Don Juan in Hell: Is Gary Condit the Unluckiest Adulterer Who Ever Lived?

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The other day an interviewer asked me why?with so much important legislation on the table, from Pentagon appropriations to the Patients' Bill of Rights?everyone is making such a big deal about California Congressman Gary Condit's alleged relationship with intern Chandra Levy, who has been missing since April 30.

A good question! I mean, how do people manage to tear themselves away from reading the minutes of committee votes long enough to pay attention to the World Series? How can they stand to go to the movies, knowing that Congressman Rip Schnuddrucker of Ohio may come on C-SPAN at any moment to declare Aug. 20-26 National Soil Quality Week? One of those enduring mysteries of the human character, I suppose.

If the O.J. trial married the Lewinsky scandal and the two had children, they'd look like the Condit case. Condit is a seven-term congressman from Modesto, the most conservative Democrat in the California delegation. His wife of 33 years is virtually housebound, and stays behind in the district. Condit lives in Adams-Morgan, the swingingest part of DC. (Those who haven't visited Our Nation's Capital can get an idea of it by thinking of what the West Village would look like if it occupied one square block.)

Levy, a USC grad student who aspired to a career in law enforcement, was a kind of serial intern. Her DC internship, in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, followed stints in the offices of California Gov. Gray Davis and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Condit and Levy met last fall, when she and her friend Jennifer Baker made an impromptu visit to his Capitol Hill office. Baker was offered an internship. Levy, it appears, was offered something else. According to the Modesto Bee, last Dec. 23 Levy sent an e-mail to a friend saying, "My man will be coming back here when Congress starts up again. I'm looking forward to seeing him." In the same e-mail, Levy said she had told Baker her boyfriend was from the FBI, to throw her off the trail. At home for Passover two months ago, she told a relative she was having an affair with Condit.

After Levy's disappearance, her mother got her cellphone records and found 20 calls to one number. She called it, and reached Condit's private pager. Levy had made repeated calls to Condit on April 29 and 30, the last day anyone saw her. Her disappearance capped several months during which she told her landlord she might have to break her lease in order to move in with her boyfriend.

Condit has said only that they were "good friends." But if Condit wasn't the boyfriend Levy mentioned, who was? If he was such good friends with her, why doesn't Condit know who she was dating? Why did she want to dissemble to her dear friend Jennifer Baker, who worked for Condit, and nobody else? If that's not what Levy was doing, then where's the FBI guy? Who else has Condit's personal pager number?

DC assistant police chief Terry Gainer has said Condit is "absolutely not a suspect." Yeah, sure. Virtually everyone who's done deep reporting on the case?Fox News, The Washington Post, NBC and Slate?has reported that Condit is trying to stonewall the police. One police source told local Channel 4 news, "He isn't wildly anxious to talk to us, but he's not ducking us either." That's too generous. Condit made his first contact with the police as he was leaving town on May 7, a day after the Levy family called to enlist his help. According to the New York Post, when police showed up at Condit's apartment for an interview two weeks ago, Condit sent them away, explaining that it was "not a good time." No kidding.

Police sources also told The Washington Post that Levy had spent the night at Condit's apartment. Condit demanded that the Post retract its insinuation. The Post refused, and with good reason. The DC police may be one of the most deficient forces in the country when it comes to law enforcement, but they're tops when it comes to leaking.

Condit has hired two lawyers, the white-collar-crime specialist Abbe Lowell, who advised the House Judiciary Committee's Democrats during the Lewinsky scandal, and Joe Cotchett, a San Francisco acquaintance. Cotchett didn't help matters when he told reporters, "If she spent the night...she spent it out on a couch somewhere."

This is getting to be an embarrassment for Democrats. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has said of Condit: "He is as worried as everybody that this search succeed. And he wants it to succeed and is doing everything he can to help." But that's exactly what Condit has not been doing. If he has been wily in his dealings with the police, he's been positively incommunicado in his dealings with the press. Evening news footage has shown him bolting down stairwells and sprinting?sprinting?down corridors to avoid television cameras. (For most congressman, avoiding a camera would be prima facie evidence of psychosis.)

Condit's written statements?there have been several thus far?have been self-serving, disingenuous, even dishonest. "The tabloidization of these terrible circumstances can only cause more pain to the Levys," he said, "while at the same time doing nothing to help find Chandra." It's true that there are details favorable to Condit's character that haven't come out yet, and others that have been distorted. Much has been made of his posing for a "Hunks on the Hill" calendar, and of his nickname, "Mister Blow-Dry." But the calendar was a joke, a going-away present for Staten Island Congresswoman Susan Molinari. As for the Mister Blow-Dry moniker, I've interviewed Condit, and I've even spoken to people who think he's a sleazy creep, but I've never heard him called that.

Still, to say that tabloids are blowing this thing out of proportion is not only not true?it's exploiting the Levys' grief. There have been 550 missing-persons cases in DC this year. Have you read about a single one of the others? Of course not. The "tabloidization" is due to the rumor that Levy was involved with a congressman?a rumor that it is uniquely within Condit's power to dispel.

So why isn't he dispelling it? For a married man in his mid-50s, planking a girl three decades younger must have a lot to recommend it; if it didn't, it wouldn't be the favorite hobby of probably a third of our elected representatives. It is not, however, recommended as a strategy for picking up the soccer-mom vote. Condit told me in 1995 that his district was one that could easily swing Republican. It certainly has a big contingent of social conservatives.

Politically speaking, if he did her, he's done. That doesn't mean he did her in. But if Condit could talk about his relationship with Levy in such a way that it would burn off all this talk of an affair, he would. So this case is no longer a complete "mystery." It's a case in which we can be fairly confident that one of three things happened: either (a) Condit had an affair with Levy and killed her, (b) Condit had an affair with Levy and she killed herself, or (c) Condit had an affair with Levy and some bizarre subsequent mishap has turned him into the unluckiest adulterer who ever lived.

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