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“Jack” Dingell hunted rats “nearly as big as a dog” in the Capitol basement. Paul Kanjorski set off smoke bombs on Third Street Northeast and dodged bullets on the House floor. Tom Davis got thrown into the Neptune Fountain in front of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building.
Just another day in the Capitol trenches for these intrepid Congressmen?
Yes — when they were teenagers.
Dingell, Kanjorski and Davis are just three of the 11 current Members who began their political careers as Congressional pages, responding to Members’ requests on the chamber floors, delivering messages and helping staff the Cloakrooms.
For some who were the scions of political families, working as a page was a chance to be close to fathers and to see firsthand their political world. For boys from small towns with minimal exposure to Washington, D.C., being a page opened their eyes to political possibilities.
Then again, some simply were struck by the Capitol’s modern conveniences.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a House page for one month in the summer of 1970, never forgot the feel of the Rayburn House Office Building’s “long, cool, air-conditioned hallways” and the newfangled IBM Selectric typewriters.
“None of us had ever seen them before,” Cooper says.
Little Johnny Goes to Capitol Hill
“It was really my father’s idea,” says Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), the son of former Sen. — and one-time page — David Boren (D-Okla.).
The younger Boren, who was appointed a Senate page in the summer of 1989 by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), concedes he wasn’t all that focused on politics as a teenager. Boren’s parents divorced when he was 3, so coming to Washington, D.C., to page in the Senate was “kind of a way for me to be close to him.” (“I think Dad paid me out of his own pocket,” he says.)
As it happened, though, “we didn’t really see each other that much” during the workday, save for lunch breaks when Boren and his father would grab burgers in the Senate dining room.
Like Boren, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), plus Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.), were the sons of current or former Members when they served as pages.
Of the remaining six former pages-turned-Members — Reps. Cooper, Davis (R-Va.), Kanjorski (D-Pa.), Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) — several acknowledged having some sort of family connection to the Member who appointed them, or at least a friendship with someone close to that Member.
Donnald Anderson, the most recent Democratic Clerk of the House and an emeritus member of the House Page Board, insists that the prevalence of such connections in this sample of pages is an anomaly. “Contrary to the spin that’s been put on it externally, I always found the page program to be more of a meritocracy than who had an inside track,” he says.
In the days when page slots mainly were distributed based on patronage, some House Members chose to appoint a new page every month, with few application requirements. (Now, along with other requirements, pages in both chambers must have a B average, be 16 years old and a high school junior. They also generally are limited to one semester of service.)
“I think in those days, the Congressmen just said, ‘Would you like to be a page?’” recalls Crenshaw, who was appointed a House page for June 1961 by the late Rep. Charles Bennett (D-Fla.), a friend of his father’s. “I was what was known as a 30-day wonder.”
“You should have seen the size of the annual reunion,” laughs Cooper, who also was appointed for just a month. “Every kid [in the district] sooner or later got picked.”
These future Members whose fathers served in Congress lived at home as pages, while others moved into one of the many boarding houses that dotted the streets around the Capitol. (Not until 1983 were pages required to live in a supervised dormitory with curfews.)
Their duties during the school year by and large were similar to those of House and Senate pages today — early morning academic classes, followed by a full day in their respective chambers running errands and delivering messages.
All tasks were not equal — and some were a little silly, they say.
At an address by the president of Mexico, the pages were ordered to fill extra seats in the House chamber, recalls Wicker, who spent October 1967 as a House page. The president “would speak a little while, then [House Doorkeeper William] Fishbait Miller would lead us in applause. We had no idea what he was saying. Then it would be translated into English and we would applaud the same sentiment.”
“The errands were stupid,” says Cooper, who often was sent to fetch cigars for Congressmen and once was even dispatched to retrieve a set of curlers for a “lady” Member who had forgotten them at her hair salon. The endless delivering of flags that had been flown, if ever so briefly, over the Capitol grew tiresome, he adds.
It’s telling that much of what these ex-pages recall is walking — copiously. Dingell, who served as a House page from 1938 to 1941, says one time he put a pedometer on his leg. By the end of the day, he says, “I had walked 14 miles.”
The Best Seat in the House
From their perches on the floor or in the Cloakroom, these Members-to-be were eyewitnesses to some of the most historic events in the nation’s political history.
Dingell was sitting in the House gallery assisting a radio commentator in December 1941 when President Franklin Roosevelt came to the Capitol to ask Congress for a declaration of war against first Japan and then, a few days later, Germany. (“A lot of us [pages] were killed in World War II,” says Dingell, who also would be drafted, though he did not see combat.)
