Twenty years from now, when my baby daughter is on the brink of full adulthood, I will tell her about my experience as a 20-year-old intern in Washington, D.C.
A decade ago, I headed to the District for a month-long stint in a Senate office. Like most dreamy-eyed and ambitious young women in the Beltway, I was high on the glamour and history of our august Capitol, in awe of all the important men who rustled and hustled in dark tailored suits, and impressed with the media entourages that trailed the politicians like starved ducklings.
The internship itself was uneventful. I sorted mail, answered phones, and ate lunch every day at Union Station. Seeing Washington up close -- the constant yammering of Big Government lobbyists, the mean condescension that congressional staffers showed constituents, the vulgar hubris of pasty-faced pols who hid behind thick layers of pancake makeup and cared more about their toupees than my taxes -- helped dispel the magical hold the place had had on me.
The most important lesson I learned, however, came before my internship even began. Several weeks preceding my arrival in Washington, I got a call from an East Coast congressman. My college had sent out notices requesting help for interns in need of temporary housing. The congressman offered me a room in his Capitol Hill residence -- for free. He was married and had a family, but lived alone in D.C. while Congress was in session. How generous, I thought. And how exciting.
Here was a big-time public official calling me, inviting me to live with him for a month. I bragged about it to friends. I couldn't wait to move in.
My parents responded to the idea with alarm and suspicion. I still remember the stiff, clear warnings they gave me over the phone:
You can't stay there by yourself with that man. You don't even know who he is. We don't care if he's a congressman. We don't care if he's the president. You're too young. This isn't right.
Naive and stubborn, I resented their opposition. Why were they treating me like a child? Why did they want to ruin my Capitol adventure before it had even begun? Yes, the congressman's offer was a little strange. A little voice in my head echoed everything my mom and dad had said. But I wanted a taste of the glamorous, inside-the-Beltway life. Only a prudish fool would turn down this innocent arrangement.
A few days after the congressman had extended his offer, I still had not made up my mind. Then I received a call in my dorm room that sealed my fate. It was the congressman's wife. In a brief and bizarre conversation, she started pouring her heart out about the difficulties she was having with her husband. She asked me not to come. She cautioned me that it wouldn't turn out the way I thought it would.
Yikes. I was just looking for a place to stay -- not a real-life role in the D.C. version of "Days of Our Lives." Freaked out, I immediately turned down the invitation, thanked my parents for their good sense, and ended up staying with relatives in a Maryland suburb. Boring, yes, but safe.
As the strange, sad saga of missing intern Chandra Levy and her 53-year-old married lover, Calif. Rep. Gary Condit, unfolds, I think about how best to immunize my own daughter from the romantic flu that often infects unprotected young women dazzled by the attention of older men. I will warn my girl to always be wary of good intentions. I'll urge her to always heed that nagging, inner voice telling her what she doesn't want to hear.
And, as she ventures out into the world, I'll teach my daughter that the most dangerous lechers and creeps are not drunks on the street wearing rags, but respectable men lurking in the halls of power wearing hairspray, pinstripes, and wedding rings.