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White House Internships Put Students at Center of Storm

By Ioana Patringenaru I January 17, 2006

Intern Richard Lim has fun posing as press secretary in the White House press room.

Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast. Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination was in trouble. President Bush's approval ratings were at an all time low in some polls.

UCSD students who interned at the White House this past fall found themselves in the middle of a perfect political storm and an historical crisis. Still, the experience was awe-inspiring, they said. "We all felt we were very lucky to be there," said Richard Lim, 22.

Working at the White House makes you realize how complex government really is, said Jessica Baker, 22, who interned at the White House at the same time as Lim. "A lot of times, people blame the president," she said. "But he has no easy decisions."

Lim and Baker both studied political science. He worked for the scheduling office; she worked in the office that acts as liaison between the White House and local elected officials.

Interns eat at the White House Mess with Ruben Barrales, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, who invited them. Barrales is second from the right. Intern Jessica Baker, who worked for him, sits on his left.

Both said they had their hands full during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lim helped take apart the president's schedule, which is often set years in advance, to make room for repeated trips to the Gulf Coast. He researched venues for the president's appearances to make sure that they were secure and weren't controversial. He had to pay attention to every detail, he said, pointing out that everything he did would be saved as a presidential record.

"You don't want to mess up in the White House," Lim said.

Baker helped contact Gulf Coast government officials, tirelessly answering phones and faxes. Both Baker and Lim dismissed accusations that the White House hadn't done enough after Katrina hit. Staff members put in 12 to 14 hour days, and held meetings upon meetings with New Orleans officials, Baker said. Lim had family who was driven out of New Orleans by Katrina. He helped sort donations for hurricane victims. He also attended a service for victims at the National Cathedral. Praying there was one of the high points of his experience as an intern, he said.

Intern Richard Lim poses in front of Lincoln's portrait, in the White House's State Dining Room.

Other highlights included meeting White House political celebrities, including senior adviser Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Rove is surprisingly funny, Lim said. He told interns about meeting President Bush for the first time. Card told them about working at McDonald's for years. "You really got the sense he understood where we were coming from," Lim said of Card.

And, of course, both Lim and Baker said one of the most memorable moments was meeting President Bush himself. He met with interns at the end of their stints for a brief discussion. Lim and Baker said they support the Bush administration, but wondered what the president would be like in person. TV programs sometimes seem to paint an unflattering picture of his intelligence, Baker said. Lim said he found the president was a man of conviction, who looks far into the future.

Asked what he wanted his legacy to be, President Bush talked about peace and how bringing democracy to the Middle East would help change the region in the long term, Baker said. At home, the president said he hoped he would be remembered for his faith-based initiatives. "People asked him questions and he didn't have notes and he would give the most intelligent answers," Baker said. "He could answer anything and everything and enjoyed doing it."

When it comes to their own future, both Lim and Baker are looking for jobs and plan to go to law school. UCSD student Sarah Starcevich also worked at the White House this past quarter.

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