Letter From DC: Heat, Humidity, Interns and Flip Flops

By , Columnist

What a creepy, not to mention discouraging, atmosphere in DC welcoming the 20,000 "interns" that flood Washington every summer. Political sex scandals and local government corruption investigations are dominating the headlines, challenging the idealism of even the most cream-cheeked collegian.

It's that time of the year again, when the whirring of AC units struggle to combat the insufferable heat and humidity; when Craigslist becomes saturated with desperate pleas for temporary housing; and when event planners and bar managers deploy new strategies to deter the locust-like infestations of the flip-flop wearing hordes looking for the proverbial free lunch. 

It used to be that your more lecherous DC-types rubbed their hands in anticipatory glee of all the new talent surging into DC with built-in expiration dates. "Even if you got a clingy one, they still had to leave in August," explained a Hill staffer. 

There's a different ambience, however, this year. The proliferation of sex scandals is prompting a new era of caution. "Let's just say the environment is not conducive to playful flirtation anymore," the Hill staffer rued. 

  • John Edwards Rielle Hunter.jpgFormer Presidential candidate and NC Senator John Edwards' indictment for allegedly using campaign funds to support his baby's mama
  • Former Nevada Senator John Ensign and his affair with his wife's BFF
  • Louisiana Senator David Vitter and the DC Madam
  • Florida Representative Mark Foley and his sexting to Congressional pages
  • NY Representative Anthony Weiner, Twitter, pussy cats, and a porn starAnthony Weiner.jpg
  • Former NY Representative Christopher Lee and his Craiglist beefcake photo fiasco
  • Former NY Representative Eric Massa and his serial "tickling" of male staffers
  • Eliot Spitzer and Wife.jpgWhen you throw Eliot Spitzer and his DC Mayflower hooker in the mix, one wondersr: what is up with New York politicians?

The sex thing is bad enough, but then these illustrious interns are also faced with the other ugly side of politics -- money -- which is being played out in the DC-area's local governments.

  • The DC suburb of Prince George's County, MD saw its County Executive last month plead guilty to extortion charges, after FBI agents raided his home while his wife, a current PG County councilmember, was stuffing $80,000 in dirty cash into her bra.
  • DC Council member Harry Thomas Jr. was accused by the DC Attorney General of diverting more than $300,000 in public funds intended for kids to his Audi SUV and golf outings in Pebble Beach and Vegas.
  • DC Council Chair Kwame Brown is in hot water for campaign finance irregularities and demanding, and receiving, two separate pimped-out Lincoln Navigators leased by the city.
  • DC Mayor Vincent Gray is under investigation by the DC City Council for paying a joke of a mayoral candidate to attack former Mayor Adrian Fenty during the campaign, and then rewarding the doofus and the sons and daughters of campaign supporters with a six-figure jobs that required nothing more than looking out of a window.

DC right now ain't exactly the symbol of public service virtue that used to attract the best and the brightest. On the other hand, DC interns have never really been known to seek virtue. Instead, many adopt the Washingtonian parlor game of status assertion with a smothering of over-inflated self-importance. 

interns rock.jpgThere's an intern caste system. Senate interns are at the top with House interns close behind. You can tell the ones that earned their spot via merit versus their parents' campaign contributions by the wardrobes: Marshall's versus Macy's. Cabinet and agency internships are the most worthwhile, filled by those already with a sense of what they want to do when they graduate.

The Kool-Aid drinkers go to the advocacy organizations. There's nothing like getting a lecture on phallic hegemony from a 21 year old NARAL intern who thinks not shaving her pits is a statement for united sisterhood.

Sadly, the intern presence at DC events is ebbing. Shrimp grabbing and chardonnay guzzling by interns has become an endangered art form with the advent of a new deterrent: the non-transferable invite to DC's cocktail circuit. The invites to industry hob-nobs used to be presented as a reward from summer-depleted offices. Now, "Who wants to spend $50 a head on catering to a bunch of inconsequential children?" sniffed a DC party planner. Rather than getting to go the events, interns are now commissioned with making the phone calls to get the targeted RSVPs.

Even the bar scene has become unfriendly to the intern. "We used to do 10 cent wings andTequilla Coast Washington DC.jpg 50 cent tacos as an intern-friendly happy hour," said Bil Anderson, GM of Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant caddy-corner to the House office buildings. "Unfortunately, it was seen by some as quick and easy dinner that spilled from the bar into the dining room.

DC internships ain't what they used to be, yet it's hardly surprising that the status of the once coveted resume builder is mirroring the community that offers them. The name of the game now is sex, money, and competitive partisanship for the sole sake of partisanship: not exactly the core ingredients to virtue and public service. But hey, they're simply following the example set by those they're serving.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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