They leaped into the national consciousness last week as bona fide heroes.

U.S. Capitol Police Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner, both wounded in Wednesday’s attack by a deranged gunman during a Republican congressional baseball practice, now symbolize our last line of defense against a world gone mad.

They represent law enforcement officers everywhere who don their uniforms each day wondering what awaits them out there, who among the masses might be the next psychopath with a semi-automatic rifle in his hands and murder on his mind.

“I give them a lot of credit,” said Severin Beliveau during an interview in his Portland law office Friday morning. “They’re far better trained than we were back in those days.”

Most people know him as a founding partner of the law firm Preti Flaherty, a former state legislator, a mover and shaker throughout Maine and beyond who long has thrived at the nexus of law and politics.

What few know is that Beliveau, now 79, was once a U.S. Capitol cop.

It was the late summer of 1960. As John F. Kennedy charmed his way toward the White House, Beliveau, then just 22, began his first year at Georgetown University Law Center.

He needed a job to support himself. And he had three choices, all patronage positions controlled by then-Maine Sen. Ed Muskie and Rep. James Oliver.

“Elevator operator, the Post Office and the police department,” Beliveau recalled.

He chose the latter, working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift as a guard on Capitol Hill.

It paid well at $100 per week, included uniforms that could double (without the jacket) as classroom garb and offered hours of time at a desk – in the pin-drop quiet of the Capitol building – that Beliveau could spend studying his law books.

He did carry a weapon, although for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why.

“They gave you a gun, a .38,” he recalled. “Then they took you to the White House police range and placed a body silhouette 25 yards away. If you struck any portion of the anatomy, you qualified. On my sixth shot, I got the guy in the knee.”

So much for firearms training. So much for bullets, too – more often than not, when he began his shift, Beliveau left his ammunition in his locker.

Why?

“I didn’t want to shoot anybody,” he said.

His duties?

He’d direct traffic from 4 to 6 p.m. out on Constitution or Independence avenues.

He’d chat with then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen while they and other legendary lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, poured the whiskey in Johnson’s palatial office at the end of a long day of debating.

He’d even walk May Craig, the legendary reporter for the Portland Press Herald, home to her nearby apartment because “she was a fragile little lady” and much appreciated the escorts by a friendly young man from Rumford.

“Not that there were any problems back then,” Beliveau said. “There were no criminals, no drugs, nothing.”

Not once during his entire nine-month tenure did Beliveau log an arrest. Which was a good thing – his superiors provided him with written instructions on how to write a parking or speeding ticket, but at no point was he schooled in how to take someone into custody.

“The greatest threats were the bums passed out under the bushes,” he said. “We’d prod them along across the street, off into the Metropolitan Police jurisdiction. Then we’d call those guys to come pick them up.”

There were no security stations, no metal detectors, no bomb-sniffing dogs, no surveillance cameras, no machine guns, no automatic lockdowns at the slightest hint – real or imagined – of trouble.

Rather, a law student with a badge greeted late visitors to the Capitol with a handshake, a smile and a wave on through. And if a family on vacation came along, he might take a break from his studies and walk them through National Statuary Hall and then on to the Rotunda.

It was, to borrow an oft-used Maine phrase, the way life should be.

Contrast that with last week.

Special Agents Bailey and Griner, two of more than 2,000 members of a force that numbered not much more than 100 back in Beliveau’s day, were at the baseball practice as part of the permanent security detail for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Scalise remained in critical condition Saturday at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

While others dove for cover under a fusillade of bullets, the two officers ran toward gunman James Hodgkinson, loaded weapons drawn, hollering for him to put his gun down.

Griner took a bullet to her ankle and Bailey sustained a minor, non-gunshot injury before Hodgkinson was finally shot and killed. Had the two officers not been there, many witnesses have said, it would have been a massacre.

“I think the evolution of the Capitol Police department is representative of what’s happened in this country,” Beliveau said. “We’ve gone from a passive guard system to active, professional law enforcement.”

We’ve also become a country where mass shootings – defined by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive to mean four or more victims, not including the shooter – occur at the rate of almost one a day. Wednesday’s was the 154th since the start of 2017.

Will this attack, unlike the hundreds that have preceded it, change anything?

Some say the political bomb-throwing, at least, might give way for a while to a more civil body politic – as it did Thursday evening after Special Agent Bailey threw out the first pitch at the annual Democrats-versus-Republicans baseball game.

But beyond the baseball bonhomie, Washington, D.C., remains, as Beliveau put it, an “armed camp.” Even as his brief stint with a badge, a gun and not a worry in the world remains a gauzy, increasingly distant memory.

“It was collegial. You never felt threatened,” Beliveau said. “Now you go to the Capitol and, because of the overwhelming police presence, you just feel that something’s going to happen.”

Welcome to the new America. Land of the free and home of the wary.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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