Career Lessons from a White House Internship: Alongside a Stalker

—Amy M. Gardner

When someone sees my resume, the item I’m most likely to be asked about is my internship in the West Wing of the White House.  That is usually followed up by asking whether I know there’s a character named Amy Gardner on the “West Wing” TV show.  (Yes, I do, and I have a great – mostly true – story about how she really could be named after me.  And if you know any different, don’t tell me.  I like my version better.)  Until now, though, I haven’t publicly shared how I got that West Wing internship.  It wasn’t due to connections or networking and certainly not any special expertise.  Instead, I got my internship in the White House press office largely because of the lessons I learned from a stalker.  

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Let me back up a second, though.  None of this is to say that stalking or stalkers are good in any way, shape, or form – one of my friends is dealing with one right now and it is scary even as an onlooker.  But what I am (finally) admitting is how much I learned from working next to one until she was fired and later arrested (several times).  I’m not going to print her name and I have no idea what eventually happened to her beyond reading about her several arrests many years ago, but I am going to share the lessons I learned from her that continue to inform my own career path today. 

I found out during the summer of 1996 that I had been selected for a White House internship.  (Digression for Aaron Sorkin fans: This was a few years before the “West Wing” and was just a few months after the release of the movie The American President.)  After some follow up correspondence and calls, I learned I was picked for an internship in the “lower” press office in the West Wing. (That meant my desk would be right outside the doors to the briefing room.)  I was, in a word, ecstatic.  What could be a better fit for an English and political science double major and president of her college democrats chapter?  I finished my summer of working nearly every day, thrilled with the knowledge that every paycheck or tip from one of my two jobs was putting me closer to walking into the White House every day.    

I arrived in Washington, D.C. on a very hot September day with my suitcases full of suits purchased at the Madison, Wisconsin Petite Sophisticate and learned there had been a change in plans.  One of the summer interns had decided to defer law school at Penn to stay on for another semester of interning in the hopes of landing a full-time, permanent job as he debated whether he wanted to pursue law or politics.  As the person who was arriving last due to the start date of my college’s semester in Washington program, I had been reassigned to the Office of Presidential Messages in the Old Executive Office Building (“OEOB”), the huge building next door to the White House.

Basically, Presidential Messages was responsible at the time for reviewing all of the requests for messages that weren’t completely routine.  (So not 100thbirthday messages and more like a message congratulating Mavis and Jay Leno on an event for their charity.)  No West Wing or Wolf Blitzer sightings for me – I was going to be in an office led by a woman who had followed the Clintons from Little Rock and two other full-time women who were very kind to me, but worked in pure silence other than the constant ringing of the phone, surrounded by piles of message requests that were sorted, labeled, and fed to the office of writers next door.  There were two other interns, one of whom would turn out to later stalk a prominent White House staffer.  I’ll call her Beth. 

After we were introduced and she joined me for a tour of OEOB, Beth commented that I didn’t seem to know anything about the office.  No, I didn’t, I admitted.  She explained what she had learned about it so far and the research she had done to get the lay of the land.  Eventually I confessed that the reason I didn’t know anything wasn’t due to a lack of interest, but because I had just been assigned that morning and explained what had happened.  I will never forget her reaction – she immediately asked what I was doing to get moved to the West Wing.  I told her again what had happened and that I was sure it was for the best or some such platitude.  Beth said that someone staying longer could just as easily turn into someone else leaving early, and that if I wanted the West Wing, I needed to fight for it.  As a 21 year old who had trouble remembering to close my mouth when I glimpsed the Washington Monument, it had not occurred to me that my opinion about where I wanted to be an intern even mattered.  I was grateful to be in Washington, period, and the OEOB was thrilling.  How could I dare say a word when I was so fortunate?  

After a week of Beth’s prodding and with her edits, I wrote a letter to the staffer in the lower press office, letting her know I appreciated her consideration, was sorry things didn’t work out, and hoped she would keep me in mind if something changed. (That last point was entirely Beth’s idea.)  In the meantime, terrified that my supervisors in Presidential Messages would fire me for the mere suggestion I was anything less than thrilled to work in an office where celebrity visits were in the form of the handsome exterminator who came around regularly due to the pervasive rat problem in the office (I learned to never reach into a cabinet without holding the door open and looking inside carefully), I was sure to be the first to arrive every morning and was usually the last to leave at night.  

