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For interns, work goes on as usual

Among the 40,000 interns in D.C., the Levy case has little bearing on their lives.

By Liz Marlantes Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2001


The case of Chandra Levy, the intern who vanished nearly 10 weeks ago, marks the second time in three years that a Washington intern has gripped the nation's headlines. But even as cable analysts scrutinize every new rumor, the vast corps of students who labor in the nation's capital are quietly going about their business - researching obscure points of public policy and answering huge piles of letters from constituents.

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"[The Levy case] hasn't really had too much of an impact on me," says Sarah Bardinelli, who is interning at the Capitol. "I mean, I do think it's horrible, and it's a scary thought that somebody could just disappear from Dupont Circle," admits the Duke University senior. "[But] I don't really think it's a concern as somebody working on the Hill."

It's long been an annual Washington phenomenon: In return for the chance to see the government in action - and put "US House of Representatives" or "The White House" on their resume - thousands of bright young people come from all over the country to spend weeks answering phones and writing the occasional memo.

But while the job may be fairly mundane, the image of the "Washington intern" is anything but. First the Monica Lewinsky scandal made interns a punchline on late-night talk shows. Now the case of Ms. Levy, who was reportedly having an affair with Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California before she disappeared, is generating even darker associations.

The incidents are raising new questions about how to better protect and support interns, particularly women, many of whom are suddenly living on their own in a strange city and working in a strange environment.

Yet most experts are quick to point out that the vast majority of interns make it through their capital stay with few hitches. A quick survey of interns around the city indicates that most are quite happy with their situation. And, while many find the Levy case disturbing, like Ms. Bardinelli, they don't see it as having any connection to their experience.

"This is two cases," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California who oversees interns. "There are, there have been, there will always be those powerful men that you will know about and that you will be careful about," she admits. But "thousands and thousands of interns have had a positive experience."

Though there's no official count, experts estimate that between 40,000 to 50,000 interns come to Washington in any given year. Some are paid a salary, some work for a small stipend, and some work for free. Observers say the city has come to rely heavily on this labor force to perform many of the day-to-day tasks of government: "They really are the grunt-level troops," says Professor Jeffe.