By Bradley J . Tay lor, Esq (House, 1981)
You study American history and imagine what it must have been like to be there when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence or when George Washington gave his first inaugural address. But no matter how you try, you can’t go back in time to be there in person.
The best you can do is to be there in the present moment as history is being made. That is what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to be a Page. In 5th grade I started writing to the Congressman from a nearby district (because my Congressman didn’t have patronage) to express my interest. Imagine my thrill at receiving a letter from Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) instructing me to go to Washington. My Page term began in January 1981 and lasted until the end of the semester.
The first bit of history I witnessed was President Reagan’s first State of the Union Address on January 26, 1981. In a YouTube video, I am one of the blurred kids in the blue suits standing on the left Democratic sidewall of the House floor. I have always had an affinity for Ronald Reagan. I found him inspiring and admired his oratory. We also shared a birthday, February 6.
The atmosphere was electric in the chamber as Reagan laid out his new administration’s agenda. On that day, democracy didn’t feel partisan at all. In that room, we were all Americans, and proud of it. After the speech, some of us crowded around the rostrum and Vice President George H.W. Bush greeted us cordially. He told us about his boys, how proud he was of them, and how we should be inspired to do great things ourselves. It was real. We were part of the system.
We were positively affected by the significance of that day, and the enormity of being a part of a working government. To be American is something special. It means a commitment to freedom, decency and democracy. I relished being a part of history.
The next bit of history I witnessed shocked me and the rest of America: the attempted assassination of President Reagan on March 30, 1981. Our sense of pride and confidence in American democracy was shaken. We wondered, what would happen? What is happening to our democracy? How can this happen to someone so inspiring and who cares so much about our country and our people?
I kept a journal while I was in Washington. Here is my journal entry for that surreal day, a 17-year-old attempting to understand the inexplicable. You will see some references to prayer. I think that in times of crisis, our faith carries us, and I am sure that I was not the only one praying for President Reagan that fateful day:
Monday, March 30, 1981…
The main of my day was extremely melancholy. President Reagan got shot in an assassination attempt! James Brady, one Secret Service man, and a D.C. policeman also suffered injuries. The policeman and Brady, Reagan’s press secretary who follows him everywhere, were seriously injured. Brady got shot in the head and the policeman I don’t know where. The videotape showed Brady’s head bleeding profusely. Reagan, although at first not thought to be in any way injured, was proved to have been shot by a .22 caliber bullet just below the armpit, which the bullet ricocheted off his rib and was lodged in his lung. The lung was collapsed, but because of Reagan’s superior health, the lung didn’t affect his vital signs, which remained constant throughout his surgery. He has a chance of an excellent recovery, and I hope he does. Brady seems to be in much more serious condition. I prayed that Reagan lives, and I will pray more that Brady does also. I hope to think (or rather like or have faith) that my prayers for Reagan were fulfilled when I prayed that the President would live. Let me try to outline the events as I heard them: Start: 2:35pm.
1) Polly Padden [my overseer and a Tip O’Neill Page (D-Mass.)] told me an assassination attempt had been made.
2) I later learned that Reagan had indeed been shot. I was very upset, and did all that I could to keep from crying.
3) I learned Reagan went into surgery. I prayed more and more. “God please let him live. I know man is so unjust to his fellow man, but step in this time, and please save his life.”
4) When I came home, the announcement that James Brady was dead, was “emphatically denied” by his (the Pres.) informant.
5) I later watched the T.V. and listened to find out more details.
Reagan was the seventh President to be attempted to be assassinated. William McKinley and John F. Kennedy did not live. Reagan did. I hope this is the end of that curse. Let’s pray. The information on the man who shot Reagan and the others will be further explained as I learn more and more tomorrow. I’ll just never forget my feeling of desperation as I learned of the first news. Completely awed! Then, that he truly had been shot. Too much to handle in one day. The Oscars were postponed on the account of the condition of the President. It’s hard to tell if he’s going to live for sure, but I’m almost 98% sure. And so were the doctors. Thank you God!
As you can see, I was very personally affected. I don’t pretend to be the only one to feel that way. But, I don’t think I would have reacted the same way had I not been an intimate part of the democratic process. For a young man, it was an introduction to a world that matters.
Fortunately, not all of history that I was a part of caused the world to temporarily pause. My Page duties mostly were tasks that kept the Capitol running. And not always smoothly, I might add. I vividly recall several hundred pounds of budget documents spilled onto the Rayburn basement floor before they were delivered to Congressmen, because another brand-new Page and I couldn’t find a ramp for the hand-truck.
Some days were exciting—like seeing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speak to the members of the House Foreign Relations Committee on February 27, 1981. Other days were just boring, hard work. I met Congressmen like Norm Mineta (D-Calif.), who represented where I grew up near San Jose, California, and Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Capitol Hill police like the always warm and friendly Floyd; Senators like Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and secretaries like Mrs. Williams at the Page School, whose warm smile meant a lot to a kid thousands of miles from home. We Pages went swimming in fountains at 2 a.m. and climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial together. I lunched with Congressman Edwards and helped his legislative aides refurbish a house so that they could sell it and make some extra money for law school. I met people from all walks of life and I miss it.
I miss it so much, I would give anything to be that kid again for a day. It was a really great time. I know others feel the same.
I hope our House of Representatives can get back to being that special place that lets kids learn about American democracy up close and personal. That’s how we learn to be Americans.
After his Page term, Brad graduated from UCLA with majors in English and Political Science. He interned for a short time on Capitol Hill after college, and then went to Syracuse University, where he earned his Law and Master of Public Administration degrees. He worked in the California legislature and then practiced law in California for many years. He is co-owner of a company, Xona Microfluidics, LLC with his wife, Dr. Anne Taylor, who is a biomedical engineer and Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a part-time advocate on behalf of individuals seeking Social Security disability.