They call it intern season," says Adrienne Bramlett, a 23-year-old bartender at the Capitol Lounge in Washington, D.C. "The guys who work on Capitol Hill are very excited at the beginning of the summer because there's this influx of new women coming in."
It's ten o'clock on a July Wednesday, and I'm at the downstairs bar of the grungy politico pub, shoulder to shoulder with interns from both sides of the aisle -- male and female. The men wear khakis and cornflower-blue shirts, the women dressy tanks and knee-length skirts. They're white, ambitious, and attractive, and almost all of them are drunk.
In the wake of Monica Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton and Chandra Levy's with Gary Condit, the word intern, which once suggested an earnest, ambitious student going to the capital to change the world, now conjures the image of a big-haired Jewish girl with an itch for married, middle-aged goyim. While Levy's tragic disappearance remains a mystery, the two liaisons have remade buttoned-down Washington's image into Cancún-on-the-Potomac. I may be a few years too old for a summer gig cheek-by-jowl with graying power-brokers. But since interns are the new Baywatch babes and Washington the Gold Club of the nation, I wasn't going to miss my chance to check it out.
Most Washington interns (there are an estimated 20,000 each summer) arrive in late May for a one-to-three-month stay and work for no pay in a government agency, lobbying firm, or political organization. Because they do grunt work, the ones I met say they don't have much incentive to show up at work awake, much less sober. Their attitude is best summed up in "The Intern Survival Guide," a one-page primer you can get at the Capitol Lounge bar: "Relax, have fun, you can save the world later."
Friendships and relationships are fleeting. "It's like spring break," says Bramlett, a former Senate intern. "They're away from home, so what goes on here stays here. People cheat on people -- they get wasted and go home together."
"We're just looking for an average time," a 29-year-old legislative assistant says. "But interns are aggressive. They're like the German Army in 1939."
Jessica, 20, an intern at a lobbying firm, says a girlfriend of hers met a guy at a bar, and after chatting for a while, he said, "In half an hour I'm going to ask you to come home with me, and you have to know I am never going to call you afterward." Did she go home with him anyway? Sure.
What makes Washington different from, say, South Padre Island is that interns feel high on themselves simply for having jobs in the capital. Brooke Lierman, a 22-year-old ex-intern at a government agency, calls it the "Washington rush. You feel ennobled and empowered and can go out and meet people."
With its bar-hopping, dollar-Budweiser nights and quick hookups, the intern scene isn't all that different from college itself. But some women describe an environment so predatory it's brutal. They get hit on by a troika of men -- other interns, politicians, and staffers.
For a man who's in the capital game, an intern is an ideal target. Because she goes back to school when her job ends, she's not likely to make any demands. "Why would a congressman turn down a girl who's just here for the summer, if he's sexually active, if he's not faithful?" asks Frank, a 22-year-old House intern. "What's the negative?" He says he's often observed congressmen flirting with interns in the House's Longworth Cafeteria. "I've been around two who were hitting big-time on girls, and I thought, 'Wow, I wish I had your little congressional pin.' The girls eat it up."
Amy, a statuesque 21-year-old Senate intern, says she's been hit on many times since she arrived. In her navy blazer and high-necked blouse, she seems a throwback to the early eighties. She admits she dresses less provocatively than some of the other female interns -- one came into work in a camisole that Amy later saw in the window of Victoria's Secret.
Though Amy has an open face and wide eyes, she seems more world-weary than naïve. On her first day at work, before she even got in the elevator to her office, a janitor asked her out. "I feel like my intern badge," she says, "is this big tag hanging from my neck that says fresh meat." Amy, who's staying till the end of August, has a friend, another intern, who left at the end of July. The woman was dating a policy wonk and hoping it would continue long-distance during the fall. But, says Amy, "I know he didn't want it to because he was calling me and saying, When she leaves . . ."
If this makes it sound like all male staffers are panting dogs, some of them tell a different story. According to Jim, a 25-year-old legislative assistant to a congressman, "we're just looking for an average time -- we want to have a couple beers, meet some people. But interns are aggressive. They're like the German Army in 1939." His co-worker Ted says he was walking down the street with one of his interns when she tried to kiss him. He told her he had a girlfriend, but, he explains, "saying no just made her try more."
As the nation well knows, Lewinsky was hardly an unwitting rube chosen by the president to be his plaything. "You have to have a lot of chutzpa to sleep with a politician," says Sally, a 26-year-old fund-raiser who lives on the Hill. "You have to get past a lot of people."
And though pundits like Andrew Sullivan offer a patronizing picture of Chandra Levy as a childlike creature who was not "in any real position to say no to a persistent older charmer," she was a 24-year-old adult engaged in a consensual relationship -- and was never employed by Condit. If anyone was naïve in the relationship, it was the politician who believed she would keep it secret. A woman looking for low-profile love doesn't date a congressman in the first place. What's the point of visiting the Eiffel Tower if you can't send a postcard?
Two Washington women who dated politicians say power is indeed the ultimate aphrodisiac -- until you discover it comes with side effects. Kim, a petite twentysomething political consultant, briefly dated an unmarried congressman who approached her at a function. When she describes the affair, her face lights up with awe, as though she still can't get over the fact that he wanted her.
On her way to the first date, she thought, "I'm going to remember this night for the rest of my life." That date went well -- he seemed very interested in her -- but on the others, she says, he "was the most boring person I'd ever met. We'd go to a bar and he would watch TV."
In retrospect, she says, she never expected it to last. "First of all, I'm Jewish. I want to marry a Jewish man." It's like the affair was a brief, cheap thrill, a night with a rock star. She tells herself that if he called again, she'd say no -- but she isn't sure, because of "the whole thing of telling your grandkids."
Renée, 33, a former House staffer, had a yearlong relationship with a different single congressman. She's tall, with ash-blonde hair, and attractive in a home-cooked-meal kind of way. She first spotted the congressman on the office TV and thought he was hot. They met when his office began working with hers on an issue and later began dating. He took her to district events and the White House Christmas party, but she found that he "had the emotional capacity of a dead fly. As long as we had intellectual conversations, were working out, or having fun, we were fine. But as soon as we were alone, there was zero true intimacy."
Frustrated with his insensitivity and inability to communicate, she bought a self-help book called I Don't Want to Talk About It and confronted him. Shortly thereafter, she says, "he took me to a public park and dropped me like a hot rod."
Though Kim and Renée both dated single politicians, the vast majority are married men, and in Washington, as anywhere, many of them cheat. What makes the capital a unique playground for the married set is that politicians live like single people. As a result, many lead dual lives -- they're partying Lotharios in D.C. and family men at home.
Melissa, a 28-year-old communications director, had a friend who was dating a married congressman. "We would go to the Capital Grille, and he would have his arm around her," she says. "Then I would see him the next week with his wife in a mall."
An intern who spent time in Levy's apartment after her disappearance told me, "I saw a coffee mug there that said ODDS OF MEETING A SINGLE MAN: 1 IN 23. ODDS OF MEETING A CUTE, SINGLE MAN: 1 IN 529. ODDS OF MEETING A CUTE, SINGLE, SMART MAN: 1 IN 3,245,873. ODDS OF MEETING THE ABOVE WHEN YOU LOOK YOUR BEST: 1 IN 9,729,528."
In a city like Washington, it's no wonder Levy found a man who couldn't even meet the minimal requirement.