Kanjorski, who served as a House page from January 1953 until September 1954, watched the Rotunda memorial service for Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) from the Capitol Dome in 1953, which was then freely accessible. He later sat in on the Army-McCarthy hearings, and also would be on the House floor on the fateful day in March 1954 when Puerto Rican extremists sprayed the chamber with gunfire.
“It sounded like a package of firecrackers had been set off,” he says. The only reason he realized it wasn’t was because he got sprayed with pulverized marble. Kanjorski “hit the floor” until the shots ended, he says, then leaped into action. Along with fellow page Bill Emerson — later a Republican House Member from Missouri — Kanjorski sent for gurneys and helped load injured Members onto ambulances, even riding along with one of the victims to the hospital.
Several of the pages-turned-Members who served in the early 1960s, such as Holt, Davis and Dodd, recall the high drama of the debates over civil rights legislation.
“I remember Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and [Sen. Sam] Ervin (D-N.C.) ... in what was really a great debate,” says Holt, a Senate page during the summers of 1963 and 1964.
Some also had brushes with luminaries from Washington and Hollywood. Wicker, whose suitemate as a page was the future governor of Colorado, Bill Owens (R), was present the day doorkeeper Miller kicked Shirley Temple Black, the former child star who became a Republican Congressional candidate, out of the GOP House Cloakroom. (With certain exceptions, only Members, former Members, pages, Cloakroom staff and other aides with floor privileges are allowed in.) Wicker also took a night tour of the Capitol led by then-Senate Minority Leader Dirksen, as he was being trailed by cameras for one of the television networks.
Meanwhile, Kolbe, a Senate page from January to July 1958 and from January 1959 to June 1960, remembers getting coffee for then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Kolbe also witnessed the hoopla that surrounded the January 1959 arrival of Jim Johnson, the young man who would have been Congress’ first black page. Upon arriving in Washington, Johnson was told there had been a mix-up and, as a result, no slot was available for him.
“In those days blacks were not permitted, and there was no pussyfooting around about it,” recalls Anderson, who also was a page at that time.
Johnson subsequently was hired to do work for other Members and attended the Capitol Page School, but he was not allowed to be an official page. It was not until the mid-1960s that the first black Congressional page was appointed.
Other Members were pages during tense times for the program, when the need for its very existence was being questioned.
Arkansas’ Pryor was a House page during the summer of 1982, when allegations, mostly unsubstantiated, of sexual misconduct and drug use led to investigations of the page program and provided the impetus for a major overhaul of the system. As a result, the Capitol Page School, which had educated both chambers’ pages, was dissolved. Separate page schools were created for each chamber, and supervised housing was implemented, along with more formalized requirements.
It was a “watershed” moment, says House GOP Cloakroom Assistant Manager Jim Oliver, who served as a page with both Wicker and Davis in the 1960s.
Oddly, Pryor says, “I don’t really remember that. I do remember that most of [the allegations] turned out to be bogus.”
Pranks, Pratfalls and Parties
“I still don’t know why my parents let me go off and live in Washington, D.C.,” says Kolbe, who was so determined to be a page that he began writing Members of the Arizona Congressional delegation as early as age 10 before finally being appointed by then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in 1958.
Kanjorski says he lived for a time in a boarding house just a few houses down from the home of then-Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his wife. The McCarthys would have Kanjorski and other pages over for Cokes and political discussion. Sometimes, a young McCarthy aide, Robert Kennedy, also would drop in.
While formal supervision was less evident, it didn’t mean carte blanche freedom to do as one pleased.
“If you got into trouble, your Member would hear about it and he would lecture you,” says Kanjorski, who recalls a simpler, more relaxed time in Congressional history when Members took an active interest in the pages’ lives. “The ’60s changed the climate of the country. They were very protective of us [then]. Not in a formal way, but in an informal way.”
That didn’t stop these future Members, most of whom were pages before girls were permitted into the program in the 1970s, from reporting plenty of adventures — and pranks.
There was the “typical rookie prank,” in which the new page on the block was sent “to some obscure room” to deliver a message “and it turns out to be the men’s room,” recalls Wicker, referring to a practice that apparently is still in use with some variations today.
Kanjorski and his buddies set off smoke bombs underneath several of the cars lining the street outside their boarding house on Third Street Northeast, then called their landlady out to see. “She freaked out on us,” Kanjorski chuckles. “I think that might have been the precipitation of our move to Maryland Avenue.”
