Second in a three-part series profiling the House officers.
When then-incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked Bill Livingood in early December to stay on as the House Sergeant-at-Arms during the chamber’s first switch in party control in a dozen years, the former Secret Service agent considered that request the ultimate professional compliment.
The offer, from the leader of the party that had been in the minority during Livingood’s entire tenure on Capitol Hill, in a way proved that both Democrats and Republicans recognize his commitment to leaving the politics out of the House’s top security post.
“When I was hired, originally Speaker [Newt] Gingrich (R-Ga.) … went to a headhunting firm and when they called me they said they were looking for a nonpolitical, nonpartisan Sergeant-at-Arms hopefully in the same model as the Secret Service … because they have to serve both sides in protection,” Livingood said in a rare interview earlier this week.
“I can remember the Speaker right after I was hired saying, ‘I want you to treat both sides equally,’ and I remember talking to [then-Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt (D-Mo.) and he said the same thing,” he continued. “And I made a point over my last 12 years to make sure to keep both sides informed and treat all Members on both sides the exact same.”
Setting aside the House chaplain post, earning a patronage appointment by both Republicans and Democrats makes Livingood an interesting piece of House history, almost as unique as the American flag that hangs in his office. That flag was first flown on the moon and was presented to Congress after the Apollo 11 astronauts carried it back to Earth.
Those who know Livingood well say his desire to professionalize one of the House’s top patronage posts combined with his ability to avoid the media spotlight (except when he introduces the president at the State of the Union address) are the reasons that he has lasted through three Speakers and is heading into his 13th year on Capitol Hill.
“Bill brings with him a Secret Service background of not talking to the press and being very professional, and he does an outstanding job,” said former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who also served with Livingood in the Secret Service. “He is truly a security professional.”
During his time on Capitol Hill and in dealing with modern security threats that previous Sergeants-at-Arms never could have imagined — from planes flying into buildings to biological attacks by mail — Livingood has shown that the security of Congress has no Democratic or Republican side, Pickle said.
“You have to look at the history of that office before Bill came,” he said. “Prior to Bill it was a very, very political position. It had a much broader authority than it does today. It had the House Post Office and House Bank [scandals], both of which got the previous Sergeants-at-Arms prison time. Over the years, after Bill came in, that position slowly narrowed to focus more on what the modern day demands are, and that is security.”
“I think Bill has been very ecumenical in his approach to both House Democrats and Republicans in the years I’ve worked for him and by him,” said current Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who reported to Livingood when he previously served as chief of the Capitol Police. “Bill has a very calming effect. He has the grandfatherly approach, the gray-bearded experienced individual who takes it all in but he is not shy about getting good advisers around him and taking action.”
Livingood learned much of his security knowledge during 34 years with the Secret Service. He started on then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s detail and at the time of his retirement was the last agent on the force who had been on active duty the day former President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Today, at age 70, Livingood continues to take pride in honing many of the skills he learned as a field agent. He’s quick to point out that he’s qualified as an expert marksman with his .40-caliber pistol on the Capitol Police shooting range and, until a recent bout of tendonitis slowed him down, he was running five miles a day at about an eight-and-a-half-minute pace.
Livingood also acknowledged this week that he still doesn’t particularly enjoy talking to the media or seeing his name in the press.
“Why don’t I like to say much?” he said. “It comes from the Secret Service. That was instilled in you from the day you joined.”
In fact, when Gingrich first asked Livingood to introduce the president during the State of the Union address after reorganizing the House offices in the wake of the 1994 elections — before then the job had fallen to the Doorkeeper — Livingood tried to turn the offer down before the Speaker convinced him to make this one yearly exception.
But Livingood has been able to use the time away from the spotlight to get to know the Members of the House.
“He is very quick to go meet with Members when there are issues, and he’s very quick to respond to their needs,” Gainer said.
Livingood said he views the 435 House Members as more than just his bosses — they are a valuable security resource. They provide 435 extra sets of eyes that can be on the lookout for opportunities to make the Capitol campus safer.
“The cooperation I’ve gotten from both sides is just unbelievable,” Livingood said. “I don’t have all the answers. I try to have as many as I possibly can, but you can never be 100 percent sure.”
Livingood makes it a point to travel with four or five Congressional delegations each year to continue to build relationships with Members while staying abreast of emerging security threats from around the world.
“I do feel that somewhere in this country there will be another attack of some type,” Livingood said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ Now, is it going to be the Capitol? I can’t say. I can say the Capitol is a high-threat target. … We are the center of the democracy and there’s that big dome there,” which makes an enticing target.
Livingood said part of his job is to remind Congress that it can never let its guard down when it comes to guarding the Capitol campus.
“The further you get away from 9/11, the more the American public forgets what 9/11 meant,” he said. “The further you get away the harder it is sometimes to change security if its needed.”
One idea Livingood said he’s never been opposed to is placing a fence around Capitol Hill to better control pedestrian and vehicular access to the grounds. And while the idea has been brought up and nixed in the past, he said, “One day we may have to consider it.”
But regardless of whether that idea is ever seriously considered again, Livingood said the best protection the Capitol has at its disposal is the men and women of the Capitol Police.
“One of the reasons I’m thrilled about staying is I honestly love the Capitol Police. I have such high respect for them and what they do every day,” he said.
He added that he’s also excited to remain the House’s chief of security because “I have had such great relationships with the former [House] officers who have been here, and I’m looking forward to learning more from the new officers.” (He will be joined by incoming House Clerk Lorraine Miller and incoming Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard.)
When asked what advice he would give to a new House officer who hoped to have a career on Capitol Hill as long as his, Livingood said, “The only thing I would tell them is: Before you act, stop and think, ‘Is this the right thing for the right reasons?’ and, ‘Will this benefit everyone and the institution?’”