By Jim Stasny, House, 1962
In the summer of 1962, Edward McCormack, Jr. campaigned to become the Democratic nominee in the election to fill the Senate seat once held by John F. Kennedy. McCormack had competition in the primary: Edward M. Kennedy. The primary was scheduled for mid-September. Those are the facts. Although Massachusetts is a long way from Washington, D.C., Massachusetts politics hovered much closer to me than I could possibly have imagined.
I started off feeling fine that hot summer morning in late July. Good luck and expiring appointments had landed me the spot of assistant overseer in the House Republican page service. I sat behind a desk in a back corner of the House chamber. I answered the phone, wrote down requests, handed them to other pages. A brass panel of white lights sloped in front of me. A member on the House floor could summon a page by pushing a button just above the legs on the chair where he or she sat. When that happened, a light on the brass panel lit up showing the general location of the call. A page looked at a call system pocket card that broadly corresponded to the seating arrangement, then went down the aisle to see what the member wanted. Often, nothing. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to hit it.” Or sometimes they said: “What do you want?” Sometimes, something stronger.
Above the brass panel and running the length of the page desk was a shelf on which pages stacked copies of the measures set for action by the House. There were also companion reports, legislative calendars of business, and copies of the previous day’s Congressional Record. This all looked very official which, of course, it was. It was just the sort of set up that could make a page feel he had become a real “player” on the Hill.
And so it was on that warm morning when things were orderly and good that the face of the Chief Republican Page appeared over the stack of documents and dropped the temperature with these few words: “The Speaker wants to see you. In his office. Now.”
This news presented three possibilities. First, it was a joke. Second, it was not a joke and my career was off and running. Or third, it was not a joke and my future was bleak and dimming. Automatically, I assumed it must be Number Three.
Without further conversation, the Chief Page walked me to the Speaker’s office. At the door, he finally said: “Whatever they do to you, come back to the bench and let me know first.”
It sounded like he cared. It also sounded like he expected that “they” were going to do something to me.
And then I was in the reception room of the Speaker’s office. A well-dressed lady sat behind a very big desk covered with a glass top and telephones.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” I said. “I’m from the Republican page service. They said the Speaker wants to see me.”
“So you’re the one,” she said. Uh, oh. “Hold on,” and she called to a man in shirt sleeves and a vest.
“What’s your name?” he asked. I told him even though I was guessing he already knew it.
“Who’s your sponsor?” he asked. I told him; Ray J. Madden of Indiana.
“If your sponsor’s a Democrat, why are you on the Republican side?”
I said, “I think It’s because that’s where an opening was.”
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
Okay. This was not looking good. People in the office were staring at me. With a huge mirror above the fire place, even I was staring at me. And I seemed to be fading.
The nameless aide was back. “Come with me,” he said. He opened a door, told me to go in then closed the door behind me. I was alone. Well, I was alone except for Speaker John W. McCormack.
Before I could say a word or shed a tear, he said: “Walk over there,” pointing to a corner. I walked.
“Turn around.” I turned.
“Ray Madden appointed you?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Speaker.”
“And you’re from Indiana.”
“Ever lived in Massachusetts?”
“Have any relatives there?”
“Know any of the Kennedys?”
Here I paused to briefly inventory what was left of my mind, then said: “Well, sir, Mrs. Kennedy was my teacher in third grade. That’s the only Kennedy I know. But I think she was from Wisconsin.”
The Speaker made a sound. I’m not sure how to translate it, but it sounded like “idiot” to me.
“You can go.”
“Yes, sir” I said. That was it and I was out the door. The nameless aide closed it behind me.
“How’d it go?” he said. “You were in there a while.”
I was? God, I must have missed most of it!
“I, I, it’s – I don’t know. What’s going on? What’s this about?” I stammered, my body shaking like a can of paint in a paint shaker.
“Probably nothing,” said the aide. “The Speaker’s nephew is running against the President’s kid brother for the Senate nomination in Massachusetts. Somebody told the Speaker there was a page who looked like a Kennedy and he wanted to see for himself.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“I doubt it,” said the aide. “But the Speaker will probably mention this to Mr. Madden just to satisfy his curiosity. Now don’t worry about it,” he said, which was much easier for him to say than for me to do.
He patted my shoulder, looked like he was about to say something else, when the door opened behind us, and a voice said: “Just a second, son.”
The Speaker came out and in his hand was a Time Magazine cover with his picture on it. The lady from behind the big desk gave him a little card with my name on it. He picked up a pen, signed the magazine cover, gave it to me, nodded his head and went back into his office.
I thought that was really nice. I had just had the entrails scared out of me, but the rest of me was intact, plus I had an autographed picture of the Speaker of the House.
By the time I got back to the page bench, I was breathing better and shaking less. The chief page came up to me, crossed his arms, and said: “So?”
“The Speaker thought I was a Kennedy.”
“What?” he said.
“No kidding, he did.”
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I told him I wasn’t. Then he autographed this picture for me and said I could have the rest of the day off.”
“You don’t look any more like a Kennedy then Eisenhower does,” said the chief page. “And you can’t have the day off.”
Then he took me aside for a lengthy, repetitive debriefing which may help explain why the details have stayed so fresh for so long (well, except for that part about being “in there a while” the memory of which left me before I left the Speaker). The episode comes back to mind whenever I look at the that Time Magazine cover still hanging above my desk, right next to the diplomatic corps sign compliments of Lyndon Johnson.
Jim Stasny, House, 1962, has compiled some of his memories of adventures on Capitol Hill as a 16-year-old from Whiting, Ind., and has shared them with the USCPAA. From the page corps, Jim went on to school at John Carroll University and then the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was a staff member for Sen. George McGovern, worked for six years on the Senate Budget Committee, and was a speechwriter at Fannie Mae.