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The Long Pass

June 2024
2min read

Convened in January of 1961, the Eighty-seventh Congress was a gathering of contrasts. Less than a quarter of the people serving in the House of Representatives had been there during World War II, and 153 members had served fewer than five years. On the other hand, old lions still prowled the corridors. They included Wright Patman (seventeen terms), Clarence Cannon and Emanuel Celler (twenty terms), and Carl Vinson, then in his twenty-fifth term.

Over in the Senate only 19 members had been serving when World War II ended. Remarkably, 40 were in their first terms. Yet one senator, Carl Hayden, had first come to Congress in February of 1912, two months before the Titanic sank. The fathers of George Bush and Chris Dodd were there representing Connecticut, while Al Gore’s father represented Tennessee. All the subsequent namesakes of Senate office buildings—Russell, Dirksen, and Hart—were members of the Eighty-seventh Congress.

I fell into this rich mix when I was appointed a House page in July of 1961. A week after I arrived, Vice President Lyndon Johnson had me bring him two watermelons, of all things, so he could present them to President Muhammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. One day I dashed to catch an elevator only to find it occupied by the astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, reigning American heroes. Rep. James Roosevelt, FDR’s son, asked a group of us to his office, where he talked about his father and gave us each a photograph of him. And, not long after I was photographed with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy invited all the pages to the White House for lunch—and then invited us to return the silverware the next day.

In those days the House chamber was not very well ventilated, and a haze collected in the galleries, sifting down in the dim light. Aromas gathered: brass, leather, tobacco, furniture wax, new ink and fresh paper, a convention of colognes. Patched bullet holes were still visible in the smooth wood behind the Republican page bench, an unrepaired legacy of the Puerto Rican attack seven years before. It was the first year of John Kennedy’s Presidency and the last year of Sam Rayburn’s tenure as Speaker and as a congressman, and this clash of the vigorous and the venerable brought me near to ruin.

The Kennedys played touch football on the White House lawn. When Congress was out of session, the pages played football in the House of Representatives. With a chamber so long, a ceiling so high, and a walkway from one side of the House to the other, it was the perfect indoor spot for a long pass.

Late one afternoon a fellow page picked up the football and told me to “go deep.” I took off running, but the ball sailed over my head, hit the floor, bounced left off the double doors through which the President arrives to deliver the State of the Union address, then rolled down the sloping aisle toward the mammoth dais in the well of the House. I ran after it, bent down to pick it up, and that’s when I saw the gleam of the black shoes to my right.

“Your ball, boy?” a spectral voice asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said, looking into a face that seemed paper white in the subdued light of the vacant House chamber.

“Son, it’s a privilege to be a page,” the bald old man said. “And I can revoke that privilege faster than I can snap my ringers. Maybe you play ball in your house, but not in the People’s House. You get rid of that ball, or I’ll get rid of you.”

Perhaps there was a smile behind those words, but if so, he fooled me. So there I stood, alone in the People’s House, not another page in sight. Just a very wobbly sixteen-year-old watching the revered Sam Rayburn, the Speaker and dean of the House of Representatives, walk away.

The Kennedys played touch football on the White House lawn; the pages played in the House of Representatives.

Only a few weeks later both of us left Washington on the same day, August 31, 1961. I went home to Indiana, to return to the House of Representatives as a page the following summer. The Speaker went home to Bonham, Texas, for medical care. He never came back.

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