Kolbe says his page class hoisted their English teacher’s Volkswagen Bug up the steps of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building and then watched as she was forced to drive it back down.
Davis and his fellow pages convinced a teacher that one of their fellow classmates had leapt to his death from the page school’s third-floor location in the Library of Congress. “He went out and spread out on the ground like he had jumped,” says Davis, a Senate page from 1963 to 1967. “She went nuts.”
Sometimes, their infractions weren’t intentional, or even understood.
Crenshaw’s love of hot dogs earned him a silent rebuke from then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). “I was eating a hot dog in the [Democratic] Cloakroom. Maybe pages weren’t supposed to do that. I remember Sam Rayburn giving me a really tough glare like, ‘What are you doing in here eating a hot dog with me?’”
Some of their pastimes hardly would be permissible today.
Dingell kept a shotgun in his locker in the page school (which from the 1930s to the late 1940s was housed in the Capitol Terrace) and would “walk in and out of the Capitol” with the gun en route to or from hunting excursions. Congressional pages, Dingell says, had a rifle team and used “to shoot over in the old NRA range behind Union Station.”
During their time on Capitol Hill many of the pages also had “our first drunks,” says Kanjorski, noting the amount of free-flowing alcohol at the various events they attended. He quickly adds: “I don’t want to suggest we were a bunch of drunks.”
Of course, all that freedom sometimes came with a downside. Cooper “nearly got lost” while exploring the then-under construction Washington National Cathedral — alone — during a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1970. Worse still, when Cooper finally made his way back to safety, he was locked in. “No tourists would help me,” he recalls. Luckily, his guide eventually returned to free him.
Given that 1950s pages were “very much involved in the Washington scene” and frequently were required to escort prominent young ladies to functions around town, Kanjorski says: “A lot of us had our first falling in love experience at that time.” For a while, he dated the niece of then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell. (Not long after Kanjorski left page school for college, “she dated my best friend, Bill Emerson,” he says.)
Kolbe, who has since come out as gay, says he and his fellow pages were viewed by teenage girls as “objects of adulation” at the time. They often would send messages to “good-looking” tourist girls in the Senate gallery.
Meanwhile, Boren, who served as a Senate page long after girls were first admitted, was sweet on a fellow female page from Savannah, Ga. “I was a year or two younger than her. It never did materialize, but I did have a big crush,” he says.
Bright Young Things
Serving as a House page “probably gave me the first idea that perhaps I could do this job,” says Wicker, who, in a neat historical turn, was appointed a page by then-Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), the very man he would later succeed in Congress.
For the then-young political junkie Kanjorski, who had “always known [he] wanted to be in office” and had memorized the names of obscure governors rather than baseball statistics, the experience served to ground him “in everything the Capitol was about and the Congress was about.”
Moreover, the friends and contacts Kanjorski made certainly gave him a leg-up as he advanced in his political career. For instance, the moderate Republican politician Harold Stassen, then in the Eisenhower administration, befriended Kanjorski and would “mentor” him for years in a variety of campaign jobs.
Emerson, a Republican who already was in office when the Democratic Kanjorski was elected to the House in 1984, was “most helpful in introducing me to the people in Washington who have significant capacity to contribute money.” Ex-Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.), another fellow page, also helped Kanjorski fill his campaign coffers.
“Sometimes they remember you,” Davis says of the network of friends he developed then. He says one of his “big contributors in Prince William County” worked the Capitol elevators back when he was a Senate page.
But Cooper remains skeptical about the influence of the program on his and other pages’ future lives. “It could be becoming a bit of an anachronism,” he says. “How is errand running going to help? That’s more proximity than real contact.”
Even so, Cooper says he was inspired to come to D.C. as a college student to protest then-President Nixon’s firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973 because “I knew the city, I knew things like that were done.”
Many of these Members say their time as a page gave them a soft spot for the young people who fill these roles today.
Wicker, for instance, makes a habit of bringing orange slices for the Cloakroom pages to munch on. Each year Kolbe donates dinner “at my house for four pages” to an auction that raises money for the annual House page spring formal. He also takes House pages on a Dome tour and participates in photo-ops.
Dodd, who spent the summer of “1961 or 1962” serving as a Senate page, also makes room in his schedule to meet with pages — although he playfully concedes that some of today’s pages may view his chats as a literal encounter with history.
“I always tell them when I was a page Thomas Jefferson was president,” he laughs. “They look at me for a second and it’s almost as if [to say], ‘Gee, is that true?’”