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.
"[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.
Many of these interns are affiliated with programs run by their colleges or by private organizations, some of which provide housing. But some students just come to Washington on their own - something experts say isn't always a good idea. "Parents, if they're going to send their children to Washington, should try to have them link up with their school's program, or have some connection - or go with a friend," says Eugene Alpert of the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. "In Chandra's case," he points out, "she was living alone."
The most common internships are probably those on Capitol Hill, but many interns work for agencies as well - in Levy's case, the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Their tasks can also vary widely. Most interns do at least some administrative work, but many also do research projects and occasional writing. Interns on the Hill also give tours of the Capitol to constituents.
"There's a certain amount of office work, but I guess I didn't have huge lofty expectations about, you know, talking to the congressman personally about all my concerns and ideas and everything," says Sarah Reckhow, a senior at Harvard University who just finished a five-week internship in the House, and who was "very happy" with her experience overall.
Most interns are interested in the Levy case, saying they follow the updates on the news channels that play all day long in their offices. Others see the media attention given to this case as disproportionate, given the vast number of missing-persons cases - 98,000 nationwide - that receive no coverage at all. "Some of the sentiment [among interns] is just kind of cynical, like the only reason her story is being covered is because her parents have money and because there's a scandal involved," says Emily Morris, a senior at Brigham Young University who is interning at the Census Bureau. "But we all know that tons of girls disappear from D.C. all the time, and they never get any kind of publicity."
Almost all see the fact that Levy may have been having an affair with a congressman as hardly noteworthy. "It's not like it's a new issue," says Bardinelli.
But many concede that all the recent publicity has created unrealistic - and uncomfortable - stereotypes about interns among certain members of the public. "A few times, I'll talk to someone and they'll be like, 'Hey, you're a Washington intern - ha, ha!' That's the association I think a lot of people make now," says Maria Badaracco, a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who is interning at the Department of Transportation. "And I'll have friends from home e-mail me and say, 'Every time I hear about the missing intern I think of you.' And I'm like, 'Ooh, kind of creepy.' "
Still, there's no indication that the scandals are causing fewer students to choose to come to Washington - in fact, quite the opposite. "In the fall of '97, they had a pittance of [internship] applications to the White House," says Mr. Alpert. "Then, in the summer of '98 [after the Lewinsky scandal broke] - I mean, they had a humongous number."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor