My anxiety and curiosity increased as I walked down the hall of the first floor of the Russell Senate Office Building. What was this job going to be like? Was the internship coordinator going to be intense and over-the-top? What about my fellow interns? Surely they’d be just as driven and ambitious as I was. Were the next six weeks going to be filled with competition, one-upmanship, and unbearable obsequiousness?
Despite having just rushed from the airport—hot, sweaty, and burdened with luggage—the reality of where I was and what I would be doing hadn’t really hit me yet. It seemed ages ago that I’d been accepted to Senator Rand Paul’s summer internship program and even longer ago since I’d spent all those late nights typing away at my computer, looking up email applications on the government websites of no less than three Senators and half a dozen congressmen. I only heard back from a few offices. After what I believed to be a slightly disastrous fifteen-minute Skype interview with a Rand Paul staffer, I had felt more certain than ever that I was not going to be accepted to my first choice.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about my companions’ dispositions. Although the other five interns were silent as I entered the reception area, it only took one awkward stab at an introduction to realize my co-workers were kind, friendly, and down-to-earth. With the exception of one returning intern from the previous year, everyone seemed just as surprised to be there as I did.
The only people more refreshingly genuine and levelheaded than my fellow interns were the regulars in the office. My supervisors—including the press secretary and the senior communications director—instantly made me feel like a part of the team and didn’t hesitate to give me interesting tasks to complete. They had me do everything from compile the day’s media mentions of the Senator to translate medical phrases into Spanish for his upcoming pro-bono trip to Guatemala.
Over the next few weeks, I accompanied the press team to various speaking events with the Senator, often finding myself awkwardly cramped up in a small elevator or car with one of my biggest idols. These situations were both exhilarating and painful. It’s difficult enough to have a meaningful conversation with someone who is constantly rushing from one interview to another. The matter becomes seriously more so when you’ve studied virtually everything there is to know about your companion but he’s never even quite learned your name.
Possibly the most striking aspect of Rand Paul’s staff is how young and passionate everyone is. I had anticipated an army of elderly, gray-haired advisers constantly reminding the Senator what he was and wasn’t allowed to say or do. While that may be true of other offices on Capitol Hill, nothing could be further from the truth in the office of Senator Paul.
I’d place the average staffer at no older than twenty-seven, including legislative and press staff. Several have been with the Senator since he first announced his candidacy in 2009.
And while there are always a few trusted friends on hand, make no mistake about it—Rand Paul calls his own shots. Love him or hate him, agree or disagree, the man’s opinions are his own, and he isn’t afraid to disagree with prominent staff members if he believes it’s the right thing to do.
Impressed as I was with how the staff seemed to be comprised of “true believers,” I was more surprised to see just how accountable the Senator was to his constituents. This paper, and others, have already remarked on the unique political coalition Rand Paul has managed to put together. Needless to say, the unusual conglomeration of tea partiers, non-interventionists, constitutional conservatives, and civil libertarians makes for a tricky, and perhaps impossible, balancing act.
Spending every Friday in the front office answering phones, I quickly learned the first brutal, incredibly infuriating rule of politics: you cannot please everyone. No matter how fierce or tempered the Senator’s position, there was not a decision made that did not inspire spirited opposition. Some called to say he was too soft, others to say that he was on the wrong side of the issue entirely. Being in agreement with much of what the Senator did, it was painful in a surprisingly personal way to be sworn at, yelled at, and lectured by not only Kentucky constituents, but haters and detractors from around the country.
Not only did everyone expect Rand Paul to be sympathetic to their specific position, they demanded that he have a position on any event they managed to pick up in the daily news, foreign or domestic. Speaking as an intern who literally spent the day with the news playing constantly in the background, I have no idea how they imagined a Senator could simultaneously vote, draft legislation, give an interview, and at once be totally aware of all the goings-on in the world. At times it was downright infuriating to feel you were working so diligently and sincerely only to be met with skepticism and criticism at every turn.
The realization that most people doubted the office’s every move was particularly humbling to someone as critical and skeptical of the political system as myself. As someone who is usually the first to point out the ulterior motives and hypocrisy of politicians, it was with some bemusement that I defended Rand from the daily accusations of flip-flopping, opportunism, and insincerity. And as libertarians as a whole tend to be the most unforgiving and mistrusting of political activists, it was both bittersweet and ironic to see my libertarian-leaning boss held to the highest of standards.
I would be remiss to write about Washington without at least mentioning the partisanship and gridlock that pervades there. In the less than two months that I was in the office, Senator Paul introduced some five or six bills aimed at reforming the criminal justice system. Rasmussen Reports confirmed that most of the measures were supported by seventy to eighty percent of the United States population, including solid majorities amongst social conservatives. And yet not one saw the light of day. Unfortunately, Harry Reid, determined to avoid difficult votes before the upcoming midterm elections and none too keen to allow a Republican to demonstrate the ability to govern, never allowed them to be brought up for a vote.
All in all, the experience was a positive one. Certain partisan or superficial aspects of our political system notwithstanding, I remain convinced of the ability of informed and persistent individuals to band together and enact lasting change.