Newspaper article Roll Call

The Pages of History Will Be Televised

Newspaper article Roll Call

The Pages of History Will Be Televised

Article excerpt

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. …

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