Washington Interns: Lots of Gofer Work, Little Glamour
WASHINGTON — The daily duties of the job can seem mundane: answer phones, make copies, run errands. But the location - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - has thousands of college students and recent graduates competing fiercely each year for a job at the heart of the Washington political scene.
Typically, these young people keep a low profile. But intern Monica Lewinsky's emergence at the center of a White House investigation has thrown the spotlight on the hundreds of unpaid interns who help with the most basic functions of government while soaking up lessons in politics and power.
"A lot of people who come are highly ambitious," says former legislative intern Jacob Hacker, now a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They see this as a stepping stone to future career in politics."
Indeed, the gofer work can put them in a position to meet - and impress - influential people, and crack open the door to a career in politics.
Because of the competition, applicants must have a strong academic background, a demonstrated interest in government and politics, and be willing to work long hours. It also helps to have political connections.
"Many of them are sons and daughters of supporters," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "It's not uncommon that people have connections."
But once accepted, most interns find there is little or no glamour. Most get stationed far from the West Wing. In fact, the majority of internships are not in the White House at all, but next door in the Old Executive Office Building, where many White House offices are located. Only about a third of the interns land a job in an office in the West Wing of the White House.
"Although it seems glamorous, there's a great deal of disillusionment that happens right after you get to Washington," says Mr. Hacker. "The work you do is so often unrewarding, your power to influence is pretty negligible, and you almost never get to meet anyone significant.
Still, some interns do get a chance to witness momentous events. For example, during preparations for President Clinton's budget bill, one communications intern was right at the heart of the action. Although her responsibilities were confined to running errands and answering phones, she got "to sit in the War Room with several senior advisers."
After the Senate passed the bill, the president and vice president dropped by to thank the War Room staff.
"Everyone was cheering," she says. "And Clinton and Gore came in to say how excited they were the bill had passed. I was there as history was being made."
BECAUSE the work is so mundane, interns need to distinguish themselves by attitude and long hours, by becoming known as a "trooper," the highest compliment for an intern.
But because of the competition among interns to be seen as troopers, Hacker says, there is often no safety net for those who are struggling or finding the pressure of their first professional experience overwhelming.
"I think that's where many of these internships are quite deficient. Personal problems are the types of things you don't talk about anyway because they can hurt your prospects of advancing," he says. "The internship coordinators are mostly concerned with getting them in the door, getting them acclimated to their job, and making sure the work gets done. Generally there is not a place where they can go if they're having trouble coping, or if they're having personal problems."
For many interns, this is their first time away from home, the first time they've lived in an apartment rather than a dorm. Many educators say White House internships, as well as congressional internships, should provide impressionable and inexperienced interns with better recourse to on-the-job counseling and mentoring.
But, they say, better preparation - including sexual-harassment and gender-sensitivity training - is also key.
"This responsibility for this type of training doesn't fall entirely on who's doing the hiring," says Francine Moccio of Cornell University's Institute for Women and Work in New York. "Universities really should be building this into their intern programs and encouraging government programs to build it in as well."