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Confessions of a Whitehouse Intern

Posted on 16th September 2009. 4 Comments

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“It’s all bigger, faster, brighter, cheaper…”

The Capitol BuildingThe United States of America – home of the supersize meal, breeders of the Bible Belt, and of course, the Leaders of the Free World. Who doesn’t love America? It’s all bigger, faster, brighter, cheaper, and if all else fails, at least you can shoot something. All this I was told to expect as I left for a two month internship in Washington D.C., with a Congressman from Illinois. I had an awful feeling I wouldn’t want to come home. What if England, our green and pleasant land, simply paled in comparison? Would the lure of the American dream be too enticing to resist? And just how many times would I be told my accent was cute?

Big questions, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Let’s start from the beginning. Capitol Hill, or ‘the Hill’ as its known, is the centre of all American federal politics. And aside from the odd theatre and a truckload of museums, there isn’t a lot else going on in D.C. other than politics. No one is from D.C., but what is predictable about the Hill is the influx of thousands of interns every summer. Widely hated by the Hill staffers, it’s an in-joke that D.C. is the world’s last outpost of slavery.

Before I describe my experiences in D.C., I should confess that my time in America was a very conservative one. I lived with Republican interns from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and worked in a Republican office. The Congressman I worked for was from the southern tip of Illinois, a very rural area and therefore strongly Republican. I found him great to work for – friendly and professional, eager to accommodate the interns. Politically however, I was shocked – my favourite moment was discovering he had sworn on a Bible that global warming wasn’t a disaster because only God could destroy the world. Now, to each their own, but that is not something you hear everyday in the House of Commons. I would argue it’s the sort of thing that will get you laughed out of the House of Commons.

Yet people in America do think like this – that’s why he’s on his seventh term in office. The line between religion and politics is dangerously blurred to an extent that makes me uncomfortable. An almost direct quote from a Mississippian-housemate sums this up: “I don’t know what side you’re on, but I’m on God’s side, and that’s the Right Man’s side.” Rather hard to argue with.

“It was a point of immense frustration for me, that my fellow interns could not see just how conservative America is.”

The second truth that very quickly emerged was that, from a Republican view at least, those fifty states are far fromReflecting Pool and Washington Monument united. The cultural and political ravines that lie on state boundaries really do make each feel like its own little country. Everyone is proud of their state, and will defend it vigorously from interference by Congress and the White House. For some, it’s a strong libertarian view: as I perceived it, ‘give me as much freedom as possible to be as conservative as I want’.
 

Then there is the matter of the strange political bubble in which the USA exists. Within this bubble, Obama is a raving socialist whilst the Campus Crusaders I lived with are political moderates. It was a point of immense frustration for me, that my fellow interns could not see just how conservative America is. The British stiff upper lip has been well and truly outdone.  

So what exactly does your average Hill intern get up to on a daily basis? It is the universally known and accepted fate of the intern to be lumped with the boring tasks – I kid you not, I stuffed well over one thousand envelopes. Not riveting perhaps, but its not those moments you go for. It’s going to a briefing with staff from the Department of Homeland Security; a luncheon with the Swedish and Irish Ambassadors; a meeting with a top lobbyist group – these are the reasons internships are so fantastic. Between the monotonous hours of data entry, the staffers gradually begin to trust you to draft floor speeches and attend briefings in their place. The most surprising thing I had to do? Deliver a dirty magazine to another office for someone’s birthday. The most diverting? Taking American tourists on a tour of the Capitol Building – their equivalent to the Houses of Parliament, it is home to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The looks of mild shock and dubious belief in the ability of an English girl to admirably tour an American cornerstone were many, but to be modest, I was damned good. I now know more about their history than I do ours, but never mind.

“….how to sum America up? Insane.” 

The White HouseAmerica also taught me the meaning of ‘using contacts’. My Chief-of-Staff advised I visit the British Embassy – after all, they work for the interests of the British Government and people. Upon emailing them, I received the prompt and abrupt response: No. So I emailed the office of the MP I do voluntary work for in Westminster, and what do you know? I get a phone call asking if I would like to come to the Residence for afternoon tea with the Ambassador. Thank you very much, don’t mind if I do – it really is all about who you know.  

How to sum America up? Insane. Never make the mistake of thinking the ‘special relationship’ means we are culturally the same. I had a fantastic time, met some interesting people and made some great friends, but to be honest I am glad to be home. I guess, in the end, the American dream just wasn’t a patch on pie ‘n’ mash, drizzly rain and high taxes…then again, maybe I’m the insane one.

Joanna Crew

4 Comments »

  • Jane said:

    Hi Joanna,

    I love your blog – my experience and thoughts on my recent visit to America are very similar!

    I’m actually a journalist at BBC Newcastle and thing your blog may make an interesting feature piece if you’d be willing to give me a phone number it would be great to have a chat.
    My email address is jane.bradley@bbc.co.uk.

    Best

    Jane

  • Calum said:

    Awesome read! Sounds like something I would love to do myself.

    If it is possible, would you be able to email me with some of the details of how you set this up?

    My email is c.j.c.adair@durham.ac.uk

    Cheers,

    Calum

  • Kristina said:

    Hello Joanna,

    Beryl pointed me to your article.I like your style of writing.Amusing and yet deadly serious at the same time.I think your comments on america are very astute. Keep writing.

    Kristina

  • Dave said:

    I’ve lived both in the States and in Britain, and I have to concur all the way!