Joint sessions. The birth of C-SPAN. Robert Byrd playing his fiddle during a filibuster. The awe they felt the first time they walked on the House floor. It all adds up to what alumni of the Capitol page program call a life-altering experience.
But many teenage political junkies won’t get that experience today, thanks to technological changes and sexual misconduct scandals. The House, which accounted for the largest share of pages, shuttered its program in August 2011.
“I was really angry [it had to end] because of the bad behavior” of adults, says alum Herb Harris, alluding to the scandals, including the lewd messages that led Rep. Mark Foley to resign in 2006.
As the class of 1979 gathered Saturday to celebrate their 40-year reunion, they lamented the dwindling of the program, which brings high school students to D.C. to take classes and ferry documents on the Hill. With the rise of email, human message runners are all but obsolete. Mix in the predatory actions of a handful of lawmakers, and the risk starts to outweigh the reward.
At least one current congressman is hoping to change that. Rep. Bobby Rush introduced a measure this month that would reinstate the House page program, which he considers vital because it “fosters bipartisan civic engagement and creates a new generation of leaders,” according to a statement.
In the meantime, the Senate program continues, going strong since the 19th century. And veteran pages are remembering the past.
‘Not particularly supervised’
It wasn’t easy to get such busy people all in one room. Judy Mellgard, the group’s organizer, likens the process to “herding squirrels.”
The herding seems to have worked. Excitement, mingled with the bit of melancholy that accompanies any gathering marking the passage of time, filled the back room of the Dubliner this weekend. Former pages reminisced over old photos, recalled their time as bright-eyed teenagers in a city brimming with powerful people, and held an Irish wake of sorts for the program.
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“It’s delightful and horrifying all at once,” says Tony Gelderman of New Orleans, surveying his old haunt near Union Station. “It’s really delightful to be reminded of our great experience here in the Capitol. It’s kinda nice to relive that and have a sense of how it impacted our lives. But it’s horrifying because it was 40 years ago. That’s a long time.”
For him, being a page meant unprecedented freedom as the 1970s came to a close.
“It was a special designation for a 17-year-old,” says Gelderman. “Candidly, we were not particularly supervised. It was sort of an honor system, that we would behave. And we didn’t always.”
The freedom had an upside. The minimum age to purchase alcohol back then was 18, but even so, a lot of places didn’t card. That meant nights at the Tune Inn off Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast, even if Gelderman had classes to attend at dawn.
The lack of supervision also had a downside. Sexual impropriety roiled the program in the 1980s. The House Ethics Committee concluded in 1983 that Republican Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois preyed on a 17-year-old female page. The panel also called out Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, who targeted a 17-year-old boy.
Back to Earth
The experience of being a page was a “life changer,” exposing the class of ’79 to people they would never ordinarily come across, says Herbert Harris, now a legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.
Harris, 57, became a page through the patronage of then-Majority Leader Jim Wright. An African American teenager from D.C., Harris says he had to overcome some awkward social moments, sometimes diffusing tension but other times commanding respect from classmates who didn’t have much experience with minorities.
“Nah, I’m a D.C. boy,” Harris responds when asked if he was ever intimidated by this social environment. “Not in the least.” He says his athletic skill was one way he bridged the social division. (He once dropped 54 points in a city league basketball game, according to a classmate.)
But Harris picked up more than just social skills, he says. He also gained a sense of service, a desire to be an asset to his community.
He has fond memories of studying in the congressional meeting room. Because of his connection to the majority leader, he could do what no other pages could. It made him feel special, that he’d really accomplished something at a young age, and more was possible. He remembers walking through the doors and the elevator operator greeting him: “Good morning, and welcome to the congressional page school.” Harris looked over at his mother and saw her eyes well up with pride.
Don Jepson saw an ad in the paper from his home state senator, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. He applied and was one of four students selected out of 400. “It was an awesome opportunity,” Jepson says. Now a councilman, he remembers the congressional equivalent of a freshman hazing ritual: swimming in every fountain on the Hill, even the Library of Congress’ Neptune Fountain, which puts you in eyesight of Supreme Court security guards.
Days began early for the students. The first class started at 6 a.m., and the last ended at 10 a.m. Then they’d walk over to the Capitol building to run messages for lawmakers. The day ended when Congress adjourned. If sessions ran until 11 p.m., administrators would cancel the next day’s class.
Many of the students who went back to their hometown high schools spoke of being let down by a return to “ordinary” life after glimpsing another world. Some compared it the feeling astronauts get when they come back to Earth: Things just aren’t the same.
Correction, May 7, 1:50 p.m. | A photo caption accompanying an earlier version of this story misstated the name of Jim Oliver.
This story also misidentified former Sen. Robert Byrd.