WASHINGTON, D.C. - Each year, hundreds of high school students from across the country apply for the privilege of taking phone calls and delivering messages for lawmakers on Capitol Hill as congressional pages. Now sexually explicit electronic correspondence allegedly sent from former Representative Mark Foley (R-Florida) to a former page has prompted several lawmakers to call for an investigation into the page program.
But since the Foley scandal broke in late September, former pages have been speaking out in defense of the 150-plus-year-old institution. Eric Ode, 21, a Harvard College senior who graduated from Burlington High School, served as a Senate page in 2002. "It was a great experience for me," he says.
There are currently 63 pages in the House and 30 in the Senate. Pages must be 16 years old, carry at least a 3.0 GPA, and be nominated by their senators or representatives. The application process is very competitive, and appointments are determined by lawmakers' seniority and party affiliation, though once pages arrive on the Hill they work for the entire legislative body. Both House and Senate pages receive a stipend for their work.
Ode - who also served as a page in the Vermont Statehouse when he was in the eighth grade - was nominated by Senator Patrick Leahy. He served from January until June of 2002. "I thought it was amazing to get exposure to the most powerful people in America," Ode says.
Getting to meet senators wasn't the only bonus. "Coming from Vermont, it's nice to know people from all around the country," Ode says. "It was interesting to get out and meet people from rural Kentucky and small-town Mississippi."
And Ode notes that pages network on the Hill. "If I wanted to, say, work on the Finance Committee, or work on the Transportation Committee, I could make those connections," he explains. "A lot of the people I worked with are still down there."
Ode, who is majoring in economics, plans to work at Credit Suisse Global financial institution after he graduates this spring. He says his experience as a page convinced him not to seek a job in politics. "I'm not interested in going back and being a staffer in a senator's office," he insists. "I saw what they did, and I know I don't want to do that."
Being a page helped Kita Lantman reach the same conclusion. Lantman, 21, grew up in South Burlington. She worked as a page at the same time as Ode, and was nominated to the program by Senator Jim Jeffords. She's currently majoring in sociology and fine arts at Amherst College.
Though Lantman says being a page deterred her from pursuing a political science major, she says it was "an absolutely wonderful experience" that taught her valuable life skills, such as how to manage schoolwork, chores and meals on her own, away from home. "That was the first time it was all on me," she says. "It made the transition to college easier."
Lantman also learned other vital skills as a page; she notes that C-SPAN cameras are often trained on the Senate floor, so "being presentable" was a big deal - not slouching, for example, and "not being really obvious when we were yawning."
Lantman says she never witnessed inappropriate behavior among lawmakers. Neither did Jennifer Ridder, a Middlebury College sophomore who worked as a House page during the 2002-2003 school year. The native of Denver, Colorado, says she rarely interacted with lawmakers, but those encounters she had were positive.
"I was studying for the SATs, and one congressman, every morning he would take an SAT question to us and ask it," she recalls. "Or there was a TV set in the cloakroom. And sometimes a member of Congress would suggest a movie and sit there and watch it with us between votes."
She knew Representative Foley, but not well. "I saw him and said hi, maybe," she recalls, "but I stuck to the Democratic side of the aisle."
Ridder notes that pages were warned about getting too close with elected officials. "You really couldn't have too much contact because there was a lot of security around pages," she says.
Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) nominated Ridder to the program, but Ridder says she didn't spend much time with the congresswoman. "It wasn't like she could take me to dinner or anything, unless I had my parents' permission," she observes.
Ode says Senate pages were similarly well supervised. He describes the proctors and administrators as "extremely competent."
"We had a good support group," he says. "I feel like there's definitely a safety net."
And though Ode says he never saw anything resembling Foley's conduct on the Senate floor, he does remember that 99-year-old Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina), who died in 2003, used to give candy to the female pages.
"I did find that slightly strange," Ode says. "But he wasn't doing that behind closed doors, and it's not like he was singling anybody out." Ode says everyone was aware of Thurmond's behavior, and no one said anything.
"What are you going to do about that?" he reflects. "I don't know. You kind of let it go. But to what extent - where does that stop?" It's the kind of question investigators might ask.
But Ode stresses the scandal doesn't reflect badly on the page program. "I don't think it makes the page program look bad," he says. "I think it makes sleazy people look bad. I don't think the program is the problem."