Intern Flops: A guide to what not to do (or wear) on Capitol Hill

Flippity flop. Flippity flop.

Some sounds are unmistakable — raindrops, crickets or flip-flops thwacking along marble floors.

Summer intern season is in full force, with as many as 30 packed into some Senate offices and House legislative rooms filled to the max. As much as programs offer detailed explanations of what to wear and how properly to conduct oneself in a congressional office, many interns still defy the suggestions.

“I saw one guy one day wearing jeans and flip-flops,” remarked a Democratic Senate legislative director who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think it’s hideous when I see people wearing flip-flops.

“They need to exercise common sense when dressing business-casual — emphasis more on business than casual. I’ve seen too many interns who don’t take it seriously enough.”

Naïveté can be troublesome. “Interns across the city face a sartorial conundrum when they land, in all of their flip-flopped glory, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol,” said Rachel Cothran, who writes a fashion blog, www.projectbeltway.com . “It makes sense that these young women haven’t yet stocked their closets with weeks’ worth of professional and stylish clothes; however, there is no excuse for showing up to work in too-tight poly-blend black pants. This is Longworth, not Lotus.”

A Senate Democratic press aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he cannot speak for his office on this topic, agrees that club-wear is not suitable for Congress. “If you wear it to the club, don’t wear it to Congress,” he said, adding: “This advice applies only to the Senate side because it seems to me just about anything flies in the House, including flip-flops — and not the John Kerry kind.”

How should interns behave while in the office?

“Everyone in my office is really laid-back, open and friendly, but I have heard that some offices are full of snooty girls and Napoleon-complex guys,” the aide said. “The best advice is be flexible and socially conscious. It’s good practice because dealing with all sorts of personalities is a major part of politics.”

Crystal Hayslett, constituent-relations manager for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), never worried about being one of those scantily attired receptionists. She interned for Alexander from August to December of 2005 before coming to work there full-time. “Working for the government is a conservative job,” she said. “I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.”

Hayslett’s skirts always skim her knees or below. Before coming to Washington, she said, she phoned the intern coordinator to find out what she was supposed to wear. “When I first came we were more laid-back,” she said. “When September came we had to suit it up a little.”

Cothran, the fashion blogger, added, “Interns always tend to look either too casual, too slutty, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, too old. Some words of advice: Structured jackets and what my mom likes to call ‘little sweaters’ are your best friends.”

Hayslett’s advice for interns: “Try to take advantage of anything people throw at you, not like ‘Oh, God, they’re giving me something else to do.’”

And something else: Get out and enjoy the city.

Brian Wall, 18, has been an intern for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) for less than a week. Working in the Rayburn House Office Building can be confusing, so getting out and learning the city may not be on the top on his agenda. “Yeah, I got lost today,” the skinny teenager with glasses admitted. (But who doesn’t get lost in Rayburn?)

Wall, who comes from Gold River, Calif., is bunking with his aunt in Bowie, Md., for the summer.

Also in Lungren’s office is Jeff Deneen, a 50-something summer intern who won’t give his exact age. Lungren is known for having older interns — the LD is former dean of Trinity Law School in Los Angeles, so many interns come from there.

Deneen is a former bathing-suit manufacturer, so it’s questionable whether he understands the dos and don’ts of Capitol Hill attire.

“I might be the oldest, but I’m certainly not the dumbest,” said Deneen, who was clad in gray trousers, a blue button-down shirt, purple tie and peach suspenders.

Hayslett can relate to other interns’ newness. “When I came here I was very sheltered, very scared to get out,” said Hayslett, who comes from Martin, Tenn., a town of 5,000. “Mainly I wish I had done that before waiting until the last month.”

Hayslett’s internship turned into a full-time job. “They just called me, I didn’t apply for it,” he said. “You never know who’s watching you.”

Flippity flop. Flippity flop.

A19-year-old intern with long blond wavy hair and blue eyes works in a House Democratic office. Before she arrived on Capitol Hill she was “extremely nervous” about coming here. “My parents told me I have to dress nice, no revealing things, nothing too tight,” she said.

That said, she sees nothing wrong with wearing flip-flops around the office. She follows the lead of female superior officemates who keep several pairs of shoes underneath their desks and wear the beach shoes around the office. So she follows suit.

An older blond aide explained to her what some may deem the obvious — that sometimes when your shirt is too high and your jeans are too low, skin happens.

It’s not obvious to all. Even in a day and age where intern-preparation programs are at an all-time high, mistakes are made.

“First and foremost, be on time,” said Tony Reinhard, intern coordinator for Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). “Dress professionally and always ask for more work to do. Those are the best interns.”

Reinhard supervised one “bad intern” who committed the cardinal sin of wrong intern moves — he didn’t show up. The intern said he came to the office at 8:30 a.m. and had a — God forbid — tie on during a recess day. “He said he had an issue with having a tie on, so he left for the day,” Reinhard said. “Two hours later, he e-mailed me. You read that and you go,
‘What the [expletive]?’ Needless to say, his internship was terminated.”

So what makes a good intern?

“I want someone who is interested in what we’re doing,” Reinhard said. “I want someone who is willing to do what is asked of him.”

 Brian Kaveney, spokesman for Lungren, was about as willing an intern as they get. In 2005 he left Booze Allen Hamilton to intern in Lungren’s office. He took a serious pay cut but wouldn’t specify how much he sacrificed. At 32, he came to Lungren’s office and started off as any intern does — he answered calls, wrote letters and gave Capitol tours.

As far as dress, he was well prepared for the sea of suits he encountered. “I knew not to wear my Iron Maiden T-shirt,” he joked.

Michelle Mitchell also started off as an intern for Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), but eventually landed a job there. “It was overwhelming,” she said. “I was wide-eyed about everything.”

Now older and wiser, she said, “The young ones don’t get it. They are more casual [and wear] more high-cut skirts.”