It’s easy to think of pages — the teenage messengers tasked with scurrying between office buildings and the floor — as the arms and legs of Congress. But more than that, for the past 200 years, they have been the eyes and ears of Capitol Hill, witnessing history firsthand from the front lines.
With the news that the House is shuttering its page program, many former participants are remembering fondly their time as teenagers on the Hill. It’s a job some former pages say left an indelible mark on who they are today, and one that even allowed some of them to put their own stamp on history.
Having served as a member of Congress since 1955, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., already has a place in the history books. But perhaps the most historical moment from his time at the Capitol happened 14 years before he arrived as a lawmaker, when he was serving as a page.
It was on December 8th of that year that Congress declared war on Japan. Dingell had been put in charge of taking care of a radio reporter, Fulton Lewis, Jr., who was using a steel tape recording machine to capture President Franklin Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech. When the speech ended, Dingell was supposed to have Fulton stop recording, but decided to let it keep rolling. Because of that, the House’s debate over whether or not to go to war with Japan was recorded for the annals of history.
This was but one of the many experiences that Dingell carries with him today from his time as a page. He says that without a doubt, being put in contact with giants of the House such as then-Speaker Sam Rayburn was truly inspirational. Therefore, the decision to end the program caught the congressman off guard -- he read it in the paper, and initially thought he had read the story wrong -- and he finds the decision deplorable.
“We were not consulted at all about the decision to end the program, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go along with it,” he said in an interview with National Journal. “People learn so much from their time as pages. There’s so much to see, so much history to witness.”
For former Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski, the experiences of witnessing and affecting history converged on March 1, 1954. It was then, as a page on the House floor, that Kanjorski heard what at first he thought were firecrackers being set off, but turned out to be gunshots fired by Puerto Rican nationals.
“One shot hit about 10 feet above me on the marble column, and I got sprayed by the material from the column,” Kanjorski recalled in a 2010 interview with C-SPAN. And in what seemed like an instant, Kanjorski said, he began to help carry wounded members off of the House floor on a stretcher. Five lawmakers were injured, but nobody was killed.
Former Rep. Robert Bauman, a Maryland Republican, was also a page during the incident and called it one of the most memorable experiences of his life. He said that without the courage of pages like Kanjorski, it could have been a more tragic day.
“Members were falling all over the place,” he told National Journal. “I had just come on to the floor from the House lobby and Congressman Ben Jensen from Iowa was shot right in front of me. It was such a shock that it didn’t occur to me until later just how close we all were to something terrible.”
But Bauman said he took away a lot more from his time as a page than just memories of that one incident.
“After being a page, I stayed on the House staff on the floor for many years,” said Bauman, who served as a cloakroom attendant between 1955 and 1968. “As a result of my presence on the floor of the House, I knew as much about parliamentary procedure as most House members. After a while, it’s just second nature; members would come to me and ask how to vote on issues. It got me started in politics, and I don’t know if I could have done it without being a page.”
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who served in the 1960s as a Senate page (a program that Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office says has no plans of shuttering), agreed with Bauman.
“It’s quite possible that I would not be a member of Congress today if it weren’t for the page program,” Holt told National Journal. “In a lot of ways, I think it made it inevitable that I would eventually run.”
Being on the Senate floor during debates over civil rights in 1963 and 1964 made a lasting impression on the congressman.
“Hardly a week goes by when at some point during debate in the House I don’t think about Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen and John Stennis and Senator Paul Douglass of Illinois debating the Civil Rights Public Accommodations Act,” Holt said. “It’s a reminder, especially in divisive times, that you can deal with subjects as divisive as anything you can imagine—the dignity of human beings— and still be civil.”
Holt said his time as a page provided him with a “huge lesson that I could not have gotten if I was not sitting in the chamber listening day in and day out.”
When asked whether he would appeal the decision to end the House program, Holt said, “I haven’t gone to the Speaker yet, but I might.”
For many pages who have graduated from the program, the $5 million annual cost to keep it running sounds like chump change when looking at the big picture. To be sure, e-mail has made it easier to deliver messages to lawmakers, but it’s of little surprise that for them, being a page never really was about carrying things around.
“Baseball teams still have batboys because they are part of the historic past of baseball,” said Geoff Patnoe, who served as a page from California in 1990. “Sure, ballplayers can pick up their own gear, yet the younger generation is around as batboys to help and to remind players that they are playing a kids' game. Pages are constant reminders to members that there is a younger generation waiting in the wings to pick up the torch of service from them in addition to the roles they play in the daily operations of the House.”
* * *
Are you a former page who would like to share your memories of Capitol Hill? Send your thoughts to Ben Terris at firstname.lastname@example.org.