8 Memories from Congressional Page Land: Sandwiches with the Speaker, Shaking Bill Clinton's Hand and Stealing KFC Decals
Qui-Gon in your room?
Today, it was announced that the House of Representatives Page Program, a program both steeped in history and marred by scandal, is coming to an end. According to USA Today, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi cited the $5 million annual expenditure for cutting the program, which kind of sounds like a glorified courier position where privileged high school juniors get to spend a year in Washington rubbing their blue-jacketed shoulders with Dad's college roommate.
Except that, for one year, those blue-jacketed shoulders actually belonged to me. And, to be perfectly honest, it was one of the best years of my life.
In the 1998-1999 school year, I proudly served as one of the last pages for Republican Congressman Bill Archer, and it was a huge year: Clinton got impeached, the House leadership changed hands, NATO was in its 50th year and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out.
Naturally, this news has gotten me a little misty-eyed, so I have come up with a list of my eight favorite memories from Page Land.
8. John Glenn gives astronauts a tour of the House floor in the afterhours In which we each did a double take and mouthed the words "Holy shit! Astronauts!" One girl made a sign that said "On this date I met Astronaut John Glenn," and plastered it all over our dorm hallway.
7. Shaking Bill Clinton's hand at the State of the Union Yeah, I did it. I also didn't let go, because, I mean, it was the PRESIDENT. If you watch footage of the event, you can see him sticking his hand into a bunch of outstretched arms and then shaking his hand a little. That's him trying to get me to let go.
6. Passing the gavel Pages are given different tasks and once I was given floor duty, where you wait around until there's a package for you to deliver or pick up. Once, sometime between the midterm elections and impeachment, on a quiet afternoon when the chamber was practically empty, I saw Newt Gingrich pass his gavel to Bob Livingston, who was supposed to succeed him. I remember thinking it was pretty historic. I realized I'd never see Gingrich hold the gavel again. I didn't realize I'd also never see Livingston hold it again, either. 5. Mnemonics were our friends I spent a few months as a cloakroom page, meaning I answered phones and took messages for the reps. I had to memorize the faces and names of 235 reps to do this. It was HELL, sitting in a room all day, going through slides and reciting "Aderholt...Alabama....Armey...Texas" over and over again. Fortunately, we came up with some clever mnemonics. For Robert Franks, we'd say he had a bald spot, so he wears a ball cap (not true, by the way). Where else do you wear a ball cap? A ball park. What do you eat at a ball park? Franks. Hey, it worked.
4. I skipped the Impeachment vote so I could go home for winter vacation One of the biggest regrets of my life.
3. Liam Neeson in my room Not all my favorite memories are political. My fellow pages were my best friends in high school. Once, some of my friends ripped a giant Liam Neeson (as Qui-Gon Jin) decal from a KFC in Silver Spring and plastered it in our study room. They ushered me into the darkened room, saying, "Someone wants to say hello to you," and turned on the lights, where my teenage crush stood before me. Well, sort of. You see, the decal was actually the top half of a two-part piece, and in their haste, my friends had left his legs behind.
2. NATO's 50th anniversary Madeleine Albright waved at me. It was neat.
1. Sandwiches at Helen's There was a sandwich counter in the Republican cloakroom run by a little old lady named Helen, who regularly changed the television from the mandatory C-SPAN feed to CBS so she could watch her soap operas. No one ever said anything to her about it; she had more seniority (and more job security) than anyone else there. I remember Livingston swung by once well after he resigned for a social visit. No one really seemed interested in talking to him, but Helen lit up when she saw him and said, "It's gonna be like old times, Mr. Livingston."
When I think about how depressing and polarizing politics get, I just think about Helen and her sandwich counter. She had served some of the most powerful men (and women) in history, and she didn't really care about their power; she just cared whether or not they could pay for their sandwiches. Looking back, I like to think that they actually went to her to fill a need. Their special interests and their scandals were left outside the doors of the cloakroom, and they just became hungry guys looking for a sandwich. They became the people they were before they were bought out, if only for a moment.
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