Washington Interns, in the Shadow of Power
By Michael Colton
Whether or not the allegations about President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky turn out to be true, current and former interns say that relationships between powerful men and ambitious young women -- and all interns are ambitious by definition -- can be tricky. Interns eager to make an impression and employers flattered by the attention can have trouble negotiating the gray areas between proper and improper conduct.
"One thing about a government job is that for some reason it's hard to say no to things," says Alison Markowitz, a former intern at the United Nations and in the Washington office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "As an intern, you definitely want to please."
Occasionally, the line between the professional and the personal blurs, for both male and female bosses: Interns are asked to pick up dry cleaning or fetch coffee. One former intern recalls buying birth control pills for her boss. Sometimes the relationships can grow more intimate.
"You don't want to offend anyone, because you're hoping you'll get a job," says a senior at Harvard University who was propositioned by a co-worker during a 1996 internship at a Boston consulting firm. She does not want to be identified because she hopes for an offer from the company after graduation.
"I was lucky because I was close to a female consultant in the company," she says. "She told me to leave messages on the guy's voice mail saying I was really busy, and maybe we could catch up sometime later. That way I kept him at bay without offending him."
Washington depends on its interns to put in long hours, often without pay, in exchange for the promise of a full-time job in the future. Virtually every office on Capitol Hill has an intern. So does every media outlet and interest group. Clinton himself was once an intern on the Hill, as were many in his administration.
One former intern, now a chief of staff for a Democratic congressman, believes Clinton's White House is more intern-dependent than any in recent years. He cites the reduction in paid support staff that Clinton made after the 1992 election as one reason for the ubiquity of interns.
Interns try to stand out by demonstrating energy, drive and loyalty. But since many spend their time doing menial labor -- answering phones, making photocopies -- it can be hard to prove one's worth.
"You want to be the shining star in the office and want everyone to notice what a good job you're doing, so some people will do whatever it takes to be noticed in that way," says Lisa Winegar, a senior at Wesleyan University who interned for "PrimeTime Live" in Washington a year and a half ago. (There are many ways to be noticed: Officials at the White House have been known to admonish interns for wearing skirts that are too short.)
The danger in this thinking, according to several former interns, is that some interns will try to define their value by their associations with powerful people. "Everybody wanted to get a blue pass," says Becky Rottenberg, a Dartmouth College senior who interned in the White House in the winter of 1996. "That's a symbol of prestige; you get to go into the West Wing."
White House interns are encouraged to stay out of the way of the higher-ups, says another former intern who was there at the same time as Lewinsky. But some defy such edicts in order to be close to power. That's because success is judged differently in government than in the private sector.
"Elsewhere, you can evaluate success based on the bottom line," says this man, who now works as a financial consultant in Boston. "There's a hunger by people in Washington who can't satisfy themselves monetarily, so they want to satisfy it with power -- that goes for interns all the way to the top."
Such an atmosphere creates competition, he says. "People treat people here in a way that is unlike anywhere else that I have seen. More important than doing a good job is doing better than other people. More important than doing a good job is not screwing up."
Of course, interns aren't the only ones in Washington who are star-struck. "That's sort of the Washington credo -- people here measure themselves based on their resume and who they know and how close they are to people who are high up," says Janet Hostetler, a former intern for the Department of Education and the Council for a Livable World, among other organizations. "Whether or not that's [a] true [measurement], that's the perception that people have."
Getting close to higher-ups sometimes crosses the line to sexual involvement. Intern-employer relationships are rare, but they can happen. "There's something naively empowering to a young girl to have a source of power put them in a position of power by being interested in them," says a woman who dated an editor at Spin magazine in New York when she interned there several years ago. She was 16 at the time; he was 28. "Because of the professional circumstances, they're tricked into thinking it'd be a good idea on a social level."
Another woman, who also did not want to be identified, says she had an affair with a senior producer at NBC News while she was interning there two years ago. "Interoffice e-mail is a very nasty tool," she laughs.
Her relationship with the producer, who was 10 years older, began when he asked her for a date via e-mail. When they first went out, she says, he promised to write her a great recommendation. But she insists the relationship was not about favors.
"He had a really high position for someone so young. What I thought at first is, 'I'd love to befriend this guy and find out how he got where he did as quickly as he did. If he finds me attractive, and that's the way that we can sit down together outside of work, then so be it.' But it was never 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine.' "
The affair was consensual, she says. But by the end of the internship, she had a change of heart and told him, "For your own sake, you might want to think about choices you make about who and how you date."
"In my experience," she says, "I'm surprised at how unwary people have been about sexual harassment." She recalls another internship at a fashion magazine, where many female employees, she says, "coveted" a male intern.
While some women believe such a relationship could exist only if instigated by the person in power, others think the intern would have to make the first move.
"Unless the intern is the one who takes the initiative, people are so scared about sexual harassment that it usually doesn't happen," says one woman who interned at the Commerce Department two years ago and now works at a New York investment bank.
Many companies try to educate both their employees and their interns about sexual harassment. ABC News has all its interns watch a video about harassment in the workplace. "If they work in the company, it's the same policy for everybody," says Julie Hoover, an ABC spokeswoman.
Colleges that help procure internships for students also do their part. "The issue is addressed up front," says Bill Bannis, director of career services for Northwestern University. "The university has policies prohibiting harassment, so it's part of the culture."
Some places have learned to draw the line starkly. "Interns are totally off-limits," says Margaret Angell, a Harvard senior who interned last summer at a New York investment bank. "There's a lot of intercompany relationships, but nobody's allowed to go near the interns.
"You want the interns to come back when they graduate."
Special correspondent Devon Spurgeon contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company