Little job holds big surprises for Capitol Hill interns


Being at the bottom of the political food chain doesn't mea congressional interns are starved for excitement during their fling with the federal government.

Nibble on these Capitol encounters: being stuck in an elevator with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Finding one-time Attorney General candidate Zoe Baird on the other end of the telephone line. Standing in a sea of people as William Jefferson Clinton took the presidential oath of office.

"During the inauguration, I became the most patriotic person in the world," says Rob Biederman, 21, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who recently completed an internship in the office of Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.

"Once you're really here, standing in front of the Capitol and seeing the president sworn in, it's amazing," says the University of Kansas junior.

But the first thing an intern learns is getting used to working alongside famous faces. When Mr. Biederman first saw Mr. Kennedy, his immediate reaction was to point. "But I was told that you don't do that because you will see these people every day."

Sometimes interns find themselves with these high-power, high-profile types in situations you'd expect only on sitcoms.

Take Katherine Sime's run-in with Mr. Kennedy. Ms. Sime, who also just completed an internship in Mr. Simon's office and is a student at Luther College in Iowa, found herself stuck between floors in a crowded Senate office building elevator that included the Massachusetts Democrat.

"It was strange," said the 21-year-old. "All I kept thinking was I'm stuck on an elevator with Ted Kennedy." She also learned about influence when the elevator began to move five minutes after he made a call on the emergency phone.

Such is the life of an intern on Capitol Hill. Most are placed in Senate and House offices through their schools and receive college credit but no pay.

Although neither Mr. Simon nor Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., look at a potential intern's grade-point average, both consider strong writing skills and an independent, outgoing personality to be significant prerequisites. Both offices report getting about 50 applicants for internships during the school year. Ms. Moseley-Braun hired 12 this year; Mr. Simon generally hires five or six. The number of applicants swells to a couple hundred for summer positions, and the competition becomes fierce.

For all interns, it's an eight-hour-day of answering telephones or doing research on bills and proposed legislation -- and of juggling their work on the Hill with classwork and, in some cases, work in ice cream parlors.

Mr. Biederman relies on his part-time parlor job to help cover rent and other expenses in a city whose cost of living soars.

Like Mr. Biederman, Tracy Vinson's plate is heaping. The 20-year-old Howard University honors student works three days a week in Ms. Moseley-Braun's office and also on the Howard newspaper and yearbook.

After work, Ms. Vinson, who is from Chicago, goes to the library until 8 or 9 p.m., and then studies and does homework until 2 a.m.

Sean McManamy, 20, of Ridgefield, Conn., is another example of the fast-paced intern lifestyle.

Besides working at Ms. Moseley-Braun's office four days a week, he takes four classes through a program sponsored by Marquette University. Instead of coming home and partying, Mr. McManamy attends classes taught in his apartment building by visiting professors from Milwaukee.

The stress can take its toll. "I have my days when people don't want to be around me," Mr. McManamy said.

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