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Clinton on Trial

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  • By Phil McCombs
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page C01

    He is a good kid. A real good kid. Maybe someday he'll be president.

    "I do like the thought of having people voting for me," he admits with a little smile, "and being sort of well known like that."

    His cheeks are actually rosy.

    Quite frankly, he thinks he'd be pretty darn good at the job: "It seems sometimes people don't realize what I realize," he reasons gently, "and if I was in there I could change things somewhat."

    The modesty! The self-confidence! The sheer unmitigated gloriously idealistic self-centered chutzpah of youth!

    Very presidential.

    His name is Richard B. "Rick" Carroll Jr. and right now he's 17 years old and a politically appointed page in the U.S. Senate, where they are trying the current president of the United States on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    Rick's often been on duty in the chamber during the trial, fetching a glass of water for one senator, running a message for another -- while always keeping an eye out, soaking it all in, listening and learning.

    He was there when a berobed Chief Justice William Rehnquist first swooshed in to assume control of the trial -- "mind-blowing."

    When the senators signed their names, swearing to do impartial justice, Rick was there, too; and when the House managers needed pages to distribute copies of their presentations, he was front and center.

    When President Clinton astonished everyone by sailing through his State of the Union address under such duress, Rick was on the spot. And later, too, with the other Senate and House pages in the hallway as the president exited.

    They shook hands, had eye contact. Just as Clinton, when he was 17 and a delegate to Boys Nation, had shaken President Kennedy's hand.

    A moment to remember.

    "Rick shows you what's right about the young of this country," enthuses his sponsor, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.). "He's the kind of boy -- young man -- who gives you confidence in the future, that everything's all right with America, and that's a good thing for all of us to see right now.

    "I just suspect, if we could look 20 or 30 years down the road, maybe we'll see him in the Senate."

    At least.

    Everybody seems to like Rick Carroll. It's astonishing.

    Maybe folks are, as Roth suggests, so fed up with what's going on in Washington that they're clinging to these relatively innocent Generation Y and Z'ers like Rick before Experience can gray their aspects or Life claw her furrows of care upon their tender brows.

    "He's been a great president," says Julie Finley-O'Connor, adviser for the Class of 2000 at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del., referring to Rick's tenures there as freshman and sophomore president before departing for Washington last August. "One of his strengths -- he was particularly good at getting consensus among different people."

    "Very dependable, and concerned not only with himself but with his peers," adds Cindy Tatman, Rick's Spanish teacher and the student council adviser. "He was just a sweetie. If you see Mr. Carroll, please tell him Ms. Tatman says hello."

    "I can't say enough good things about him," summarizes Charles W. "Chuck" Welch, Republican majority whip in the Delaware House of Delegates, where Rick began his statehouse career at age 14. "He'd volunteer to do anything. . . . He's very mature for his age."

    When Rick was ready to go to Washington, he asked Welch and other representatives who'd befriended him to call Roth.

    "Several of them called him for me, called him at home," Rick explains. "Those phone calls did it for me." Instinctively and fondly, he recites the names of his benefactors, including Welch.

    Who presumably will not be forgotten in some future Rick Carroll administration.

    There are now 24 Senate pages -- the House has more -- and they come from both parties from all over America, during their junior years in high school, to serve varying terms as gofers for a great institution. They get to school by 6:15 a.m. and report for work in the Senate cloakrooms about 10.

    The lives of the pages revolve around the Daniel Webster Senate Page Residence and school at Fourth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE, a former funeral home that was refurbished for a ruckus-causing $8 million in 1995. Girls and boys live on separate floors, there are proctors, and every effort is made to protect the youngsters from neighborhood crime -- to say nothing of their own exuberant youthful spirits, which have led to various small scandals over the years.

    Ever since Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts appointed the first page in the 1820s -- Grafton Dulany Hanson was 9 at the time -- these promising youngsters have been an unobtrusive if important feature of the official Washington landscape, quiet witnesses to great and not-so-great events shaping the Republic. In his 1850s autobiography, "Memoirs of a Senate Page," one Christian Eckloff related:

    [Sen.] "Sam" Houston was one of the gentlest and most kindly natures I have ever known. A true friend and a gallant gentleman. Day after day, during spare moments, he sat there in his seat carving hearts out of soft pine wood. They were pieces about the size of the hand. When he had completed one of these works of art, he would summon a page, and pointing toward some fair spectator in the gallery, would say: "Give this to that lady up there, with General 'Sam' Houston's compliments."

