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Insider’s Guide’ Tells Interns What To Know Before They Go to the Hill

If Grant Reeher and Mack Mariani have their way, there will soon be no more “do you remember the intern who” anecdotes at water coolers on Capitol Hill.

Reeher and Mariana are editors of “The Insider’s Guide to Political Internships: What to do once you’re in the door,” a new book that gives interns in national, state and local political offices advice on subjects ranging from exactly why shorts are never acceptable attire to how to use the Congressional Research Service and writing good constituent letters.

“There’s a big learning curve for interns,” Mariani said in a phone interview from his office in Monroe County, N.Y. “Undergraduate political science courses don’t really prepare students for work in Congressional offices. … [They] learn how to write a 10-page paper on Locke but not a constituent letter.”

Mariani, a doctoral student at Syracuse University and director of special projects for the Monroe Country Department of Communications, said the idea for the book kicked around in his head for years. The aide to then-Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) is himself a veteran of two Hill internships, one in 1988 for then- Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and in 1993 for Paxon. He says he was terrified, even after having earned his master’s degree, when he was asked to write a constituent letter.

“You stare at this blank screen, and there is pressure to do well, but no one even told you how to do it,” he said.

The book came together when Mariani contacted his former colleague and former House Commerce Committee staffer, Paul Scolese, and Grant Reeher, director of undergraduate studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. They assembled a cast of 14 former or current political aides, staffers and professors to write about what interns should — and should not — expect from their political internships.

Reeher, who teaches a course on political internships, says there are two factors making it critical that interns “hit the ground running” in political offices. First, employers and universities put increasing emphasis on internship experience; and second, the growing number of interns in each office increases the difficulty each intern has in standing out and being assigned real, interesting work.

“Congressional offices do think more deeply about intern programs [now],” Grant says of the shifting dynamics. “That’s the up side … they don’t want their interns standing in front of copy machines,” he added, “but then there’s this pressure to take in more students.”

The volume, released in September, is divided into three parts: a sort of “rough guide” to political offices, an introduction to conducting government research, and advice on writing constituent letters and press releases. There is also a chapter on “reading” internship experiences and some final words of advice from recent interns.

Some of the advice on internship “do’s and don’ts” may seem a little repetitive and obvious — for example, “don’t cook ramen in the coffee pot” and “when taking a [phone] message, take the time to do it right.” Yet, this sort of general advice on professionalism and discretion is accompanied by a great deal of specific information, such as what a scheduler and legislative director do and what it means to have an Orange or Blue security pass in the White House.

Reeher says he’s particularly pleased with the section on research, which has advice on using Congressional, executive, judicial and legal sources, from the Legislative Information System to the U.S. Code. “They almost stand alone [as a guide] to a separate kind of enterprise,” says Reeher.

And in the end, the somewhat hyperbolic emphasis on good office behavior may be the book’s most valuable contribution. Grace Yu, a former White House intern for Matthew Bennett, author of the White House chapter, says she believes the book is most useful as a guide to manage expectations.

“The internship handbook gives a comprehensive and nuanced account of internship experiences,” Yu wrote in an e-mail from Oxford University, where she now studies philosophy and theology. “It contains the nuts and bolts of office diplomacy, how people have broached difficult management issues, etc. … Essentially it is a guide on how to earn trust, which always translates into people investing in you.”

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