Monica Lewinsky beat me out of an internship

The man who could have saved the dignity of the White House offers Practical Advice From a Guy Who Could Have Saved the Dignity of the Executive Office


Rolf Potts
October 23, 1998 12:20PM (UTC)

In the early pages of his novel "Libra," Don DeLillo declares that his
investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald's persona will "follow the bullet
trajectories backwards into the lives that occupy the shadows, actual
men who moan in their dreams."

Were DeLillo to write a similar, intrigue-filled tale about Monica
Lewinsky, the trajectories (so to speak) of the Clinton sex scandal
would eventually lead to me.

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Indeed, I am a man who occupies the shadows. I am a man who moans in
his dreams. I am a man who -- in an extremely indirect way -- could
have saved the Clinton presidency a lot of trouble.

On a chilly night back in February 1995, I was busy filling out an
application for a summer White House internship. Unbeknownst to me at
the time, a 22-year-old Californian named Monica Lewinsky was doing the
exact same thing. Like Lewinsky, I was ambitious, hard-working
and fascinated by politics. Like Lewinsky, I attended a small,
private college in Oregon. But whereas Lewinsky had a mediocre
academic record and had appeared in a national publication declaring her
passion for soap operas, I had a flawless academic record and had
appeared in a national publication for organizing a community service
project in suburban Portland. On paper, I was clearly the more
attractive candidate.

But, as history has long since noted, Lewinsky won a coveted intern
position at the White House and went on to forever change the Clinton
presidency. I, on the other hand, was left with nothing to offer
history save an empty mailbox and my own confusion.

What had happened to me? How had my good grades and good standing failed me? What did Lewinsky have that I didn't?

At a very basic level, Lewinsky had a Beverly Hills socialite for a
mother. Beverly Hills socialites, as everyone now knows, are a great
resource if you need access to influential Democratic fund-raisers like
Walter Kaye. My mother, on the other hand, is a second-grade teacher
for the Wichita Public Schools. This is a great resource only if you
need something laminated.

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But deeper lessons resonate from my failure to land a White House
internship. In spite of my own sad story, scores of non-politically connected young people land White House internships every
year. Furthermore, college students and recent graduates also find
internships at places like the United Nations, the National Forest
Service and Oregon Public Radio without the help of nepotism. Since I
also applied to and was rejected by all of these institutions in 1995, I
was left wondering if my failure to land a decent internship wasn't part
of some greater conspiracy.

Why hadn't my superior grade-point average and glowing extracurricular record made me a shoo-in for these positions? Who was behind this? Kenneth Starr? Linda Tripp? The military-industrial complex?

Three years of retrospect and experience has given me a pretty good
idea. For starters, good academic standing does not count for much in
the days of grade inflation. Add to this the fact that nearly everyone
has some sort of extracurricular nugget to put on a résumé, and you get
a better idea of how ambiguous the selection process can be.

But perhaps more than anything, internships are not standardized
academic contests: Internships -- whether they be for the White House or
a greenhouse -- are simply practical opportunities for young people to
experience a professional environment in exchange for menial work.
Thus, a wise internship applicant should rely less on scholastic
merit and good citizenship than on a clear understanding of what he
or she is getting into. In other words, not only should potential interns research the institutions they wish to work for, but they should also attempt to learn as much about their specific duties as possible. An application that
has been subtly tailored to this information stands a much greater
chance of being accepted.

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A big problem with my White House internship application was that I
tried too hard to make myself stand out. My résumé was eclectic and
quirky; my personal statement flouted convention to the point of being
entertaining. And while the internship coordinators might have enjoyed
the diversion, I was giving them too many excuses to toss my
application aside in favor of candidates who had marketed their
strengths to actual White House intern tasks of selfless drudge work and political elbow (or what have you) rubbing.

Internships are not, after all, designed to arbitrarily reward creative
people; they are designed to let students get a taste of the real world
without disrupting it too much. Thus, an internship application should
not read with the unpredictability of a Quentin Tarantino script, but
with the pre-marketed verve of a Syd Field-formula blockbuster. My
White House application essay was essentially a wink-wink nudge-nudge
humor piece on the futility of party politics, when it should have been
a well-crafted declaration of all-purpose patriotism. My résumé
joyfully pointed to the random versatility of being a summer-camp
backpacking instructor one year and a TV newsroom intern the next; it
should have blandly emphasized that I'd honed by people-management skills
on a cast ranging from unreasonable teenagers to irate call-in viewers. Had I
taken a few moments to simply consider the mind-set of my audience, I
might have realized this.

I now work in the English department of a Korean technical college, and
I review job applications from young Americans each semester. Since I
am accountable to my bosses for all of my recommendations, I have to
select applicants who I believe will be patient with low-level English
learners, flexible within an Asian work hierarchy and willing to work
long hours for mediocre pay. Applicants who list glowing achievements
and extensive leadership experience often get passed over for those with
humbler work experience and proven adaptability. In the same way, a
given intern's skills -- even at the White House -- must always match the
(often unglamorous) challenges of the intern job itself. Interns are
expected to observe the workplace, after all, not revolutionize it. (Although Monica Lewinsky seems to offer a vivid exception to this rule.)

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A final lesson from my internship failings of 1995 is that institutions
look for work history patterns among applicants in the same way that
detectives look for killing patterns among serial murderers. As much as
anything, I suspect the White House rejected me for the likes of
Monica Lewinsky because -- at age 24 -- I'd had no hands-on
experience in politics. Nor did I have organized social-agency
experience to offer the United Nations, scientific field experience to
offer the National Forest Service or first-hand radio experience to
offer Oregon Public Radio. I'd spent my early college days trying new
things and being a jack-of-all-trades, and this lack of consistency no
doubt left me looking a bit flaky on my résumé. A person who is
dedicated to politics as a freshman ups his chances of landing a White
House internship as a senior. Considering that my freshman year was
dedicated primarily to rock climbing, my internship rejections begin to
make more sense.

These days -- thanks to the luxury of hindsight -- I get a Walter
Mittyish sense of pleasure from imagining my application being
melodramatically flung from the acceptance pile moments after Walter
Kaye pulled the fateful strings for Lewinsky. But regardless of
how my application packet met its demise, it still stands as a good
example of how not to apply for an internship.

"Destiny," DeLillo wrote in "Libra," "is larger than facts or events."
For Lee Harvey Oswald, this might have been true. But for the rest of
us, destiny sometimes comes down to how we choose to present the facts
and events.

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Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

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