By Michael Colton
"They were kind of embarrassed," says Shah, 20, now an intern at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's U.S.-India Business Council and quite happy, thank you. "It definitely ruined the reputation of the program."
While Shah's experience is undoubtedly extreme -- the number of applications for White House internships hasn't dropped -- it indicates the changing public attitude toward interns in this post-Monica Lewinsky era.
To be more precise, there didn't use to be an attitude about White House interns. Now there is.
"No one ever really talked about interns too much before, and now the only reason they talk about it is for pretty negative reasons," says Jacob Goldstein, who finished an internship in President Clinton's speech-writing office last month.
Ever since January, when allegations of a sexual relationship between former intern Lewinsky and Clinton first surfaced, interns of all sorts have encountered a public fascination with their jobs, Washington interns especially. (Far from the District, many folks consider "Washington interns" and "White House interns" synonymous.) It doesn't help that their poster girl is currently vamping on the pages of Vanity Fair. As college kids infest the city this summer to caress phones and keep photocopiers company, they face a barrage of jokes and, some say, a lack of respect, even self-doubt.
"I'm nervous about putting it on my resume," says one man who starts a White House internship July 8. "My GPA is 3.7, 3.8. I don't want to have that belittled by the fact that I interned somewhere. It's a very hard job to get. I'm worried that [Lewinsky's] cheapened the whole thing."
Since White House interns are not supposed to talk to the press, the man refused to give his name or any distinguishing characteristics.
Before January, a White House internship was considered prestigious grunt work -- long hours and no pay, but with occasional glimpses of big shots and a chance to make important contacts for future jobs. Interns attracted little recognition: The Washington Post used the phrase "White House intern" only four times in 1997. So far this year, the count is 359.
Now, in the post-Monica era, interns suffer from too much recognition. During the first few months of the scandal, former and current White House interns were much in demand. "The media talked to us a lot back then," says Jason Gichner, an intern in the White House office of intergovernmental affairs from December until March. "Sam Donaldson would pull you aside."
And the jokes. God help us, stop the jokes.
Via e-mail and late-night television, "White House intern" has become a universal punch line. Virtually every intern in the city has heard some lame gibe about the Divine Miss M when they tell someone, "I'm an intern in Washington":
"Have fun in the Oval Office!"
"Don't wear a beret!"
"Say hi to Bill for me!"
Other lines are unprintable, many of them involving kneepads.
"I think every girl coming out here heard the exact same thing," says Brooke Bohnenkamp, 21, an intern for Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), as she drinks beer with fellow interns at Garrett's in Georgetown on a recent weekend. "I'm from Gettysburg, S.D., and they said, 'We don't want you putting us on the map for that!' "
On the first Saturday in June, interns flocked to Champions in Georgetown, which boasted an "Intern Social Club," as the sign said out front. And underneath, a sly remark: "Sorry, He Won't Be Here!!"
Inside, where it was loud and dark and the floor was sticky, no one was talking about the Monica Effect. They're sick of talking about it. But if prodded, they all had anecdotes to share.
One man, who has been a White House intern since May 13, says he applied for the program because its prestige counters any bad reputation. The most common crack he's heard, he says, is, "You should go after Hillary and get even."
"My grandparents send me articles about Monica and about how interns are sex-crazed," says Alex Scacco, 21, a State Department intern.
By the looks of things here, Scacco's grandparents aren't far off: Interns are bumping, grinding and generally getting freaky to Puff Daddy and Will Smith. The girls are in tank tops and short skirts; the boys in shorts and button-downs. If they're sex-crazed, though, it's not because they're interns; it's because they're young and it's summertime.
Even here in an all-intern atmosphere, some have unkind words for their fellow workers. All interns, it seems, are not created equal.
Shah, whose parents forbade her to apply to the White House, says it never really interested her: "I think it's probably a pretty worthless job. I don't think they do that much."
Marissa Billowitz, 21, an intern for the Latin America Working Group, is more blunt: "I work for a nonprofit. We're actually doing something, not being chased around the desk by some senator."
This is exactly the attitude that Shannah, who did not want to reveal her last name, frets about. An intern for a congressman whom she respects "more than anything," Shannah, who did not want to give her boss's name either, believes that Lewinsky offered the public an image of the Washington intern as career-driven social climber. "She really gives our generation a bad name, and shows us to be selfish and self-driven," says the young woman, 19, drinking a Bud Light and watching the NBA playoffs in a Burleith row house. "Now everyone assumes you're irresponsible. My job has become a joke to people, when I feel I'm doing important things."
In addition to making the men in Washington "look like scumbags," the scandal, Shannah says, has given a false view of the influence a woman can have by the way she dresses and acts. "America has been further disillusioned by the scandal, because they cease to believe in the meritocracy anymore," she says with the idealism of a government major.
When asked about the stereotype of the female intern who uses sex appeal to get noticed, White House interns are quick to defend the rigorous application procedure, which requires a college transcript, two letters of recommendation, a writing sample and a personal essay.
These interns, for the most part, love their jobs. "It was one of the best experiences I ever had," says one woman, a White House intern in January when the Lewinsky scandal broke. "The White House works on volunteers," she says, while trading anecdotes with other interns at another Burleith party. "Their work is so valuable.
"It's a shame if this would stop people from interning."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company