Published August 2001
A FEW years ago, the public was caught up in the debate over which stamp they preferred: the fat Elvis or the thin Elvis. This great public debate came to mind after Rep. Gary Condit finally came forward and spoke for the first time about his involvement with missing intern Chandra Levy. We can now decide which we prefer: the silent Condit or the speaking Condit. I, for one, preferred the former.
For months, commentators and analysts have debated the many faces of Gary Condit and searched for meaning in his fleeting image on the hoof from pursuing reporters. Various Gary Condits appeared on cable programs: chronic womanizer, sexual deviant, religious fraud, suspected murderer.
It turns out that Condit is simply a garden-variety reprobate who has nothing to say to justify his conduct beyond impulse. In a letter to constituents and a national television interview, Condit expressed his dismay over the attacks on his actions and insisted that he has been remarkably cooperative despite the fact that the police have accused him of being obstructionist in their investigation. In his interview, Condit was entirely perplexed why anyone would be critical of his conduct after the disappearance while he continued to refuse to answer direct questions from Connie Chung.
Of course, Condit makes for a rather unpersuasive victim of circumstance. Before the interview, he decided to speak only through his hired public relations expert, Marina Ein. Serving as Condit’s voice, Ein reportedly proceeded to meet with media to portray Levy as a harlot with “a history of one-night stands.” Condit never issued a statement denouncing such an account or stating that he would not tolerate aides peddling such stories.
In his letter to his constituents, Condit does not repeat the dangerous life of a D.C. harlot approach. However, the letter is not without subtle alternative theories. In a not-so-veiled reference to the suggestion that a serial killer is at work, Condit writes “I pray that she has not met the same fate as the other young women who have disappeared from the same neighborhood.” I do not know what is more dubious: prayers from Condit or the notion that a convenient serial killer is stalking Condit’s girlfriends.
The only interesting new information that we have learned about Condit is that he either does not understand or does not recognize the basis of the outrage against him. Few of us believe that there is any evidence to suggest that he murdered Levy. Rather, the moral outrage is in his reaction to the controversy. Within days of the disappearance, Condit adopted a criminal defense strategy more fitting a street thug than a member of Congress. He withheld information from the police, engaged in evasive legal maneuvers (like taking a private polygraph while refusing to take a police polygraph), lied to the parents of Levy, refused to answer a single question about his conduct, destroyed possible evidence, and spoke only through hired spokespersons. Everyday, the media would capture the demeaning picture of a congressman running like John Gotti between his office and the House floor.
Now after more than 100 days of waiting, we are left with a congressman who seems entirely comfortable in the role of the putative litigant, repeating robotic answers that were clearly crafted to say nothing. For example, after repeatedly citing his private polygraph examination as “proof” that he is innocent, Condit would not explain why he would not simply take a police administered polygraph examination given his faith in the technology.
Condit is not a confirmed murderer; he is a confirmed scoundrel. This does not mean that media criticism is unwarranted. Being a scoundrel in office should be a matter of public significance. As a member of Congress, you are required to assume some level of responsibility above mere self-preservation. A controversy can take a measure of a man. It is here that Condit came up so short. From the start, Condit’s overriding concern was himself. Condit did not hesitate to use the Levy family as an excuse for refusing to confirm the most basic facts about his relationship with their daughter. In areas like the alleged false affidavit that his lawyers prepared for another woman, Condit immediately blamed his lawyers for acting without his knowledge (a very implausible suggestion) then denied any relationship with the woman, then refused to say that the entire relationship was fabricated, and then attacked the woman as an immoral scandal chaser.
Condit feels entirely comfortable in insisting that he is a “moral man” because he is the sole inhabitant of his moral universe. For Condit, there does not appear to be an transcendent moral or ethical reality; only a morality defined by its consequences. He is unfortunately not unique. If you walk through Congress, you can meet members like Condit who seem half-formed and incomplete as individuals. Assuming political office at the age of 25, it is easy to see how a person can develop intense self-obsession and amorality – even when (as with Condit) you bill yourself as an advocate for religious values. Condit had nothing to say because he has nothing to offer.
I suppose that is why I preferred the silent Condit. The real Condit is more disconcerting because he is so transparent and so familiar. Condit simply does not understand that moral conduct often demands that we go beyond what is required and do what is right. He is not monstrous. He is terrifyingly mundane.