MARSHFIELD, MASS. — It was my first day as an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill. I had chosen to do an internship for a congressman during my last semester at college because I knew if I did well, there might be a job offer at the end of it. My plan was to gain a few years of legislative experience, then return to Massachusetts and run for public office.
Though I understood that the nature of politics was one of compromise, there were some issues on which I was unwilling to bend. Abortion was one of them. I had rationalized my working for a pro-choice legislator by emphasizing all of the other issues we did agree on, and making light of his support for abortion rights by noting he was a man and a gay man at that. Clearly, it was not his issue. So I was unprepared when, that first morning, the rather brusque intern coordinator assigned me to create a database of pro-choice voters from our Massachusetts district.
Stunned, I returned to my desk. I looked around the congressional office, and beyond to the opulent marble hallway. Faces I recognized from the evening news passed through those same hallways daily, lunched in the Capitol dining room just across the street, cobbled together groundbreaking legislation under that same Capitol dome. I was at the epicenter of world affairs and badly wanted to stay, but knew I couldn't complete the task I had just been given.
Perhaps the intern coordinator would kindly understand, even admire my political courage for refusing to do the assignment, and hand me something else to do. Or maybe she'd decide I wasn't a good match with the office, and I would be sent on my way, academically and financially a semester behind schedule.
I looked again at the hundreds of postcards waiting to be entered into the computer, gathered them together, and walked back to the intern coordinator. I began by apologizing, then I explained I wasn't pro-choice and couldn't contribute, even superficially, to a cause I was morally against. A benevolent smile crossed her face then passed as she explained it was an issue the congressman supported, and that I wouldn't be compromising my own beliefs by simply organizing a list. Everyone who worked there had an opinion, but we were there to represent the congressman's views. I nodded and returned to my desk, left to wonder what compromises she had made. I continued to stare at the pile of cards, noting the irony that my first test of political will had come so soon.
A few minutes later, I returned to the intern coordinator and asked if there was something else I could do - anything. Another intern would be starting the next day, perhaps he could do the mailing list. But it was obvious my supervisor, an incredibly bright woman, didn't suffer fools gladly. Her patience with my foolish ways had reached its limit as she explained it was my choice to either do the assignment or not. As an intern, I was expected to complete the task. I was left with the impression that I'd have to choose between my beliefs and this chance of a lifetime.
It took all day to complete, but I entered the names into the computer. I argued, rationalized, and made deals with myself the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Interning on Capitol Hill was an opportunity not to be squandered. The congressman would vote pro-choice no matter what I did or didn't do.
But my choice was a bitter one to accept, even when at the end of my internship, I was hired. The man who offered me the job understood when I explained I couldn't work on abortion-rights issues. In fact, he was astute enough to forward pro-life callers, who supported the rest of the congressman's legislative agenda, to me so I could explain how imprudent it was to vote simply on the basis of one issue. It was a compromise I understood well. One I struggle with to this day.
• P. Amy MacKinnon, a former congressional aide, is working on her first book.