Pulp nonfiction

National | A congressman admits he had an affair with missing intern Chandra Levy, but his troubles grow

Issue: "More than a warlord," July 21, 2001

in Washington&151;Novelists often portray Washington as a swamp of power, lust, and intrigue, where an array of temptations leads people to tragic ends. But sometimes the story unfolds as nonfiction instead of pulp fiction. Only months ago, 53-year-old Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) was an obscure congressman in the capital, but one who was very popular at home, winning by landslides in his Modesto-based district. Now he's at the center of an exploding national media focus on 24-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern Chandra Levy, who's been missing since April 30. For weeks, as national attention to the case grew, Mr. Condit insisted that he had been only "good friends" with the young intern, but the congressman's attempts to control the story unraveled. Ms. Levy's aunt, Linda Zamsky, said her niece told her of the affair with Mr. Condit, and that he insisted on strict secrecy about their meetings. She added that Ms. Levy was aware that Mr. Condit had initiated other extramarital relationships, but that he was pleased with how "she was being very flexible. She was being easygoing. She didn't make demands on him." Flight attendant Anne Marie Smith claimed that she, too, had an illicit relationship with Mr. Condit, and that Condit attorneys pressed her to sign a false statement declaring, "I do not and have not had a romantic relationship with Congressman Condit." Mr. Condit denied encouraging anyone to lie to investigators, but in his third interview with D.C. police on July 6, he finally confessed that he and Ms. Levy had a sexual relationship. Furious that Mr. Condit lied about the affair, Ms. Levy's parents insisted he undergo a lie-detector test about the young woman's whereabouts. Once the adultery admissions and obstruction allegations kicked the story into a new stratosphere, Washington began seeing connections between the Gary Condit and Bill Clinton intern scandals. Both men wrongly assumed that their much younger lovers could keep their affairs with powerful men a secret. Both faced allegations of doctoring testimony. Both scandals degenerated into a circus of spin control, with both men relying on top Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell to deflect the truth about their behavior. And despite private complaining, supposedly feminist Democrats circled the wagons around their intern-exploiting colleagues. In another parallel, journalists deplored having to focus on such a tawdry tale. Nationally known columnist David Broder scolded that while murders of black children go unsolved in Washington, "Here we've got a well-connected woman who has disappeared. The police are still saying they do not believe there's a crime, and the press is obsessed with it. What does that say about our values?" But Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center said that the most dogged reporters on the missing-intern story were performing a valuable service as a watchdog on those in power, and protested the Condit camp's Clintonesque attempts to make reporters feel bad about covering the story. "Lewinsky was one thing. Here it's more outrageous. Someone has possibly met an untimely end, and some people are saying 'we shouldn't be involved in these sexual matters.' Can people get away with anything by adding a sexual component to it?" And also like the Clinton scandal, the Condit revelations reveal the temptations facing powerful men in Washington. In an interview on the tabloid TV show Inside Edition, former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) told of his shock at discovering this son of a Baptist minister, a man he met in a Bible study class, at the center of such a scandalous mess. "The Gary Condit that I came to know was a good, decent man," he said. "Gary Condit would be one of the last people I would imagine, from my years in Congress, that I would find in the middle of a story like this." But Mr. Lazio also knows about life on Capitol Hill, with members of Congress often leaving wives and children at home in their district and spending much time with congressional staffers and government workers who are young, single, and a few years out of college. "If you're the kind of person that has affairs or looks for opportunities, you're not going to have a very hard time finding them in Washington," Mr. Lazio said. While Mr. Condit's new status as the congressman from Dateline NBC spurs resignation talk and gossip about successors, party spokesmen are staying mum for fear of looking crass while the search for Ms. Levy continues. "We have no comment," insisted National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. But Mr. Condit's popularity back home is fading, and like many fictional Washington page-turners, this story threatens to end with the moral that giving in to corrupt urges can lead to very earthly punishments.

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