When the million-dollar dredge of the House ethics committee finally dug through the archaeological record of the congressional pages, they came up with two chipped reputations.
On the political left, Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) was forced to admit a liaison 10 years ago with a male page. On the political right, Rep. Daniel Crane (R-Ill.) had to confess an affair three years ago with a female page.
What was most unsettling about these two exhibits when they were displayed on the congressional shelf and on the television set was the fact that they had occurred between grown men and 17-year-olds.
Instinctively, we read exploitation into the facts. The mature were corrupting the young, the duly elected poaching on their charges. But real life is sometimes more subtle and more textured than that. Sometimes the stories we read only tell a half-truth.
Marianna Koval, a woman I have known 10 years and whose integrity I trust implicitly, was a 16-year-old Senate page in 1974, shortly after the Studds affair took place. She insists, "There's a whole missing story about the environment and what was going on then."
Marianna, who is now a second- year law student, came to Washington from Evanston, Ill., in January 1974 and was a Senate page through June. She left Washington in August, "the same day Nixon left town."
"You have to remember that it was the height of Watergate. If these revelations of sex and drug activity give you the idea of the corruption that was going on, it was also a political reality. If you were 16 years old and went to Washington as a clean-cut kid to work as a page, it wasn't a clean-cut town. You became very cynical. Even the president was a liar and a thief."
But in Marianna's memory, her class of pages were not all "clean-cut kids." "The pages were not corrupted by Washington," she says flatly. "Some had considerable drug and sex experiences. There wasn't much innocence to begin with."
The pages were quite stunningly unsupervised. Many of these teen- agers lived in their own apartments. Marianna's own parents insisted that she live in a dormitory setting and believed that there was proper supervision. But it was, she says, "a joke."
As a page that year, she earned an annual salary of $8,550. The pages not only had independence but money. In her own memory a number of them spent many nights drinking at Capitol Hill bars where the bartenders knew they were 16 and 17.
As for Studds, says Marianna, "I don't know who testified against him, but I know boys who flirted with Studds and then came back and laughed about it. These were some pretty tough, callous 16-year-old boys. Studds had responsibilities; a 36-year-old doesn't sleep with a 16- year-old. but I also know these boys."
As for the sexual attitudes of some pages, "Back then, experimenting with sexuality was one of the main ways you asserted adulthood. This was an area in which young people could turn on older men and somehow be an equal. It was a strange thing."
Marianna's point, quite simply, is that "Washington didn't destroy our innocence. There's this model or paradigm about the corrupting of youth. The Athenians killed Socrates for it. But in this case it's not very accurate. I know it won't wash in Danville, Illinois, but some of these kids were exploitive. We thought we were adults."
Indeed, in the tales of both Crane and Studds, the former pages take a nearly adult measure of responsibility. The young man described Studds with respect and caring. The young woman said of her affair with Crane, "It was my decision as much as his."
Are we, then, talking about love affairs between equals? Is it a toss- up between exploiter and exploited? I accept my friend Marianna's perspective of that time and place.
But I see something more. I see a profound misjudgment, a misrepresentation. A collection of teen-agers behaving in sophisticated ways were treated as sophisticates. Pretending to be independent adults, they were accepted as such by bartenders, by bosses, by lovers.
We see that among teen-agers more and more often in our culture, not just our Capitol. Today, teen- agers come fully equipped with every adult function except good judgment. Too often we take their worldliness, their street smarts, their experience as evidence of maturity. We believe in their illusions. Instead of taking care of them, we take them at their word.
Congress assumed the role of surrogate parents in the lives of these pages. It behaved instead, Marianna recalls, "as errant parents." More than two people in the Capitol forgot that teen-agers still need something special from their elders. They need protection.