Outside the nation's capital, the words "Washington intern" bring to mind the smiling faces of two young women: Chandra Levy and Monica Lewinsky. 

Their images obscure the fact that the city teems with an estimated 20,000 young people who come to Washington, D.C.,  each year to learn about government and share corridors with the powerful. 

The cases of Levy, the missing intern who told relatives she had an affair Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., and Lewinsky, who had trysts with President Clinton, have highlighted this little-known subculture. 

Access is part of the allure for these teen-agers and 20-somethings. 

"The prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, was in the office for dessert and chats with Mr. Gephardt. Is that not the coolest thing ever?" Adelle La Rue, a congressional intern this spring for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, wrote in a journal, which was an internship requirement. "Really, this is why I love my job. I get to meet the coolest people ever." 

Interns are Washington's worker bees. 

They toil long hours — most without pay — on Capitol Hill, as well as at associations, nonprofit groups, federal agencies, such as the U.S. Bureau of Prisons where Levy worked, and the White House, where Lewinsky met Clinton when she delivered pizza to the president. 

They make phone calls to constituents, take notes at congressional hearings and write summaries for the boss. They set up meeting rooms, run errands to the Library of Congress, handle mail, feed the paper shredder, design projects for increasing voter registration, design Web pages and give tours of the Capitol. 

The majority of interns earn nothing at all or receive just $100 to $200 a week. A few receive the equivalent of tuition for a college term plus reimbursements for housing and transportation expenses. 

After hours, they hit city nightspots. 

"I had a terrific weekend," Johnathan Edward Luckey, an intern last summer for Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., wrote in his journal. "About 20 of us went out to a few clubs near our apartments. There we danced to some salsa and hip-hop music." 

Some of the weekday perks: touring embassies and the Supreme Court, hearing breakfast lectures by political leaders, shaking hands with the president. 

The access can be intoxicating, said Nancy Snow, a political analyst at the University of California-Los Angeles. 

"It's very seductive on the one hand and very exciting and titillating," Snow said. 

Perceptions about Washington interns differ in and outside the city, said Brad Fitch, director of the Congressional Management Foundation. The organization recently updated its intern guidebook with sections on personal safety and sexual harassment. 

"Outside of Washington people are not going to have a positive view of Washington internships and that's a little sad," Fitch said. "But people inside the Beltway know ... they not only provide an invaluable source of labor, but they bring a spirit of enthusiasm and of wonder to what we do here. It reminds all of us old cynics of the excitement when we first got involved in public service." 

Those who run internship programs say Levy and Lewinsky were atypical. While most interns live in housing supervised by the programs, Levy lived alone in a $1,400-a-month apartment and Lewinsky lived at the Watergate, the upscale building at the heart of the scandal that brought down President Nixon. 

The Washington Center, an independent nonprofit organization that helps place interns, instructs them to tell their supervisors when they are leaving town for 24 hours. It also tells interns to immediately report sexual harassment, or any unwanted advances. 

The Levy case motivated Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., to begin working with the House Ethics Committee on a new rule that would discourage relationships between House members and interns. 

"My only concern is that parents may be more reluctant to send their college students to Washington," Burke said. 

A nationwide poll done earlier this month by CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll showed evidence of that concern. 

Fifty-three percent of 900 registered voters said they would advise a daughter in her early 20s to accept a Washington internship. Forty-three percent said they would tell her not to accept the job; 4 percent had no opinion. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. 

Lauren Goldback, 19, of Philadelphia, an intern for Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, D-Pa., said her parents were a little worried about her spending this summer in a large metropolitan area, but felt the Levy and Lewinsky cases were the exception not the rule. 

"I think their perspective is that those are two isolated incidents," she said.