In the days of the afternoon newspapers, Michael Johnson used to leave school on Capitol Hill and head to the nearby Senate office buildings with a stack of the “Washington Evening Star” to sell. He became a regular visitor to the Senators’ offices in the 1960s. Michael recalls:
“As I sold my newspapers in the offices [Russell and Dirksen buildings] I got to know a lot of staff and a lot of Senators personally. People like Senator [George] McGovern (D-S.D), Senator [David] Pryor (D-Ark.), Senator [Walter] Mondale (D-Minn.), Senator Kennedy — both Kennedys, Ted (D-Mass.) and Robert (D-N.Y.) – Senator [Robert] Bennett’s father [Wallace Bennett, R-Utah], and Senator Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin. In fact, Senator Nelson helped me start my first savings account and would match what I would put in it. One particular Senator I got to know exceptionally well was Senator George Aiken (R) of Vermont.
“I would go right into Senator Mondale’s private office. ‘Bring my paper right to me, Mike, because those staffers don’t always buy the paper.’ Plus the Senators tipped very well. [One day] Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey was visiting Senator Mondale for his birthday. And Mondale said, ‘Let my paperboy in here. I want him to meet the Vice President.’ The next day or a couple of days later a picture was published in the Minnesota Times. It was on the front page saying ‘Mondale’s Paperboy Meets the Vice President.’
“Senator [Ted] Kennedy would give me a dollar for every ‘A’ I got on my report card.
Senator Aiken and his wife, Lola, took a special interest in Michael, and arranged for him to become a Senate Page. He was the second African-American to serve as a Republican page.
“I kept looking at these young kids about my age running around the Hill in the afternoons while I sold newspapers. I was thinking, ‘Who are these little kids with these suits and ties on?’ So I inquired and a few staff said, ‘Oh, those are Pages.’ ‘What do they do?’ ‘They work in the Capitol, they go to school in the Library of Congress and they get paid.’ ‘How much do they make?’ At the time they were making about $5,400 a year. So I asked Senator Aiken could I be a Page, and he said, ‘Well, Mike, if you get your grades up, I’ll think about giving up my elevator patronage position and bring you on as my Page.’ And that’s what happened. I got appointed in December 1969, I got sworn in and got on the payroll in January 1970. I was fifteen.”
Michael served as a Page and attended Capitol Page School for four years. After early classes, he reported with the other Pages to the Senate chamber, where they ran errands and assisted the Senators and staff throughout the day and sometimes well into the evenings. After serving as a floor Page, he was promoted to cloakroom Page.
“I came on board and met Mark Trice [the Republican secretary] and his assistant, Mr. [William] Brownrigg. And of course Howard Greene, who was on the cloakroom desk. He later became Sergeant at Arms.
“Back in that time we were living in some turbulent years because the Vietnam War was going on. There were a lot of protesters that would stand up in the galleries and would shout things like, ‘Stop the War!’ And sitting on the floor as kids we would be somewhat afraid.
“When I was a Page in ’71, the Capitol was bombed. We were in school when we learned of it. The bomb was placed behind a statue in front of one of the windows on the Republican cloakroom side. My understanding was it blew out all the windows in the cloakroom. Word got to us at school, and the first thing we thought was, ‘Do we have to work today?’ Then, of course we were concerned about whether the cloakroom guys were harmed.
“[The Senate] was intimidating. . .because I was working with giants, people like Senator [Edward] Brooke (R-Mass.), like Senator [Howard] Baker (R-Tenn.). Senator [Bob] Dole (R.-Kansas) had just gotten elected, and he sat in the back row where they put all freshman Senators. People like Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), Hugh Scott (R-Penn.) Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon), Bob Packwood, and then of course on the Democratic side you had [Robert C.] Byrd (D-W.Va.), you had Kennedy. Senator [Mike] Mansfield, a very, very great person.
“[An interesting Mansfield story] is the time when he convened a group of Pages and asked our opinions about an important piece of legislation. He went to both cloakrooms and said, ‘I want you to send at least three or four Pages to my office at three o’clock. I want to have a meeting.’ I got picked to go and of course there were news cameras snapping pictures of the meeting. We’re saying, ‘What’s going on?’ Senator Mansfield said, ‘We have some important legislation. I want to get the opinion of the little people who run the Senate.’ He went around the table and asked how we would vote if we were Senators. From time to time we got to do things like that, which is unheard of now.
“Another memorable moment was when Senator John Glenn (R-Ohio) came to the floor after going up in space. We all got to shake his hand. Getting to meet an astronaut was remarkable.
