By Mary Jo Pham, New York 2006
Originally published in The Republican, Oct. 10, 2006. First place editorial prize for Newspaper Foundation of America.
The recent resignation of Republican U.S. Congressman Mark Foley over the disclosure of what have been called “overly-friendly” e-mails to young men who served in the Congressional House page program has been the focus of much media attention as well as much finger-pointing within the Republican party over how early certain members were informed of these e-mails.
What should have been done sooner and by whom are valid questions for investigation but these were barely points in a recent piece by New York Times columnist John Tierney printed in the Op Ed section of today’s Republican.
Tierney compares pages to “squires” or “serfs” of the medieval ages. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The columnist rhetorically asks what the public would think if the founders of Nike or Wal-Mart had programs in which 16-year-olds were dragged from their homes to run errands or “work on a Wal-Mart loading dock.”
In proposing such a question, Tierney overlooks the facts that pages are accomplished high school juniors from across the country.
They apply competitively and get nominated by their congressional representative to spend a semester working and observing on Capitol Hill.
Pages are paid for their work.
They also continue to take their necessary high school classes by attending the accredited U.S. House Page School in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.
Class hours are built around when the House is in session.
Far from the life of a serf I would say.
Secondly, there are big differences between running errands at a shoe company, unloading stock for a giant superstore and serving in the heart of United States democracy.
While all the box lifting may build physical muscle, there is no education like that of being on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where a student page is able to witness history in the making, work in the House space and see all who shape what is done there.
And, when one’s work allows one to be physically present at the State of the Union, it is most certainly different than lifting Sam’s Club fruit snacks.
Tierney questions why any taxpayer money should be spent on the program.
Yet, what better allocation of money than for the hands-on education of young people in how our great democratic society works?
Many former pages have gone on to careers in law, politics and government service.
Today, quite a few are in office.
In spite of this, Tierney would have readers believe that Congress is “dragging” such teens to Washington.
Dragging? I enthusiastically and willingly applied to be a page. I was not “sold” into being a page, and neither were the other pages with whom I served.
If anything did “sell us,” it was the possibility of independence, work and study in the center of modern democracy.
In Tierney’s view, pages must “ingratiate” themselves with “someone powerful” to be selected for the program.
Page positions are not easy to come by and there is a formal application process.
There is only a maximum of 72 spaces for the U.S. House page program each semester, compared to the hundred of thousands of high school juniors across our nation.
Interested participants go through a process similar to applying to college.
High school transcripts must be submitted, recommendations obtained from teachers, a resume done and an essay written on why the participant wants to spend a semester in D.C.
No young adult would put her or himself through the hard work of balancing work, school and additional assignments if she or he did not have a genuine interest in learning about the government.
Tierney also implies that pages’ work is a throwback to a “feudal” era that has nothing to do with our “Information Age” of cell phones and computer technology.
As far as I remember, I tended no horses nor carried any armor during my semester in Washington.
What’s more informative than seeing heated debates and participating in intellectually stimulating conversations with peers who share the same interests on Capitol Hill?
Pages do serve as messengers.
While hand-delivery work may hark back to medieval times (and sounds unglamorous), the House requires officially hand-signed documents to verify evidence of work and progress.
I felt proud to deliver such documents as evidence that our democracy is functioning as it should.
Their delivery cannot be completed via mouse click.
Tierney argues that the page program will disillusion the innocent teen at too young an age.
The columnist’s thinking seems to be that students need to confine their learning to a textbook because the reality of the actual process is too jarring.
This is not the age of innocence, however. This is the age of information, as Tierney said.
Our information age is badly in need of proper face-to-face communication and continued understanding of what goes into professional relationships and good work.
Unfortunately we all outgrown the innocence of childhood and must enter the real world.
In two years, I will be able to vote.
I deserve the right to be aware, informed and to partake in real situations.
The page program is exceptional in educating young people in politics.
By being aware of how backroom negotiating or networking results in passed bills that do not benefit the majority of American citizens, I, as a young person, can think ahead and decide how I will do things differently.
Tierney compares congressional members to feudal lords ready to take advantage of their underlings.
He says representatives are surrounded by “groveling minions.” Members of Congress deserve respect unless proven otherwise.
They represent their constituents, not only themselves. Pages are far from “groveling minions.”
Pages have many privileges accorded to them because of the work they do and where they do it.
These include attending the president’s State of the Union address, police escorts when needed and supervised “Washington Study” field trips.
Tierney writes that the only lesson the page program teaches is that success is “all about making the right connections.”
Success, Mr. Tierney, is all about making the right connections, but not just the political connections.
It’s the connections between the young and wise, mentored and mentor. These people guide you.
In my work for UNlisted I have gotten to meet and interview former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and PBS anchorwoman Gwen Ifill.
Similarly, as a page in D.C., I was able to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the president of Liberia and the first woman elected head of state in Africa.
Meeting these people was indeed exciting — it’s great to encounter someone you have learned about in class and respect in a field that is of interest to you.
It was a step in learning, not a step up some hierarchy as Tierney would have readers believe.
Tierney says the page program should be eliminated. He misses the point of better oversight.
The behavior in question here is that of a representative and the process for examining any questionable behavior.
I was in attendance when Foley, formerly chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, delivered his speech proclaiming that children must be protected from sex offenders and dangerous adults.
Lawmakers should closely examine and follow the laws they have passed. Congress hates to be told that it needs fixing, but the adults really need to take charge.
Last Thursday, the House ethics committee said it would thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding Foley’s electronic messages to Congressional pages.
A number of questions have been raised including how early the office of House speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was informed of Foley’s electronic messages to pages.
The Justice Department has also been conducting its own inquiry. This latest congressional scandal is only the last straw in a pile of many situations involving ethical and other questions of judgement and behavior.
My service as a U.S. House of Representatives page changed my life.
It deepened my desire to better this nation.
I know that power can be used to corrupt or to create the greatest of change.
Such is the nature of Congress’ work: to use power for the better and to protect and maintain the checks, balances and protections in the U.S. Constitution.
These protections mean a democracy that doesn’t shut its doors in anyone’s face.
This is a democracy that openly collects its mistakes and reforms its downsides where and when they need to be reformed.