Joleen McKay Confirms a Lot We Already Knew in the Condit Affair

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Joleen Argentini McKay is the woman who gave Gary Condit a Tag Heuer watch, in a box that he was seen surreptitiously jamming into an Alexandria, VA, garbage can a few weeks ago. Her entry into the Condit case has done more than give us the Condit equivalent of O.J. Simpson's Bruno Magli shoes. It has provided independent confirmation of a lot we already knew. First is Condit's preference for youngsters: his longstanding affair with McKay ended years ago, and yet she's still in her 20s. Second is the pattern of intimidation: McKay claims to have been told by Condit's administrative assistant Mike Dayton to leave her affair "in the past or it will ruin you."

But more important is what we didn't already know. First, the DC police investigation is much further along than we had suspected, and they have always considered Condit the prime suspect in Levy's disappearance/murder. They interviewed McKay?whose only connection to Chandra Levy is through Condit?just days after Chandra's disappearance. Last week there was an attempt by Condit's lawyers and staff to portray the fourth police interview (done in cooperation with the FBI) as some kind of friendly strategy session, meant to delve into Chandra's state of mind. Shame on CNN and NBC for swallowing this line. Particularly credulous was NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who announced, "People close to Condit say it wasn't even an interview. It was a working session, trying to develop this psychological profile." Yeah, sure. Of the quality broadsheets working on the case, the Los Angeles Times has been best at keeping its eye on the ball. The FBI, the Times revealed last week, has been on the case for a long time. And when they've interviewed staffers and mutual acquaintances, they've been much more interested in asking about Condit than about Levy.

Another important McKay revelation is the weird, Mafia-like relationship that Condit has with his top staffers, particularly Mike Lynch in his Modesto office and Mike Dayton in Washington, both of whom could now face charges for obstruction of justice. It was Dayton who drove Condit into Alexandria to dispose of McKay's watch. Worse, Dayton seems to have procured McKay for Condit in the first place. Dayton and McKay had a relationship in college, and Dayton introduced her to his boss by arranging for the three of them to go out for dinner, and then not showing up. Not everyone, obviously, can work on this basis. Joe Cotchett, Condit's California attorney, has quit. And his most vocal defender, the Washington-based p.r. specialist Marina Ein, has never even met her most famous client. Safer that way, probably.

There were reports last week that Condit's troubles were making it difficult for Democrats to get their message out. Those reports come from Republicans, and are not to be believed. But that's not to say Condit isn't causing his party a world of headaches. For one thing, the Democrats need to think about keeping Condit's seat in the California 18th. That's a really conservative district, and there's no way a Democrat could win a special election in it. So the House Democratic leadership has tried to extract from Condit a promise not to resign until the end of his term, by which time they hope to have a candidate to replace him. The problem is that Condit doesn't want to resign, period.

As they figure out what to do, Democrats are trying to fend off inquiries with spin. House minority leader Richard Gephardt got backed into an interesting corner last week when he was asked whether Condit could function as a high-ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Gephardt replied, "Well, we've had other cases here where members have been through an ethics investigation and no one has claimed that they should step aside. When Speaker Gingrich was in a long ethics process a few years ago, he was privy to all the information that's secret in our country?" Yeah, some people take excessive book advances, and some whack their girlfriends. Live and let live.

Spins of the Fathers

The Democrats have in general been spinning harder lately. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, interviewed by The Hill last week, sounded as if he were working off a list. Asked how he thought Bush was doing, he addressed, in order, probably the three most popular things Bush had done in recent weeks, and tried to cast them as weaknesses.

First, the tax cut, which Daschle described by saying that "we've already used up 75 percent of the projected surplus." That's like saying, We've already blown 75 percent of this month's budget on food, clothing and rent. Second, Bush's attempts, in Macedonia, to repair the fallout from the Clinton administration's Kosovo operation, which led both Russia and China to distrust American power as they hadn't since the Cold War. The way Daschle puts it is: "To see the two leaders of China and Russia embracing, and to recognize that, in part, we're pushing them closer together, is troubling to me." Third, Bush's largely successful second trip to Europe. "To have Tony Blair offer to be a liaison for the United States with other European allies," Daschle opined, "says a lot about the perception of our relationship with other allies."

Yeah, it says it's exactly the same as it's been in previous administrations, right down to the British prime minister's go-between role.

Bon Mot

Probably the most useful word in French that we don't yet have in English is the verb mediatiser. With this week marking the 20th anniversary of MTV, maybe it's about time we started to make use of it. When something gets "mediatized," it doesn't only mean there's a great deal of coverage of it. It means the event becomes incomprehensible without the media and, at its extremes, that the event wouldn't even exist without the media. So the mourning over Princes Diana?which simply wouldn't have happened if television hadn't stoked people's appetite to watch themselves doing it?was mediatized. The Gary Condit investigation?which has been televised, but is still taking place pretty much the same way it would have if television didn't exist?is not.

Nothing shows the thoroughgoing mediatization of American life more than polls, which are today designed not as measurements but as news events. Probably the largest single story in the first six months of the Bush administration was the silly New York Times poll from two months ago that announced Bush's poll numbers had fallen to 53 percent. That, of course, is neither a particularly high number nor a particularly low one but, again, the poll had nothing to do with measurement. It was just a signal to other members of the media to gasp collectively.

The same can be said of this week's Gallup poll about Dubya's reception abroad. Gallup asked: "Do you think leaders of other countries around the world have respect for George W. Bush?" And 47 percent of Americans replied: not much. Having been in Europe for the whole of the President's recent visit, I can attest that this is truly a "stunning new poll." Stunning for its irrelevance.

In a democracy, it's proper that citizens assess a president's conduct in foreign policy. But this poll is not about that. It's about citizens' assessments of foreigners' feelings. The poll only came to my attention when a television producer called me and asked me if I'd be willing to talk about Bush's diplomacy, and suggested I take a look at it.

But I realized that, if I chose to talk about it, I wouldn't be offering my opinion of Bush. I'd be offering my opinion of a polling company's opinion of a few Americans' opinion of various unnamed foreign leaders' opinion of Bush, in order to help viewers form an opinion of my opinion of a polling company's opinion of a few Americans' opinion of various unnamed foreign leaders' opinion of Bush.

The Bitch Is Back

That does not mean I'm losing patience with polls. I was having dinner two weeks ago with a French journalist who, apropos of a Franco-American couple we know whose marriage is exploding, made a midway-through-the-Calvados pontification: "Ah?," he sighed. "No one should ever marry a French man or an American woman." I signed off on part one, disagreed on part two.

If I'd read the revealing poll on first ladies done by Princeton Survey Research Associates last week, I would never have rushed to the defense of American womanhood. "What one word," PSRA asked, "best describes your impression of Laura Bush?"

Since PSRA had asked the same question of Hillary Clinton five years before, the poll allowed us to draw some interesting comparisons. The largest differences were on matters of decency: 72 people considered Laura "nice," versus only 13 for Hillary.

But let's leave aside adjectives like "nice," and "okay" and "good," along with matters of intelligence, on which both first ladies scored high, and get to the adjectives that give a deeper character comparison between the two. Laura's top adjectives were: ladylike, classy, quiet, conservative, loyal, motherly, dignified, elegant. Hillary's were: bitchy, bossy, aggressive and domineering. A followup question asks: "Thinking of the last four American first ladies, who comes closest to your idea of what a first lady should be?" And by this measure, Hillary (bitchy-bossy-domineering) beat Laura (motherly-dignified-elegant), by 31 percent to 6 percent.

That's enough to change one's opinion. Never marry a French man or an American woman.

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