office — the original flag flown on the moon in 1969, and even the 160-year-old Mace of the House, which resides in his suite when the chamber is not in session.
“I call it my first Secret Service assignment,” he said of Remington’s 1903 “Fight for the Water Hole,” depicting two cowboys on guard, their rifles aimed. “That’s me over there on the right.”
Of the other painting, titled “Aiding a Comrade,” he grew more serious.
“The cowboys are being chased, he fell off his horse and his feet are caught in the stirrups,” Livingood said, considering the 1890 work. “So the other two cowboys, at their own risk, are stopping to help him.
“When I see that piece every day, you know what I think of? I think of 9/11. I think of all the fire, police, civilians, doctors, nurses and all the people who came to rescue those people who were injured,” Livingood continued. “You help one person in your lifetime — one person — and you’ve made your mark on this earth. I fully believe that.”
Livingood, who is due to step down as the House of Representative’s chief law enforcement officer next month, has tried to live by those words.
A 33-year veteran of the Secret Service, he protected Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s younger daughter the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. He oversaw the Presidential Protection Division and was senior adviser to three directors of the Secret Service’s Office of Training.
It would not be overstating the case to say that as Sergeant-at-Arms, Livingood helped revolutionize the House security system after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He also dealt with the fallout of the anthrax attacks in Congressional offices and the shooting of two Capitol Police officers.
Livingood’s career in the House was one of firsts, as the Sergeant-at-Arms’ portfolio was significantly expanded by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He is the first Sergeant-at-Arms to be responsible for all emergency planning operations, charged with integrating the former Office of Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Operations into the new Office of Emergency Management.
With the elimination of the House doorkeeper position in 1994, Livingood is the only Sergeant-at-Arms to date to be tasked with introducing the president at the State of the Union and other addresses to joint sessions of Congress. It’s the only time most Americans get a glimpse of the Sergeant-at-Arms.
“[Gingrich] asked me at the time why I didn’t want to do it, and I said ‘I’m from the Secret Service. I’ve always been behind the scenes. I don’t want to be out front,’” Livingood recalled. “It took me about four years to get comfortable, and I’d say in the last five years I’ve felt much more at ease,and able to smile more and be a little looser.”
Livingood has generally avoided the public spotlight and has not given many interviews in the nearly two decades he has held his post. But he agreed to sit down with Roll Call about a month before his retirement to reflect on his time in the House.
Stories and Secrets
Livingood’s day-to-day duties are mostly routine: arrive at work a little after 8 a.m., leave whenever the House closes down shop.
He sifts through piles of paperwork, meets with Capitol Police officers, coordinates with Senate counterpart Terrance Gainer and consults with Members who are planning international work-related travel. He also speaks with the State Department two or three times daily, he said.
But Livingood prefers not to discuss the nonroutine nature of his work, which is often confidential. What he does enjoy talking about are stories from the past 17 years and the challenges he and his staff have overcome.
“It’s not only been challenging, it’s been exciting,” Livingood said. “ People would look and say, ‘Oh my God, why would it be challenging?’ Because my ilk lives for challenging. That’s what we do. We try to react and make plans for emergency situations.”
In that way, some of the most trying times were also among Livingood’s proudest moments.
“Because it wasn’t just me alone,” he explained. “It was because we’re a part of a team. … It’s fantastic when you can get going as a team. It makes you feel good, makes you feel proud to be part of that time. And if I had to say one thing, it would be, ‘I’ve never seen such team feeling as here on the Hill.’”
At 75, Livingood hasn’t settled on his next chapter, but he doesn’t plan to retire. He was married in October, so he says he’ll probably take three or four weeks to spend time with his wife and get back into his exercise routine. Then he expects to seek a position as an adviser on “major security issues.”
“I just have too much energy,” he said.
When Livingood left the Secret Service for Capitol Hill, he said he didn’t know how it would stack up. But in the end, he’s been pleasantly surprised.
“Everybody has a mission in life,” he said, “and my mission was to keep them safe.”