On a gray day on the Maine coast, my heart is heavy for the termination of the page program in the U.S. House of Representatives. OK, you don’t care, and why should you? In an age of text messaging and pdfs, the program can’t convince the bean-counting leaders of the House that it’s worth the $5 million annual price tag, and it probably never delivered much in the way of quantifiable value anyway.
But in January of 1967, when I was a junior in high school, my folks drove me down to Washington to take up residence in a Capitol Hill boarding house for a six-month stint as a House page. In those days there was no official page dormitory. The four of us who lived chez Bertha Columbus arose at 5:30, made our way to the top floor of the Library of Congress for a few hours at the Capitol Page School, then traipsed over to the House floor, where we proceeded to stick copies of the Congressional Record into their covers and proceeded to spend the day on various errands around the Hill, most of which could easily have been performed by the adult clerks and messengers who inhabited the joint. We ate lunch in one of the House cafeterias, dinner in this or that Capitol Hill greasy spoon, and those of us staying longer than a month or so generally found ourselves a short-term rental apartment.
What a curious place the House was! You got to know which offices were nice and which were naughty, as you picked your way around the spittoons that bespoke an institution still stuck in the 19th century. It ran on patronage and my patron was Peter Rodino, the 10-term congressman from New Jersey who was yet to achieve fame as chair of the House Watergate committee. Deep in the Capitol bowels was the pages’ cloakroom, where we dropped our things and which even had its own doorman, a perpetually exasperated Puerto Rican named Frankie Garcia. Frankie, whose right arm was crippled in World War I, owed his position to having been the Democrats’ sacrificial candidate to run against Fiorello LaGuardia back in the 20s. There were few lesser serfs.
Among the grand seigneurs was L. Mendel Rivers, the silver-haired warhawk from Charleston, S.C. who chaired the Armed Services Committee. With Vietnam turning into the great national morass, it wasn’t a very happy time for him or, indeed, for just about any other member, so in June, when Israel succeeded in routing three Arab armies in the time it took for God to create the world, a giddiness of biblical proportions descended upon the House. As various members wandered around the floor sporting black eye patches, I walked into the Democratic cloakroom to find Rivers standing beside the lunch counter and declaiming to everyone within earshot, “Now, I don’t want to hear anyone saying anything against mah Jews. Why, I’d trade 100 F-111s for one Mo-shay Dayan!”