They're not as silly and worthless as you think.
Chandra Levy and Rep. Gary Condit have been damned with a word. "Intern" has condemned Levy to Lewinskydom, that ridiculous state of juvenile lustiness and frivolity. No matter that she had earned a graduate degree, held a valued job at the Bureau of Prisons, and earned $27,000 a year—Levy has been consigned to the intern lumpenpit of happy hours and Xeroxing. And "intern" has convicted Condit as a predatory creep (though not a murderer). "Intern" transforms what may have been a very adult adulterous affair into a grotesque exploitation of a minor.
The Washington internship, which is usually—but not always—unpaid, has been a rite of passage for certain well-to-do kids for more than a generation. And since long before the world heard of Monica or Chandra, these interns have been the capital's lowest form of life. To Washington veterans—that is, anyone who's been here longer than the interns—they are nothing more than an irksome rabble. Thousands of college students and recent grads—perhaps 20,000 in the summer alone—descend on Washington every year, sardine themselves into dingy apartment buildings and dingier bars, seize cubicles on Capitol Hill, in think tanks, at lobbying firms and nonprofits, and spend a few ecstatic months filing, schmoozing, drinking, and (sometimes) sleeping their way to a Beltway career.
Internships have proliferated everywhere in recent years. Vault.com, a career advice company in New York, claims that 75 percent of today's college graduates have done an internship, compared to 3 percent 20 years ago. Vault's numbers seem dubious—3 percent?—but there's no doubt that colleges increasingly encourage students to study off campus and engage in "service learning"—that is, working for credits.
Washington has benefited especially from the intern explosion. Internships were rare in D.C. before the '60s. Since then, they have tracked the massive growth of the federal government and its associated industries. (Congressional internships hardly existed until 30 years ago because members had no place to house the new bodies, says Don Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. But now, thanks to new congressional buildings, as many as 6,000 students spend the summer in House and Senate offices.)
D.C. has proved particularly hospitable to interns because it runs on power, not money. The kinds of young people who want to come to Washington are generally not avaricious. For the student council presidents and tyro wonks, Washington really is a dream city. Work for free? Heck, some would pay for the chance to sit at a desk just five offices away from Rep. Dick Armey.
(TheNew Yorker's Nicholas Lemann argues that the Washington intern represents a partial restoration of the apprenticeships of yore. Before the 20th century, well-to-do families would ship promising sons off to serve as unpaid assistants to powerful men. The rise of the civil service helped stifle this kind of favoritism. But today's interns, like Monica Lewinsky, often are the children of campaign contributors or friends. The employer does a cheap favor; the intern gets a career head start. Long live nepotism!)
Washington interns are victims of two contradictory prejudices. On the one hand, they are dismissed as useless dimwits, too ignorant and naive to be trusted with anything more than fetching coffee and transferring callers to voice mail. (Monica Lewinsky did little to dispel this image.) On the other, they are loathed as grasping, conniving, Tracey-Flick-in-Election, I-am-going-to-take-your-job terrors. (Vault.com encourages carnivorous interns to "schmooze" the boss and to arrive for the internship a week early, to ensure that they get the plum assignments and can fob off the scut work on latecomers.)
In fact, interns deserve neither derision nor fear. They are a wonderfully useful segment of Washington. They are a "backbone" of the city, argues Mary Ryan of the intern-placing Institute for Experiential Learning. For better or worse, they often serve as cheap clerical labor, replacing secretaries at a fraction the cost. They can also make more substantive contributions. They often do hard, nasty work, such as the unpleasant background research for nonprofits or the dirt-digging on a campaign opponent. Interns, in short, are not pointless.
(Nor are internships pointless: If you perform, you'll win a real Washington job. Washington is run by ex-interns. Today's 20-year-old mail-room smartass becomes a 22-year-old legislative assistant, and then a 25-year-old press secretary, and then a 29-year-old lobbyist. … According to Ryan, 20 percent-30 percent of the interns she places in D.C. return to jobs where they interned.)
Washington's interns are valuable more for psychological reasons than economic ones. Though Hill rats would never admit it, interns decynicize D.C.; Washington thrills them (at least for the six weeks till their disillusionment). They may be calculating and ambitious, but they remind their beaten-down editor, their dispirited chief of staff, their venal executive director of why what they do is important and interesting and exciting. Their idealism is fuel for the city.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.