By Grace Keenan
One of the cardinal rules for Senate pages is never talk to senators unless spoken to. Never.
But Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., stepped into an elevator with me and another page. I had canvassed for him when he ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who I admired. And there he was, standing mere inches in front of me.
He had greeted us so I wondered whether the page rule applied. Unsure, in a tiny high-pitched voice, I said: “I’m from Virginia.” I didn’t think he heard, but he turned around and asked my hometown. When I said Falls Church, he asked which high school I attend. He smiled and said: “I know George Mason. It’s a great school!”
I felt 10 feet tall.
Pages do simple tasks such as opening doors for senators as they enter or leave the Senate floor, carrying bills to the desk there, or delivering messages within the Congressional complex. We get an inside look at how history is made. During my five weeks as a Democratic page this summer, I learned more than I ever expected:
Senators cross the aisle. Despite the partisan acrimony in U.S. politics, the Senate floor is a genial place. Senators cross the aisle to talk — about their kids, their lives, their flights. I was surprised by the amount of laughter and gentle pats on the back or arm; I estimate a touch per minute. This past week, my last as a page, senators particularly came together to mourn the passing of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. At one point, they cleared the floor so his wife, Cindy McCain, could sit alone at the late senator’s desk.
Tradition lingers. Senators sit in the same small wooden desks as their predecessors, as noted by inscriptions inside the drawers. For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sits at the same desk as former Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Ted Kennedy and former President John F. Kennedy. Cell phones are a general no-no. While a few senators discreetly use them, the floor is mostly phone-free.
Phone-free living is good. Pages, most of whom live in a dormitory a couple blocks from the Senate office buildings, are not allowed personal phones. While some pages struggled with this, we all saw upsides to cell-free living. During breaks from floor duties, pages played card games such as President, watched C-SPAN, read Roll Call or the New York Times, and worked jointly on the New York Times crossword puzzles. (We figured out a question — Who’s running for the Senate? — that might stump others. Answer: Pages.)
Program fosters bipartisanship. Without phones as a distraction, I found it easy to get to know fellow pages, and this was one of the best parts of the program. I shared a room with girls from Utah, Michigan, and Texas — two Democrats and two Republicans. Each room had a similar mix, and we had great conversations about everything, including politics.
Oratory lives. The Senate has a reputation for soaring rhetoric, and as someone who competes in Speech & Debate tournaments, I enjoyed listening to the speeches. Sen.Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is married to a journalist, passionately defended the need for a free press. Every week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, gives his “It’s Time to Wake Up” speech to call for action on climate change.
The page program is incredible, and I felt fortunate each day to be part of it. The senators themselves made us feel welcome. On my first day, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asked pages for jokes. I told one I learned in eighth grade math class. (What do you call an angle that got into a car crash? A rectangle.)
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was also quite friendly. Once while talking on the floor, he introduced me to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. who asked me where I was from. “Let me see if I can find you a senator from Virginia,” she said, scanning the floor. Upon seeing Sen. Kaine, she said: “Tim, Grace here is from Virginia. She’s one of your constituents.”
He looked our way, and said: “I know. We’ve met already. George Mason High School, right?”
I felt 11 feet tall.
Grace Keenan is a senior at George Mason High School.