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Eight simple words: 'Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States'

By Dan Merica, CNN
updated 2:31 PM EST, Tue February 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For 17 years, Bill Livingood introduced the president at the State of the Union address
  • As House sergeant at arms, Livingood introduced every president from Clinton to Obama
  • Paul Irving replaced Livingood when he retired last year

Washington (CNN) -- The moment is iconic. The lights are bright. The House chamber is buzzing. Millions of Americans are waiting to hear the state of their union.

And then the voice: "Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States."

On Tuesday night, Paul Irving will introduce President Barack Obama before his State of the Union address.

But for 17 years, it was Bill Livingood whose booming voice kicked off the event with those eight words.

The crowd would applaud and the president would stride into the House chamber, shaking hands and greeting members of Congress from both sides, about to fulfill an important constitutional provision.

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Livingood, a soft-spoken 76-year-old who retired last year, called this part of the job "sort of not my ilk."

Livingood never expected to introduce the president when he became House sergeant at arms in 1995. Before then, the duties of announcing the president, he said, fell to the House doorkeeper. But Livingood was tapped for the honor after then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich got rid of the doorkeeper job.

"I started practicing," he said last week with a laugh. "And practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced. In my office, I practiced; at home, I practiced, in the car because I didn't want to get that wrong."

Livingood had an office just off the House floor. "The first time I did it," he said, "I was concerned even though it was only eight words. So I wrote it in a piece of paper, and I kept it in my hand. The next year, I wrote it on a piece of paper, and I kept it in my pocket and from then one it was really relegated to my pocket."

He started every State of the Union address until he stepped down last year, welcoming presidents from Bill Clinton to Obama. In total, he introduced the president 20 times, including in joint sessions of Congress.

At a December 2011 event honoring his career, House Speaker John Boehner reflected on Livingood's 17 years of service in the chamber.

"An example of class and humility, Bill has led us through the unthinkable," Boehner said. "Bill Livingood enters the books as a good law enforcement officer, a good criminal investigator, and above all, a good and decent man. Bill, we're sorry to see you go, but on behalf of the whole House, thank you for your service."

House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi also acknowledged him.

"Announcing the president at the annual State of the Union address has made Bill Livingood known in the homes of many American families, and his service of nearly 17 years, and under four different speakers of the House, puts him in the history books," she said in a statement.

Some of the best moments of those introductions, Livingood said, occurred when he had a chance to say hello to the leader of his nation.

"Every one of them has just been unbelievable as far as being nice, and they talk to you," Livingood said. "I usually say I'm glad you're here Mr. President because to me it doesn't matter who is our president."

Introducing the president is by far the most high-profile few seconds of the job, but it isn't the only duty. The sergeant at arms is the chief law enforcement officer for the House of Representatives, responsible for the overall security of the legislative body. He also is part of a three-person group that oversees the Capitol Police Board.

Most of the job is behind the scenes. Livingood said he wasn't offended when people asked him what else he did on Capitol Hill. Instead, he said, he felt honored that introducing the president was so high profile.

"I think for 17 years, we are used to seeing the sergeant at arms, or me, doing it, and I hope they felt as comfortable seeing me there as I felt being with them out there," Livingood said. "And it took me awhile to be comfortable ... but I really did become comfortable."

Livingood was sergeant at arms during some difficult years that included the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill offices. He also helped reform House security systems after the September 11 attacks.

Before joining the House, Livingood had a decorated career in the Secret Service for 33 years. He was protecting one of Vice President Lyndon Johnson's daughters at the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and was a senior adviser to three directors at the Secret Service's Office of Training.

When Livingood stepped down from the job in January 2012, Irving, another Secret Service veteran, replaced him. The two are close, and Livingood talks about Irving like a proud father.

"I'm very proud of my replacement because he's outstanding and he's a good guy," Livingood said. "I've known him; he came from Secret Service."

As for whether he would do it again, Livingood laughed and said his "time has passed."

"It's time for someone else," he said. "But I really did enjoy it and that is -- I think of all the things that changed for me -- that is one thing that changed rather rapidly -- the enjoyment of it."

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