WASHINGTON – They came from colleges all over the country to labor in obscurity in some of the most powerful offices in the world. Or so they thought.
For the last several weeks, interns in Washington, D.C., have been under a microscope in the wake of the disappearance of one of their own — Chandra Levy.
Nowhere was this more evident than at a Thursday event that has been in the works for two years and would normally garner little interest. But the event turned into a media circus due to its invited guest list – hundreds of Capitol Hill interns.
Sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a conservative public advocacy group, the event was designed to highlight the release of “Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right,” the group's new study about the sexual attitudes of American college women.
The event was headlined by Dr. Drew Pinsky, the tall, bespectacled sex whiz and host of the popular “Love Lines” radio and television programs.
'I'm Here To Enjoy Myself'
Hungry for fresh perspectives on the case of the disappearance of Chandra Levy, reporters grilled the interns on their thoughts about Levy's disappearance and the allegations of her affair with a married congressman.
“I really think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” said Dana Weisberg, 21, an intern with Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y. She said the case is sad, unnerving and is all anyone talks about – and jokes about – on Capitol Hill.
“I feel bad about other parents whose children are missing and they're not getting as much attention,” she said.
The other attendees work amidst the swirl of Washington's second major intern scandal since 1998, when a bright-eyed California intern wooed a sitting president — an event that ultimately set the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue against one another. But Weisberg said she feels safe in a town where powerful men and ambitious, talented young women often work long hours, side by side.
“I’m not worried or concerned at all,” she said. “I’m here to enjoy myself and learn.”
Others echoed her response. “I don’t think it should dissuade anyone from interning,” said Tali Zechory, 19, who is interning for Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich, for six weeks. “I really didn’t think about it until I got here.”
Some said they felt the need to be careful in Washington, but not necessarily around their bosses. They also said parents and relatives have called half-jokingly with warnings and, once in a while, a reporter will pop into the office to ask if they feel safe. Some said they were banned from even talking to the press.
“Ever since the Monica Lewinsky thing, the whole thing about being an intern in Washington has become a joke,” said Leah Weiss, 20, who is also interning in Rep. Levin's office. “In any city you go to you have to be careful,” she said.
But others said the focus on interns and how they handle Washington when they are here is useful and important.
Kimberly Schuld, the director of external relations for the Independent Women’s Forum, said those who take interns under their charge have a special obligation to them. “There is a responsibility to help them and to protect them from the area itself,” said Schuld, who hires interns for the center each summer. “We feel we owe an explanation to their parents. As adults in this city, we need to play the role of in loco parentis. Our society doesn’t do that anymore.”
When asked how he felt about the potential sexual snares of intern life lurking within Washington's halls of power, Dr. Pinsky expressed a similar sentiment.
“The only issue I have with this is there seems to be a pattern... of older people in authority exploiting subordinates,” he said. Such affairs flout all of the rules of respect, trust and basic professionalism. “It’s a violation of that relationship,” he said.
Still, many of the more than one hundred interns who turned out for free lunch and sex advice said they learned more in their roles as Capitol Hill pages and scribes than in absorbing all the intimate details of a 12-week missing person case.
“You learn a tremendous amount,” said Weiss. “If anything my respect for government has increased.”
Rebecca Celotto, an intern for the IWF, added “I feel like I have a pretty good head on my shoulders and I’m not going to let any man or woman in power intimidate me.”