For 200 years, congressional pages — the young messengers recognizably clad in blue blazers — have stood on the sidelines witnessing some of the most momentous occasions in the nation’s legislative history. A documentary set to be released this fall will recount that history, the peaks and pitfalls of one of the most prestigious training programs in the country.
The Capitol page program brought high school students for a semester or a summer to work and study while serving on the floors of the House and Senate. There were even pages at the first Continental Congress, according to Jerry Papazian, founder and president of the U.S. Capitol Page Alumni Association, an independent nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
The page program has, over the years, inspired many to seek elected office. At least 25 former and current members of Congress first witnessed the inner workings of the legislative branch as pages.
The House page program was unceremoniously shut down in 2011, following a review that found it was too expensive and facing obsolescence in the face of technology. Young House pages ferrying messages between offices were running on their last legs. The Senate program, meanwhile, continued.
Papazian and other former pages saw the shuttering of the House program as a short-sighted decision, which prompted the making of their documentary independent of the alumni association.
Through a successful crowdfunding campaign last year, the project raised more than $21,000. The roughly 60-minute documentary, titled "Democracy’s Messengers: The Untold Story of Young Americans on Capitol Hill," is in the final stages of production, directed by Hollywood filmmaker Eric Neal Young and narrated by journalist Cokie Roberts.
“This is a history of the page program through the words of former pages,” Papazian said. “It dives into the value of the program.”
The documentary also addresses its darker side. Initial reviews of the program were spurred by the 2006 resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., following accusations he sent sexually suggestive instant messages to young pages. Then in 2007, four pages were fired from the program for sexual misconduct and theft.
While the alumni association has no official stand, Papazian believes the program should be brought back.
“Just having young people on the floor reminded congressmen why they were there,” he said. “It wasn’t just a messenger program. It was the opportunity to have young people see firsthand how Washington works and to get them excited about participation themselves.”
Former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who was interviewed for the documentary, served as a Senate page from 1963 to 1967. Speaking to Roll Call, he called the decision to shut down the House program “a tragedy.” He said the program “inspired a generation of people to go on to do great things in the private sector and government,” including himself.
Most memorably, Davis remembers being on the floor of the Senate when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The president’s brother was presiding at the time.
“A clerk came running down the aisle, which never happens,” he said. “He gave Ted Kennedy a note and Kennedy left. I went back to the news ticker and everyone was gathering around. I remember Rep. Edward Bartlett from Alaska telling me, ‘Son, stay in front. This is history.’”
One of Davis’ fellow pages was Rush D. Holt, who would go on to join the House nearly 30 years later.
“It was a formative experience for me,” Holt said. “It was the first time I’d really been on my own in what I regarded a professional job.”
Holt was on the Senate floor during the final passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He also believes the House program should be reinstated.
“You can say it’s expensive," he said. "But if you look at the alumni of the program and what it’s accomplished, you have to say it’s been valuable to the country."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who was elected nine months before the House program's demise, was surprised when he first heard it was terminated. Lee was a Senate page in 1988 and said he learned plenty from his experience.
“It provides us a way to provide a number of Americans with the opportunity to experience Congress firsthand while performing a necessary service,” he said.
Former Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., never served in the page program, but as an intern she used to run the senators-only elevator in the building. Hagan, who was elected in 2008 and lost re-election last year, is a strong supporter of the page program, though she would like to see more diversity in it.
“I remember talking to several pages as they were lined up by the wall when Sonia Sotomayor was being confirmed for the Supreme Court in 2009,” she said. “I remember thinking what a historic event this was that they were witnessing. This was history they were seeing. It’s something they’ll never forget.”
The release of the documentary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the appointment of the first African-American page to the House page program. Before 1965, the program was all white and all male. That year, Frank Mitchell, a young African-American high school student from Springfield, Ill., was chosen by Rep. Paul Findley to join the ranks of the congressional pages. (Later, in the 1970s, the first female pages were appointed.)
Mitchell’s appointment was symbolic for many reasons. It happened on April 15, 1965, exactly 100 years after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The alumni association will celebrate the anniversary in August by hosting both Mitchell and Findley at Lincoln's presidential library in Springfield, Ill.
“It was such a great program,” said Mitchell, now retired from a career in journalism and public relations. Regretting that the House program was closed, he said, “I don’t think there’s any better learning program in the country. They’re missing the boat on what could be a great training program for 60 to 70 young people.”
Mitchell’s arrival in the Capitol was met with much media frenzy, he says. For days, weeks and even months, reporters called him for interviews.
“They really got me interested in something I’d always wanted to do — write,” he said. “So I became a reporter. The experience allowed me to open the doors to my potential to become who I was supposed to become."
Mitchell’s appointment came just three weeks after the third and final Selma to Montgomery March. At the time, he didn't recognize the magnitude of his appointment.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of historical moments, you don’t realize it,” he said.
Mitchell and Findley are good friends. They keep in touch when they can and Findley remembers him fondly.
“[Mitchell] told me he wanted to do a good job so it’d make the way easier for the next African-American to come along,” said Findley, who also believes that shutting down the House program was a mistake.
“I know that it’s somewhat of a challenge to Congress,” he continued. “But it’s also a great asset, not only to the individual serving as a page but to Congress itself. I wasn’t there when they voted to shut it down, but I think my vote would have been no.”
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