“When Senator Thurmond (R-S.C.) married Miss South Carolina and had a baby daughter, some of us Pages decided to name the daughter ‘First Honorary Girl Page.’ (We knew that girl Pages were on their way.) We presented a certificate to the Senator, his wife Nancy and the baby in his offices.
Furnished with letters of recommendation from Senators, Michael went to Cornell University and ultimately, graduate school at Bowie State University, earning a Master’s in Management Information Systems. In 1978, he was hired by Sergeant at Arms Nordy Hoffmann to work in the Senate’s Computer Center, or SCC.
“I started out as a budget analyst for the Senate Computer Center, and then was encouraged to move into the technical side. A main goal was to enhance the ability of the Hill to communicate with the Senators’ state offices. At the time, the staffs were communicating by phone, teletypes and fax machines. I did a lot of traveling, putting computer networks in the state offices.
“Change moves slowly in the Senate. When I was a Page, Senators didn’t want microphones in the chamber, but they were finally put in. Then later, TV cameras. Although the Sergeant at Arms was responsible for automation of Senate offices, in terms of automation as we know it today, we did not have a large budget to hire expert staff.
“There was also the infrastructure to contend with. To me, the Capitol Building is an office building, an historic landmark and a museum. The Capitol, for that matter the Russell Building, was not designed for computers. Suddenly you need conduits for cable. Where do you put it? How can you hide it? You’re ripping walls, drilling holes through mosaic tile that is historically important.
“The biggest challenge was the transition from the mainframes at the end of the ‘70s to the minicomputers beginning in the early ‘80s. A lot of offices had personal preferences for which minicomputers they should be able to use. We had to decide, but had to satisfy all offices. . . .One platform would have been easiest to integrate, support and upgrade. . .but politically, couldn’t do it. We ended up choosing three platforms. Then we had to figure out how to make the systems in each office communicate with every other office.”
In 2000, at the request of Sergeant at Arms James Ziglar, Michael lead a team that prepared the Senate’s first Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which was completed in May 2001 – just weeks before September 11. While the plan was not implemented that day, it provided assistance to many Senate offices later when an anthrax attack closed the Hart Building for three months. His role expanded with increased concern over security on Capitol Hill and the need for alternative meeting places for the Senate. In 2002, he became the first employee in the Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, and in 2005 was promoted to Deputy Assistant Sergeant at Arms.
“The COOP concept was conceived by the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate and directed to the Capitol Police Board for development. Mr. Ziglar seized on the idea and, contemplating retirement, decided that he wanted this plan to be his ‘legacy.’ He recruited me to lead the project.
“The first important issue was: Where would the Senate go to deliberate if the Chamber was unusable for some reason, such as a fire? It didn’t have to be a terrorist attack. Other issues had to do with what happens when we have a ‘localized incident’ or a ‘wide-scale incident’ that affects a small area or the entire Capitol. We also considered how we would communicate with Senators and staff when an incident occurs; how do we respond in the first 12 hours; how do we identify the ‘vital records’ that the Senate would need during an incident. The most pressing issue was an alternative assembly site.
“On September 11, I was in a meeting when the first plane hit the Towers. We all thought it was an accident. Another plane hit. At that point we all knew that this was no accident. The first thing I thought was to call the Sergeant at Arms to see if he was activating the COOP. When activated, there is a person called the “COOP Action Officer.” And that was me.
“I went to the Capitol Police headquarters with a copy of the plan. People were self-evacuating and traffic was all tied up. At first I couldn’t get in the building, but then I was let in.
“We gathered information. We never activated the COOP plan that day because it was determined that the Senate was okay. The Capitol telephone exchange went down and the operators were sent home. The D.C. police were letting people leave the city but no one could get in. I quickly went from being the COOP Action Officer to Capitol telephone operator.
“One of the COOP recommendations had to do with the Pages, Page school and dorm. The Pages were put on buses, with a police officer, and sent over to Colonial Beach on the Chesapeake, or someplace like that.
“When the anthrax attack happened in October, we all thought, ‘What else is going to happen?’ plans. We worked with the Senate Rules Committee to identify and acquire alternative space for the Senate offices and committees to use. The new offices couldn’t accommodate each Senator’s staff, so offices transferred work to their state offices and some local staff worked from home.
“We were still working on creating an alternate Senate chamber in the Hart Building. I also worked on testing the Chamber, testing the communications, setting up cloakrooms, a place for the press, even a doorkeeper. The Secretary of the Senate staff held a mock session in the alternative chamber. [It was important] to prove that we could sustain the operation if an incident [occurs]. . .that laws can still be passed and that Senators can communicate with their constituents.
Michael A. Johnson, Senate 1973 was also a 30-plus year veteran of the Senate staff. The above is excerpted from interviews with the Senate Historian Don Ritchie.