In my zeal to go over and above and be the best intern they’d ever had, though, I noticed some issues: message requests shoved in closed cabinets to make room for personal belongings, and legal pads full of notes of what to say if the owner ran into certain major figures.  At first I learned from all of this – being prepared with something to say if you run into your boss’ boss is not a bad idea.  (And one that I have remembered many times in my career when I haven’t followed that advice and have found myself tongue-tied.)  While you shouldn’t put assignments in places where they will be overlooked until a Senate staffer calls yelling about it, you should make space for yourself, even in an office where your time is designed to be temporary. 

Other issues were more major, and made me realize that something was off:  confidential documents that were not supposed to be copied but were left in the copy machine, confidential documents that were not supposed to leave the White House complex (like the president’s staff-eyes-only schedule) but were in the outgoing faxes.  Eventually, Beth was discharged from her duties – while I was never told exactly why, evidently she had been behind the confidential schedules being sent outside the White House and other issues.  I heard she had been seen around the White House or at events a few times after she left, and later that she was sentenced to jail time for stalking one of those White House big names after he had left Washington, D.C.

Shortly after she left, the director of the internship program came to Presidential Messages and told me to get my bag and come with her.  What had I done, I wondered?  Well, it turned out that Beth’s advice was right.  An intern in the lower press office – one of the ones who had arrived before I did – was being released from his duties, the manager remembered my letter, and my supervisors in Presidential Messages were grateful for the job I was doing there.  I wouldn’t go to the West Wing full-time because Presidential Messages needed me – especially since Beth would be leaving them short-handed already – but I began spending half of my time in the West Wing.             

In my time in the West Wing I learned a tremendous amount about the relationship between the presidency and the press (which became the topic for my senior paper when I returned to college), I got to meet many reporters I had grown up watching (usually because I had made the photo copies they unceremoniously grabbed from my hands), and saw the emotion and excitement of female reporters when Madeline Albright was nominated as the first female secretary of state and the highest ranking woman in the history of the United States government.  I even learned to ask the dress code after I made the mistake of showing up the day after Thanksgiving in work clothes when everyone else – including the press secretary at the time, Mike McCurry – was wearing jeans. I became an expert at fixing photocopy machines, running in heels, leaping to my feet when someone important walked into our office, and living off free crackers, Diet Cokes, and M&Ms from the White House Mess.   

Many of those experiences came about only because I was a West Wing intern, which would not have happened without Beth’s influence.  What lessons can you apply to your own career?

-      Be bolder than you feel.  It costs nothing to ask for what you want, as long as you do so in a way that is not demanding or rude.  It can cost much more in the long-term to keep quiet.

-      Whatever your job is, even if it is not what you expected, do it the absolute best you can. I have no doubt that if I had not been doing the very best I could in Presidential Messages, the press office would have snagged someone else.  

-      If something seems off, it just might be.    

-      Be prepared with something somewhat intelligent to say if you find yourself in an elevator with your boss’ boss or someone else you look up to.      

-      Make space for yourself in your office, even if it’s only temporary.  You shouldn’t move in, but you should find a way to make it clear you’re committed and expect to be there for the long-haul. 

-      When you see an opportunity, seize it.  When an intern from the Vice President’s Office called and offered me a seat on the charter flight to Little Rock to see a president be reelected, I am still glad 22 years later that I said yes.  If you’re asked to work on a day no one else wants to work but will give you time with your idols, say yes.  And don’t expect opportunities to come looking for you.

-      Make sure you know your boss’ expectations so you can surpass them.

-      And finally, look for the lessons.  You will hopefully never find yourself working alongside a future convicted stalker, but you will undoubtedly find yourself working alongside people who seem to march to a different drummer.  You can still learn from them.  

In the end, while it saddens me to think about the path Beth apparently went down, at the same time I’m grateful for the push she gave me to speak up, and the other lessons I learned as a White House intern.

What did you learn from an internship, or your most memorable coworker?