Benjamin Talus (left) and Gabriela Perla, both former House pages, met with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (right) and his aide Matt Kretman in September to urge that the House Page Program be reinstated.
Nine months after House leadership announced the elimination of the 200-year-old page program, activists are moving into what they call “Phase Two” of their campaign to bring the youthful helpers back to the chamber.
One prong of that effort is a documentary film tracing the history of the page program, narrated by former pages themselves.
“Hopefully, this will inform people about how significant the House Page Program was,” Jerry Papazian, president of the U.S. Capitol Page Alumni Association and one of the producers of the documentary, told Roll Call.
The program was shuttered in August. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cited high operational costs and technological advances as the primary justifications.
Not convinced by their bipartisan reasoning, activists mobilized quickly, forming Save the Page Program and lobbying lawmakers to sign on to legislation to preserve the program.
Their main ally is former page Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), whose resolution to restore the program has 28 co-sponsors — all Democrats.
Pelosi launched an initiative in late September that would outsource college-age interns working in Congressional offices to do six-week rotations in the Democratic Cloakroom, but Save the Page Program rejected the proposal as inadequate.
Now, organizers say there are “active discussions” within the page alumni network about how to create a new program that would keep with the tradition of bringing youth to the floor of the House. They hope a concrete proposal will be ready in the coming months and that House leadership will be involved.
Spokesmen for Boehner and Pelosi would not comment Wednesday on whether either is open to revisiting the decision to shut down the program.
Roll Call was given an opportunity to view a 15-minute teaser of the documentary, privately financed and co-produced by 2004 House page Miles Taylor and Hollywood-based documentary filmmaker Eric Young. It had its first official screening last weekend during page alumni reunion festivities.
It opens with a scene from the classic 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” James Stewart, in the title role, is starting his first day on the job, and a chipper young page is giving him a tour of the Senate floor.
Mr. Smith may be the Senator, but it’s the page who really understands the Senate. He walks the new Senator to his desk assignment, hands him a Senate calendar, points out the Majority and Minority Leaders and explains for whom each of the galleries is reserved.
“Anything else you want,” he says, collecting Mr. Smith’s hat and coat, “just snap for a page!”
The teaser goes on to feature testimonials from veterans of the page program who underscore the narrative that pages are more than flag distributors and door holders. Rather, given the privilege of so much access and responsibility, pages perhaps know better how to navigate the halls of Congress than some Members themselves.
“If you really want to know about Senators or Congressmen, ask the pages, because it’s the pages who watch them day in and day out,” a former page recalled in an interview.
In other interviews, former program participants recalled their favorite memories from their page days.
John McConnell, a Senate page in 1981 and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, described the excitement of being on the House floor at the State of the Union and seeing his hero, President Ronald Reagan.
Felda Looper, the first female House page, appointed in 1973, remembers the thrill of being among the last to leave the Capitol at the end of a workday and getting to wander the hallowed halls alone.
Other former pages, including current and former Members of Congress, describe the experience of being on Capitol Hill during transformative, and frightening, moments in history.
They were there during the 1954 shooting by four Puerto Rican nationalists on the House floor, and when the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) learned that his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot — at that moment, he was presiding over the Senate floor.
One short section of the teaser focuses primarily on the cancellation of the House Page Program.
“One of the reasons why the page system was killed with no notice is because the people who wanted to kill the program knew that their argument could not withstand scrutiny,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley opines in the teaser.
Producers, who hope to shop the documentary to major networks after its completion, said they aimed to be objective in their representation of the program, including the low points such as the infamous page sex scandal involving ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
But the current 15-minute cut is largely positive, which Papazian suggested reflected the overlapping experiences of the pages they interviewed.
“The universal theme was the real value this program was to young people,” he said.