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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Washington
The lowly life on Capitol Hill
By DAVID AGREN
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003

Washington — This summer, I crossed the border and joined a legion of college students from across the globe in a quintessential American right of passage, the Washington, D.C. internship.

I gazed south towards Washington after my C.V. got passed over for summer reporting jobs back in Western Canada.

Surprisingly, my U.S. applications found favour as three organizations offered summer and fall internships - two included stipends.

Ever since a stained dress generated salacious headlines, the spicy details of interning in the capital have piqued the nation's curiosity.

A racy mythology surrounding the Washington internship beyond merely rubbing shoulders with influential people and padding a C.V. began to develop.

Some notorious exploits are hard to ignore.

One Senate intern's ex-girlfriend zapped a tart email intended for her eyes only to every inbox on Capitol Hill.

He promptly left town after the Washington Post published the tawdry details this summer.

Capitol Hill offices now lecture interns on sexual harassment and office hijinks, perhaps to diminish fears in the hinterlands that powerful cads are preying on their offspring - who are often venturing away from home for the first time.

But while a handful of interns achieve notoriety or crawl into a bottle for three months, cash in the empty and return home with only a hangover and broken heart, most interns live a radically different experience.

Each summer, the president, Congress, and the army of lobbyists, activists and professional hanger-ons decamp swampy Washington, leaving a glimmer of opportunity for interns to make an impact.

Every June, attractive interns, dressed to impress, surface from the Metro rail stations and parade to work, easily spotted by their dangling identifications - an intern status symbol.

Although the U.S. outlawed slavery 140 years ago, most interns toil for free, keeping the internship in the domain of America's elites.

Others like me capture coveted stipends, scholarships and draw loans on the bank of dad to underwrite their excursions.

"It's all 'my daddy this and my daddy that,'" said Ali, a Senate intern, of the power plays some of her privileged peers pull.

She sheepishly admitted though, "I got this (internship) through my dad."

A sizeable donation to oil the machinery of the political system usually guarantees a prestigious internship for the benefactor's child.

The phrase: it's not what you know but, who you know, rings truer in Washington than most places.

Most employers themselves parlayed an internship chalked full of menial tasks into coveted public policy positions.

Distressingly, many organizations build business plans around scraping by on inexpensive intern help - often supplied by third-party internship placement programs, which include a slice of political indoctrination with an unpaid summer job.

The middlemen mine their contact lists for placements, cram their interns like sardines into cramped housing, and iron out visa wrinkles with the INS for a pretty penny.

I initially snagged an internship with the Washington bureau of The Daily Telegraph before landing at The Globe and Mail.

Although my byline only hit Fleet Street on the final day of my three-month stay, I kept busy doing research and penning briefs for it and a sister publication.

Most importantly, I networked the entire time (as crass as that sounds).

Some interns, like my Czech roommate, hit a homerun.

He broadcast a 15-minute daily newscast for Voice of America (the Cold War relic, which beams the American perspective into unfriendly nations.)

In July, he jetted to Norfolk and Texas with the visiting Czech prime minister.

He also befriended Czech embassy staffers, who he crafted a prime ministerial speech with.

They rewarded his efforts with one-litre bottles of vodka, inexpensively purchased with a State Department tax-free card.

One Hungarian intern I met unfortunately struck out.

He got placed with a lobbying firm, but wound up passing out flyers in Virginia on the why local taxes should fund a stadium to lure the Expos from Montreal.

Stuck spending meager Canadian dollars, I stretched my funds and sought out cheap thrills like free foreign films underwritten by various embassies, free admission days at one of the fine museums or scaling the Exorcist stairs (when my knees didn't ache) in the snooty Georgetown district (where I initially lived, but later fled for the cheaper, but sedate Virginia suburbs.)

And of course, gorging on free tacos at the journalism interns' favorite Friday haunt, the National Press Club - a place teeming with Canucks.

One fellow journalism intern remarked in a taco night invitation: "I am on self-imposed detox, but one drink never hurt anyone on a Friday night."

Free lunches served up at policy briefings and political functions hit the spot too.

The libertarian leaning Cato Institute offers meaty sandwiches, washed down with thick free-market rhetoric.

In Washington, everything is of course political. Even housing ads solicit roommates by political affiliation.

Every two-bit lobbyist, political staffer and political - and there's a lot of them - a person strikes up a conversation with gets an embossed business card pressed into their outstretched hand.

"Within two seconds, they want to know if you're a conservative or liberal," said Alaina, a journalism intern from Syracuse as she baked a cake for a group of equally cash-strapped interns to feast on while watching videos. "If you're a journalist, you get an extra five minutes."

Upstairs on a veranda perched high above the street, Alaina's neighbour, a sharp-tongued Republican intern on Capitol Hill, dished on the political nature of Washington and spelled out some her views over a harsh cigarette.

Alaska oil, drill it; prescription drugs for seniors, smacks of a single payer system; Canada, some things are best not printed.

"There's an understanding, there's Democrats and Republicans...you just disagree and be friends," she said.

When the subject turned to fraternization, she giggled and pointed at her roommate, a fellow intern who begged she and her hook up remain anonymous.

More than a padded resume or thickened Rolodex, it's the friendships with the intensely political people I befriended that I'll remember most after leaving this insular town. Perhaps I should thank the newspapers back home for passing me over.

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