Condit de Canard: Levy/Condit Crosses the Atlantic

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PARIS ? It really tickled me the other day when, from a friend's office, I downloaded all the Condit news from America, and saw the way Texas Democratic Rep. Max Sandlin had responded to a question about whether Condit should resign: "I don't think that's my decision to make. That's a decision for others to make." But Sandlin was being asked for an opinion, not a decision. Can you imagine watching sports with such a guy? Your team is one run down in the eighth, and you have a man on first with one out. You ask Max, sitting next you on the couch, if he'd send the runner. "It would really be inappropriate for me to say," Max replies, "as I'm neither the baserunner nor the manager."

It's only in the last few days that the Gary Condit saga has blossomed into European newsprint, and nobody here?not a single man-jack of a journalist?has yet shown he understands it. Last week, Libération, the most left-wing of the big French dailies, even construed DC police chief Charles Ramsey's pronouncements that Condit is not a suspect to mean he's been cleared. Surely there exists a French-English dictionary comprehensive enough to clue in the editors of this paper that, in this context, "He is not a suspect" is broadly synonymous with We want to take maximum advantage of his openness until we arrest him.

Martin Kettle of England's Guardian blames the U.S. press for the scandal. "For a media which may have found itself missing the chemistry of a juicy Washington scandal following the departure of Bill Clinton from the White House," Kettle writes, "the affair of the errant middle aged male politician and an ebullient female former intern from California has been the answer to a collective prayer." Leave aside the Guardian-ese ("may have," for instance, which ought to appear in the Encyclopedia of Journalism under the entry "Weasel Words"; or "male politician," which is a pearl of p.c. worth crossing the Atlantic to harvest). It's preposterous to think that American journalists in general can't see the distinction between prying into the details of an office affair and gathering facts about a woman who has either been murdered or (less likely) is at this very minute in a desperate situation.

Granted, some American journalistic outlets have not been able to draw that distinction. But they err on the side of not covering the story. Take CBS, for example, which as of midweek last week had hardly deigned to mention the story, and was even rather chuffed up about itself for its reticence. Their reasoning is so subtle that maybe you have to be in France to understand it. It's that (a) Yuh, okay, maybe it's kind of important that the known mistress of a powerful congressman has disappeared without a trace and murder is suspected, but (b) we were really embarrassed about two years ago because we dug and dug and dug into a silly office relationship the President had, and we never gave a thought to the serious constitutional issues involved, because they didn't interest us, so (c) we're going to stop investigating any kind of abuse of power?even an all-but-alleged murder?any time the malefactor can claim we're just interested in digging dirt on him. He who fucks, walks.

This kind of perversity has its parallel in France, too, although it takes the form of what right-wingers here increasingly call la francophobie française. Anyone who still believes the French are a collection of self-loving, chauvinistic Vive-la-France prats would learn a lot from the last week's French newspapers. As the International Olympic Committee anguished in Moscow over whether to award the 2008 Olympics to Paris or to Peking, Le Monde ran a front-page editorial by one Francis Deron entitled "Olympic Games: Vote for Peking!" The gist: Paris is the perfect place for the Olympics, with all the most modern athletic facilities, a wealth of hotel rooms?and besides, it's a democracy, in which people don't get tortured for mentioning that they're religious. Therefore, it doesn't need the Olympics.

The Europeans, in fact, are picking up the Condit story at precisely the moment where Condit's role in it is becoming less and less ambiguous. If we grant, arguendo, that Condit is not a murderer but merely one of the most selfish men who ever lived, we can come up with a reason why he would have withheld information about Chandra Levy that might have saved her life. It's that he's in love with his political career, and he runs in a district where adultery is unforgivable.

But once stewardess Anne Marie Smith revealed an affair with Condit that had continued until a couple of months ago, and once her statements were verified by Condit's driver, and once Chandra Levy's friends had told cops of Condit's secretiveness about their relationship, and once Chandra's aunt Linda Zamsky had confirmed virtually everything Smith and the friends and the driver had said?well, then the adultery cat was totally out of the bag, and there was no longer any constraint of the Machiavellian kind on Condit's truth-telling. So what kind of constraint was there that kept Condit from helping police and the Levys solve Chandra's disappearance and probable murder? Especially since the Levys' attorney Billy Martin is right that "he of all people would know her state of mind" at the time she disappeared.

When Condit volunteered to submit to a DC police search of his apartment, the CNN footage of which was seen all around the world, the cops let it be known that they wished they had been permitted to turn the place upside down much earlier. And when Condit agreed to submit to a lie-detector test, his lawyer Abbe Lowell behaved as if the scandal at issue were still a matter of a sitting president trying to hide the most intimate details of his love life from his political enemies. Lowell tried to negotiate the police down to asking Condit just a limited range of questions?which experts in such matters say renders the procedure useless. (And it turns out, he got the result he wanted.)

I have always assumed lie-detector tests were useless to begin with. What they measure is not truth but stress. That is, they're based on the preconception that liars are nervous and truth-tellers are confident, which I believe to be a very erroneous preconception. But Condit doesn't think that. Since he appears to believe lie-detector tests work, his attempt to narrow the scope of questioning amounts to more stonewalling. This from a man who already appears likely to face charges of witness tampering and obstruction of justice due to his efforts to get Smith to sign a false affidavit.

So people are wrong to draw the Clinton comparison. Condit claims he hasn't spoken thus far so he could keep the focus off of him and place it on "finding Chandra." Now, "finding Chandra" may look like it serves the same purpose that "doing the business the American people sent me here to do" served for Clinton during Monicagate. But as the days pass, it's beginning to look more like what "finding Nicole's real killers" was to O.J.

Gore: La Fête Continue

My visits to Paris, which aren't exactly frequent, have overlapped with Bill Clinton's so many times that I'm beginning to feel like one of his staffers. I just missed his last trip here, when, accompanied by James Carville, he gave a speech on "War or Peace in the Middle East" to?no fooling?the Paris Golf and Country Club. But I did hear an interesting story from someone who saw him.

At the funeral of Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley in June, Clinton and Al Gore supposedly met for the first time since the aftermath of last year's election. Marjorie Williams' big Vanity Fair piece about the star-crossed?to put it kindly?Clinton-Gore relationship was on the minds of a lot of people at the funeral, so some thought it was telling that Clinton and Gore were sitting, not next to each other, but separated by House Minority Whip David Bonior. Since front-row seats at funerals are usually figured out in advance, you'd think such speculations were misplaced. But not in the case of Al Gore, where anything that can go wrong usually does. What happened is that Gore arrived at the funeral when it was already fairly packed, and saw he hadn't been put anywhere near the front. So he pushed his way up and sat in the seat that Moakley's family had reserved for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, between Bonior and Ted Kennedy's wife Victoria Reggie.

This story is not a secret; The New York Times published an account of it in the days after the funeral. But there was something about hearing the story from a Clinton intimate?and knowing that Gore is the type of person his intimates snicker about when they meet up after a long absence in foreign countries?that added another dimension to what is already a many-splendored sad-sackery.

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