Last month, Andrew “A.J.” Sakalosky, found himself looking up at a rare opportunity — what seemed like the millionth in a series of them since the Gross Catholic High School junior had been selected for a five-month hitch as a page in the United States Senate.
The hour was late, the guided tours had ended long ago, and quiet and shadow pervaded as Sakalosky checked his footfalls, scurrying with deft decorum on a mail run beneath the Capitol rotunda, a place usually bustling with activity, pumping the life’s blood of American democracy.
These were his final days as a Senate page and, after 40- to 60-hour work weeks, a demanding academic schedule and living on his own more than 1,000 miles away from home, Sakalosky paused for just a moment. Just to ponder.
Just to marvel at his unique placement, not only here, in the rotunda — surrounded by bronze and marble statues of the nation’s builders, centuries-old friezes and painted scenes of the seminal moments in America’s history — but in his own moment as a member of the next generation, the one which will carry forward all of this into a new day.
“It was overwhelming just being there, standing there,” said Sakalosky, who returned to Gross after fulfilling his page duties on Jan. 24. “It was one of those few times when the rotunda is completely empty, and I just took a minute to look around. The statues of the greatest leaders in human history are there: Ronald Reagan, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson.
“Not far away from the rotunda, there’s a plaque where Abraham Lincoln’s desk was when he was a Congressman. There’s a feeling like, ‘That guy we read about in a history book? He was here. He stood right here.’ I knew all that, sure, but I hadn’t really had time to fully think about it and appreciate it. And just for a minute, I got that chance. Then, it was back to work.”
For inasmuch as the general public likes to think its legislative branch is overcome with a staggering inertia, Sakalosky knows, has seen firsthand that the work, the sifting of the bloody loam that makes democracy possible, goes on at all hours.
The final leg of Sakalosky’s journey to Washington, D.C., started last summer, with an application to Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer to sponsor him as a page.
Out of several hundred applicants from around the nation, ultimately only 30 pages are selected. Candidates must provide academic credentials, a resume and endure rounds of interviews.
There’s also the knowledge that in addition to the page duties — which can run around the clock some days — since pages are also high school students, there will be no interruption in their education. School usually takes secondary placement to the action on the Senate floor, but the expectation remains that all pages will continue to excel academically and will find the appropriate time to dedicate to their studies.
Towards that end, Senate pages are prohibited from carrying cell phones or other mobile devices and from accessing social media while they are going through the program. There was a landline telephone in the dormitory where the pages were housed and one computer with Internet.
“That can be a sacrifice, in itself,” Sakalosky said. “But they want you focused on the work and on your schooling and I was surprised at how little I missed it in just a short time. Really, there’s so much to do, you can’t really think about it.”
Sakalosky, an honors student at Gross, got the call he had been selected for the page program in July, while his family vacationed in Branson, Mo. He was well aware of all the sacrifices and the hard work attached to the program, but his main concerns ran elsewhere.
“It was a stressful decision,” he said. “I’d been interested in politics since I was little, but I’m also pretty into football. If I did this, I was going to miss out on the season. That made it a tough choice. But I knew that this was something I would only have one chance to do in life. I’ll be back for football my senior year.”
As it happens, Sakalosky, a 5-foot-8, 150-pound running back and linebacker, was able to suit up for the Cougars’ first two contests of the season before heading to Washington to start the page program on Sept. 9.
“I know he was a little crushed to have to miss football,” said Sakalosky’s father, Matt, himself a 1990 Gross graduate. “He called a few times on Friday nights around halftime and he’d ask, ‘How’s the game going?’ It was a tough decision for him. But in the end, he knew what an opportunity this was and, getting those first two games, at least he got a little of the season in.”
In 2010, Matt Sakalosky challenged Nebraska’s 2nd District Rep. Lee Terry in a Republican primary election. Though the race went to the incumbent, the campaign process resulted in a furthering of the younger Sakalosky’s already blooming interest in politics.
“A.J., the whole time, he was so intrigued, so involved,” Matt Sakalosky said. “By the end, I think he could probably have out-debated most of the adults in the room. You could just tell he had a passion for it. When he was in Washington, he’d call home some nights and tell us, ‘Harry Reid said this,’ or ‘Rand Paul did this,’ and he had such an enthusiasm around it.”
It was a front-row seat to history in a lot of ways, A.J. Sakalosky said. As a page, the day starts with a 5 a.m. wake-up call, a 6 a.m. start to the school day and then, depending on when the Senate goes into session, long stretches on the floor.
Those duties seem fairly straightforward, he said. Deliver mail and other correspondence, set up podiums and a pitcher of water on senators’ desks for speeches, make copies of those speeches for inclusion in the Congressional Record and generally be ready for any other action necessary.
Sitting on the rostrum with 12 other pages — by the end, of the 30 who had initially started, 27 remained — at any one time, Sakalosky said all the youngsters quickly had to overcome being star-stricken.
“After five months, it was a little less overwhelming,” he said. “But at first, seeing all these people you typically only see on TV, it was a little like Hollywood, like Sunset Boulevard. Politicians are a little like movie stars because TV adds that effect. But you realize everyone’s there to do the job and you’ve got a job to do and suddenly, it seems normal. Even on the Senate floor, during votes, the senators all seemed like regular people, just talking football.”
Sakalosky’s own TV star power also had a following, of a sort.
While C-SPAN, the nation’s only television station providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. Congress, is not known as a particularly energizing watch, there were a few DVRs back in Nebraska set to record the proceedings.
“I told A.J. in those first weeks, make sure you behave yourself,” Matt Sakalosky said with a laugh. “Because you’ve got a lot of people watching you on the floor, especially your mom and grandmas. I never in a million years thought we’d be taping C-SPAN.”
But the soporific exercise of wading through hours of Senate footage was in some ways illustrative, A.J. Sakalosky said.
Last fall, when the federal government shut down, Sakalosky said the Senate, including the pages, worked nearly 24 hours a day as Republicans and Democrats tried to broker a deal to get back online.
He said the shutdown was a window on the importance of politics and their necessity in the American way of life and how each American citizen should feel a duty to stay abreast of the affairs of their government.
“When the shutdown happened, I think a lot of people thought I was just out of work,” he said. “But it didn’t affect us. We were there, round the clock. When I called home to talk to friends, I found that they were starting to pay more attention around that time. It was good to see. I think that’s what we need to do. People can just watch the news and not really know what’s going on. The biggest thing I realized when I came back home, is that I was out there in Washington with 26 other kids, all very bright, all interested in politics. When you’re on the Senate floor, it’s impossible not to talk politics. It should be the same way here. With the elections coming up, there are a lot of people who don’t vote and it’s our duty.
“The important thing, I think, it to get a good idea of what’s happening in politics for yourself. Learn history. History repeats itself and it can help us make decisions on what’s best for our future.”
Sakalosky is looking forward to his own first foray at the polls. He turns 18 in June.
As for his own future in the political game, Sakalosky said he has no preconceptions on another venture in Washington.
He’s set the goal of attending the University of Notre Dame and majoring in business, then perhaps starting his own business like his father.
“As of right now, what I want to do is stay as informed as I can,” he said. “(Politics) is not something you should do. If you look at the greatest leaders, it wasn’t necessarily something they wanted to do, it was something they felt they needed to do. They were called to it. So, no, I don’t want to get into politics, really. I just want to do my job as a regular citizen.”