    These days such behavior would doubtless result in depositions and a six-pronged indictment from the Office of the Independent Counsel. The anecdote is contained in an affectionate 1980 review of the page program delivered in the Senate by Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who has been seeking mightily to wrap up the presidential trial with a dollop of dignity.

    Rick knows Byrd, of course.

    "He always takes all the pages into the back lobby and explains things to them," Rick reports. "He explains the rules and stuff, and he tells little stories about growing up in West Virginia."

    Then there's his pal Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who "took the pages for ice cream in the Senate restaurant. . . . He was asking most of the questions -- what did we think about getting up so early in the morning? I'm amazed by him -- he's 96 years old and he's always there!"

    Sometimes things get serious.

    "Once," Rick recalls, "another page and I were discussing taxes being too high and she wanted to create this huge new welfare program, and I'm getting angry at her and she's angry with me. We were in the back lobby, and it was getting heated, and Senators Hutchinson and Enzi" -- Republicans Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and Mike Enzi of Wyoming -- "came by and they just started joking about it with us.

    "Later, on the Senate floor, this other page and I were sitting there and they came up again and we talked for five or 10 minutes, and they said I was right. They said that taxes were too high -- your basic conservative message. The other page laughed about it."

    It probably seemed like a wise choice at the time.

    Among his peers in this energetic new generation of American politicians, Rick is a conservative Republican -- rock-ribbed, staunch and then some -- to his toenails. Even at this early stage, the outlines of the future Rick Carroll administration may be discerned.

    "I just got new copies of the Rush Limbaugh books -- 'See, I Told You So' and 'The Way Things Ought to Be' -- because mine were so worn," Rick replies cheerfully when asked about his reading habits. He also has just bought a copy of "1945," the novel by Newt Gingrich.

    As for Bill Clinton: "I've never really liked this president," Rick says. "He's done a lot of things I'm not proud of, but I really have been proud how the senators have been about this whole thing."

    "I issue a caution here," interjects Kathryn Weeden, principal of the page school on Capitol Hill, where the interview is taking place under her slightly beady and watchful eye.

    Rick hesitates, thinks it through, says: "I don't think this is about sex. It doesn't matter to me as an American that he was doing this, even though it wasn't appropriate. The point is, he lied to me about it."

    "I think that's adequate comment," Weeden says, arms crossed, shutting off the spigot. ("They're great kids," she explains later, "but they're kids.")

    Still, Rick thinks it was fun shaking hands with the prez: "It's always exciting to meet the leader."

    Like Clinton, Rick comes from a broken home. His father (a mail carrier) and mother (a certified public accountant) split up when he was 2. He went from Delaware to live in rural Virginia with his mother when she remarried. That marriage, too, ended in divorce, and Holly Carroll moved back to Delaware with Rick and his younger brother.

    Both parents deeply influenced his thinking.

    "If Dad and I had our way," Rick explains, "we'd eliminate the more liberal social programs, like Social Security. It doesn't seem to work."

    As for foreign affairs: "I want a bigger military, back to Cold War size if we can."

    His mother's influence was slightly different: "Dad would get gung-ho about an issue, but my mom would ask me to step back and be compassionate."

    "I'm really proud of him, I'll tell you," says Holly Carroll. "He's been interested in politics since fifth grade. He ran for vice president of the fifth grade of the little private school he was in, and won that."

    Needless to say, "this is the opportunity of a lifetime for him," says Rick Carroll Sr., "to be there at this particular point in history -- because let's hope it never happens again in our lifetime.

    "When I took him back to Washington after Christmas break, we were talking about it and I told him, 'You know, if you ever become a senator, 50 years from now you may be the only one in the Senate who's been through an impeachment.' "

    Both parents emphasized, their son says, the values of "doing what you think is right," and of hard work. "If you're going to do it, you might as well do it the best you can. You might as well get the rewards. If you go to college, you might as well go to Yale or Harvard."

    He hasn't yet decided which.

    But he already plans to run for the Delaware statehouse when he gets out of law school at 24, and dreams of becoming a congressman or governor.

    "Once you're a congressman or governor you can go higher than that," he adds thoughtfully, "but it's sort of not up to you after that point. It's not up to you to choose whether it's going to be you or not. It's up to public opinion."

    And president? In a mere 18 years, he'll qualify.

    "Oh, I'd love the job," he says.

    Weeden smiles primly at the kid.

    "Cute," she says.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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