Get Congress Out of the Page Business

October 4, 2006 New York Times

MEMBERS of Congress have been falling over themselves this week to assign blame to other people in the aftermath of the resignation of their colleague Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who has acknowledged sending improper e-mail messages to a former House page. The fact is, however, that they are all to blame to different degrees for this latest page scandal.

I served as a House leadership page in 1977 and 1978 under the sponsorship of Sidney Yates, an Illinois Democrat. This was during the dark ages when male pages were simply given a salary and told to find their own housing. (Female pages were housed at the Y.W.C.A.) It goes without saying that pages grew up fast and had to learn self-discipline and survival skills.

During my tenure, I was taken by other pages to the home of a man who lived on Capitol Hill — not a member of Congress — and who would give male pages alcohol and drugs. He was clearly a pedophile. On weekends, he brought boys into the woods to drink, shoot guns and pose for semi-nude pictures for his ”collection.” I knew enough to leave, but, given the extent of his ”collection,” some clearly did not.

It later became obvious, however, that some of the greatest dangers lurked inside, not outside, the halls of Congress. In 1983, two members were censured for having had sexual relationships with House pages. Dan Crane of Illinois was defeated after he said he had sex with a 17-year-old female page in 1980. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts refused to apologize for a 1973 relationship with a 17-year-old male page, saying that the page was above the age of consent. Mr. Studds was elected five more times.

Like the rest of society, Congress has always had sexual deviants and sexual predators who cultivated images of themselves as churchgoers with family values. Mr. Foley was a co-chairman of the House Caucus of Missing and Exploited Children and an author of various bills about abuse of children. For a member with dark predilections, the presence of trusting and vulnerable pages can be an irresistible temptation.

There are aspects of the representative-page relationship that can unfortunately provide ample opportunities for sexual predators. Pedophiles often assume fatherly roles, reassuring pages living far from their parents. The subordinate position of pages also fulfills power fantasies for some pedophiles.

What is at risk is something truly unique. Since the 1820’s, pages have been an official part of Congress, but there were probably pages even in the first Congress, in the 1790’s. For these young men and women, being a page is an experience that will resonate with them for the rest of their lives. (It is therefore particularly galling that, as in 1983, the misconduct of members often leads to calls to abolish the page service — removing the temptations rather than deterring the abuses.)

As a 16-year-old page, I served such iconic figures as Barbara Jordan and heard addresses from leaders like Hubert Humphrey. I still remember the first time I had to hoist the flag on top of the House of Representatives, walking over a narrow plank of rotted wood that was probably 200 years old. I stood on top of the windy Capitol holding that flag and having my own ”Titanic” moment: I felt as if there was no limit to this country or its promise. When I sat to catch my breath I noticed a spot near the door where pages had recorded their names for over a century. You could feel a connection that ran for generations, as if pages were part of the Capitol itself.

Pages also serve as reminders to members of Congress of the idealism that first drove them to choose public service. In the hallways of the Capitol they seem like antidotes to the Abramoffs, the Cunninghams and the general stifling cynicism that has taken over government. That is why many of us are so angry with the failure, yet again, to protect our pages.

The 1980’s scandals led to some important reforms on housing and schooling (including the creation of a page dormitory). These reforms, however, fell short of the needed changes.

The most glaring problem is that the House Page Board, which supervises the pages, is made up mostly of members of Congress (the Senate Page Board is composed of only two Senate officials, with no members). The representatives on the board have built-in conflicts of interests in moving against members accused of harassment. Political and social alliances complicate the process and many members would prefer to remain in blissful ignorance when rumors arise. Indeed, some (including the House speaker, Dennis Hastert) are accused of having known about Mr. Foley’s inappropriate messages months ago but allowing the matter to be addressed only informally and without serious action.

The solution is simple: the alumni of the page program need to protect their own ranks. Some of Washington’s most powerful figures in politics, media, business and the law are former pages. They are neither intimidated by members of Congress nor hesitant to drag a member to account. They are protective of pages and have the clout to match their concern.

Congress should create a Congressional Page Board composed of former pages. This board would have the ability to report infractions directly to the respective Ethics Committees for each house, which would be required to investigate and act upon any complaint submitted by the board.

One of the benefits of such a board is that former pages are likely to have a greater connection and rapport with current pages. Indeed, what is unusual about this case is that the page actually came forward — reports suggest that other pages had known of Mr. Foley’s conduct for years. They were wrong in not coming forward with the information. But that’s a difficult thing to do. It might have been easier if the voice on the other end of a telephone line was a former page.

If members are truly outraged, they will help us protect pages from predators in their own ranks. Power and pedophilia are by no means inevitable allies, but it is ridiculous and reckless to ignore their historical relationship. As former pages, we are happy to leave the Foleys, Cranes and Studdses to Congress. But Congress should leave the welfare of the pages to us.

One thought on “Get Congress Out of the Page Business”

Comments are closed.