White House: Help Wanted
By Suzanne Presto
MAY 11, 1998:
"They made us feel like putting a paper in the wrong pile would jeopardize national security. It was not a laid-back atmosphere." -- Elise Smith
Mention to your fellow college students that you are applying for a White House internship, and you'll likely get a flirtatious wink, a vulgar laugh and the latest joke about President Bill Clinton's sex life.
Washington's institutions survive all kinds of scandals, however, and the White House Intern Program should prove to be no exception. Only 250 out of some 1,200 applicants nationwide are selected for White House internships each summer, fall and spring, and the demand for the coveted slots remains high.
"Working in the White House is an unparalleled experience for a student who wishes to see the workings of the executive branch," wrote Maria Alexander Westfried, director of the internship program, in an undated letter to all applicants. The deadline for summer internships at the nation's most famous address has come and gone, but applications for the fall session are being accepted through June 24.
And the Louisiana student who applies while the White House is under a cloud may have the last laugh at their heckling fellow students -- because the internships are still very prestigious. Having the White House on your resume shows future employers that someone felt comfortable enough to recommend you for a responsible, high-profile position -- and that you've passed a rigorous drug screening and security check by the U.S. Secret Service. Even applicants who don't get the job should be left with a good assessment of their capabilities, a useful letter of recommendation and a well-polished resume for future employment. The internships are unpaid, but there are grants and scholarships available from non-federal sources.
At least one former White House intern in New Orleans says students should not be discouraged by post-Monica Lewinsky media reports, that have suggested that internships are reserved for children of the rich and politically connected.
"This is not a glamorous job ... but it's not all copying, either," said Elise Smith, 22, who graduates from Tulane University this semester with a bachelor's degree in political science. "I don't think any of us had special recommendations. I just had one letter of recommendation -- from a history professor."
A native of Catonsville, Md., Smith successfully completed her summer internship in 1995 at the Presidential Correspondence Office, located in the Old Executive Office Building. (Smith appeared in the same White House "class photo" as Lewinsky, whom she says she does not know). To get an internship, Smith followed the same general guidelines as other students. The typical application package includes a resume, two letters of recommendation (preferably one from a professor and one from a political official or a professional), a 500-word essay on why the applicant is applying for an internship at one of two dozen departments in the White House, and an unofficial college transcript.
Program director Westfried says the criteria for selecting interns is strictly limited to a demonstrated commitment to public service, leadership potential, academic progress or achievement, writing ability, extracurricular activities, and the ability to pass a background check "to determine access privileges to the Executive Office of the Presidential complex."
In the past, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics forbade members of Congress from making employment recommendations for "competitive positions" to the executive branch. Members of Congress could only pass on constituent resumes and otherwise make suggestions. But that changed with a 1996 amendment to the Hatch Act that places restrictions on political recommendations for federal jobs with the exception of political appointments, according to a top Senate source and memos made available to Gambit Weekly.
So, the ambitious Louisiana student may want to solicit the assistance of his or her member of Congress in applying for the internship program. Our survey of the Louisiana congressional delegation showed that only Republican John Cooksey of Monroe had made a recommendation to the executive branch for a White House internship based on a "previous internship on Capitol Hill." The student was not accepted, however. Aides to other Republican congressmen said their bosses had not made any recommendations to the White House.
The non-partisan White House Intern Program is open to all undergraduates, regardless of field of study and academic seniority. Law students can request special assignments to the Office of the White House Counsel. And even though applicants may request an assignment in one of more than two dozen departments -- including the Office of the First Lady -- they don't necessarily get their choices.
"The essay determines to which department you are assigned," said Smith, who as an intern assigned to the White House Office of Correspondence responded to the president's email, letters and telephone calls received over the White House Comment Line.
Interns are called on to help with administration press conferences, briefings and public events. They have opportunities to work in departments ranging from the National AIDS Policy Office to the White House Photo Office, which documents official events. Interns assigned to the Visitor's Office may meet everybody from sports stars to celebrity musicians. A number of interns, including Smith, have had the occasion to meet Socks, the First Cat.
But most interns do not get close to the president, let alone close enough to create a scandal.
"We all had 'blue pass envy,'" Smith said, referring to the "golden ticket" to the interior offices of the White House. Blue passes allow admittance to the highly restricted West Wing, where the president's offices are located. Only about 25 out of the 250 interns get a blue pass, depending on their department assignments.
Smith says White House staff consistently recount "horror stories" for new interns of predecessors who have run afoul of the strict rules governing intern behavior. One intern was terminated for showing off his blue pass on the D.C. subway. Another was fired for sending out invitations to his frat party on White House letterhead. And finally there was the woman who called a ticket office requesting tickets for a Harry Connick Jr. concert in the name of the president. She was ejected, too. In general, however, White House interns are too ambitious to risk the valuable internships.
There is plenty of "busywork" to keep interns out of trouble, anyway. And if the jobs themselves are not always intellectually stimulating, White House internships do build good research and communications skills.
"There is pressure to show a good image and appear competent," Smith said. "They made us feel like putting a paper in the wrong pile would jeopardize national security. It was not a laid-back atmosphere."
Despite the high pressure and no pay, there are "perks," of course.
"I met the president personally once at a lift off" of a presidential helicopter, Smith said. "I met Socks. And my boss was able to get us invitations to President Clinton's surprise party on the South Lawn. ... All the big wigs were there -- the president, the first lady, the vice president, and [then-Chief of Staff] Leon Panetta." In addition to engaging in "Clinton spotting," interns also hear from weekly speakers, including senior White House staff, Cabinet secretaries and members of the news media.
"There are several things you may want to consider when choosing the session for which you would like to apply," program director Westfried wrote in her letter to applicants. "The fall and spring sessions generally allow interns to assume a more substantive role in their assigned offices due to the longer length of stay. The summer sessions have the most applicants and therefore the most competitive sessions of the White House Intern Program, [which] ... strives to admit students who represent the diversity of America."
So, you don't need political connections. And the typical intern won't be at the White House long enough to get famous or make high-profile contacts. Still, if you are a U.S. citizen, 18 years or older, with a yen to serve the nation's highest office, internship applications are available. You may get the job. And you may get the last laugh on your fellow students back home.
For more information, contact the White House Intern Program, Old Executive Office Building, Room 4, Washington, D.C. 20500. Or call (202) 456-2742. .
Suzanne Presto is a Gambit Weekly intern and senior at Tulane.
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