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The American political punditocracy has giddily spilled an ocean of ink over Mark Foley, the Florida Republican congressman who has admitted to engaging in wildly inappropriate instant messaging with congressional pages. What exactly was said? Who knew about it and when? Most commentators have failed to ask related questions that are just as important. Who are these pages? What do they do? And, most importantly, what must they think of all this? It takes two, after all, to e-tango. But, given their age, it's been easy for the media to portray Mark Foley's targets of seduction as nothing more than mute, invisible, vulnerable lumps of clay.
Having served as a page in our own House of Commons for a year, I must confess I've had a fun time imagining what this ordeal must be like from their perspective. In both countries, being a page is an amazing opportunity for young people interested in politics, and it's not an easy job to get. Pages are typically bright, ambitious and accomplished students. In short, even the American ones who get in, at 16, two years before ours do at 18, have to have a head on their shoulders.
But what they do, honestly, is not all that fascinating: passing notes, running errands, fetching water, answering phones. What's more interesting is what they don't do. Pages are not allowed to express any political opinion or have any partisan affiliation. They are privy to sensitive information, secret conversations and insensitive tantrums, but must not discuss what they see or hear. They are instructed to act like furniture. Politicians must feel as comfortable discussing something within earshot of a page as they would near a sofa, a painting, or a desk lamp. In this sense, pages must be both mute and invisible unless otherwise instructed.
But what of their presumed helplessness before Foley-type antics? Based on my experience, I'd be willing to wager that the pages down south are having a good laugh about all this.
During my first month as a page, we were subjected to an informal meet-and-greet with Members of Parliament. Predictably, no one really important showed up. So we mingled with backbenchers, smiling and nodding. At one point, a female colleague and I were having a discussion with an MP so boring we somehow managed to get on the topic of prescription eyewear. He explained that before laser surgery, he was so blind that if he looked down while showering, he couldn't even see his... Well, let's just say that if you're thinking the next word is ‘feet', you're wrong.
Now, this was perhaps, even probably, inappropriate. But it was definitely hilarious.
Which is why I expect the pages are laughing now. They know and expect that politicians will say and do stupid things. They know when politicians are hitting on them. They even know who the closet homosexuals are. But they are not so naïve as to be scandalized by any of it. (That the few MPs left in an often empty House donut around the person speaking so that the place looks full on TV — now that's scandalous.)
They are laughing because the perceived power imbalance is a myth. Elected politicians have formal power, but not over the pages, who know exactly whom to alert if there is a problem. Furthermore, politicians are not necessarily more intelligent, well spoken or manipulative than the pages who serve them. Often, those invisible little pages are thinking, "How is it that these people are running the country?"
They are, in other words, not your typical pieces of furniture. In fact, they might be a few decades removed from being Editor-in-Chief Sofa, Ambassador Painting, or even the Right Honourable Desk Lamp, Prime Minister of Canada.
Mute and invisible? That's just part of the job. Vulnerable? Hardly.
Pascal Zamprelli is a recent McGill law grad and a communications officer at McGill's University Relations Office.