I'll say this for former President Bill Clinton: He's a better, and more convincing, liar than California Congressman Gary Condit, a Modesto Democrat. Before Condit makes another TV appearance, he should hire Clinton's drama coach, Hollywood sitcom producer Harry Thomason, to teach him how to lie with a straight face.
Condit had that "deer in the headlights" look as he faced ABC's Connie Chung for a half-hour of tense questioning about 24-year-old Washington intern Chandra Levy, who has been missing for more than four months. Coming across as cold and calculating, more interested in his own political survival than the fate of Ms. Levy, the seven-term congressman followed his script and stubbornly refused to acknowledge an intimate relationship with the missing intern.
No one believed him including several leading Democrats, among them House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and California Gov. Gray Davis. Here's a sample exchange between Ms. Chung and Condit:
Ms. Chung: "May I ask you, was it a sexual relationship?"
Condit: "Well, Connie, I've been married for 34 years, and I've not been ... a perfect man, and I've made my share of mistakes. But out of respect for my family, and out of a specific request from the Levy family (which they deny), I think it's best that I not get into those details." I guess it all depends on how you define "relationship" - sort of like what "is" is.
The two things we learned for sure were that the 53-year-old lawmaker has been married to his long-suffering wife for 34 years and that he hasn't been a "perfect" husband. In fact, it appears that this conservative, family-values Democrat has been unfaithful with at least two other women, a flight attendant and a former staffer, who came forward to reveal affairs with the congressman. Last week, 39-year-old flight attendant Anne Marie Smith asked the Stanislaus County, Calif., grand jury to indict Condit for obstruction of justice for trying to pressure her into signing a false affidavit denying an affair.
The relationship question matters because Condit stonewalled the issue for two months, thereby hindering the investigation and depriving Washington, D.C., police of valuable information that might have helped them to solve the disappearance of Ms. Levy.
Instead of answering investigators' questions fully and completely, Condit parsed words and made them drag the information out of him. And then, after hiring a high-powered attorney and a public relations consultant, he gave himself a lie-detector test and pronounced himself cleared. All in all, it's been a desperate and pathetic performance.
His TV debacle was so bad that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd concocted a mock interview with the congressman. "It wasn't that hard," she wrote. "I simply called ... and promised I would wear my little Harley outfit, leave all my identification at home and sign an affidavit swearing that even though he's been married for 34 years, isn't a perfect man and has made mistakes in his life, he still looks like Harrison Ford" (who is separating from his wife, by the way).
Here's her first imaginary question:
Ms. Dowd: "Congressman, do you have any idea how ineffably creepy you were in your prime-time dive with Connie Chung and your other interviews? You came across like a poorly handled worm who would go to any lengths to protect a lackluster political career."
Condit: "Well, Maureen, I answered every question asked of me. So I answered every question, gave them every bit of the details in the interviews ... I never lied. Maybe they misunderstood." In other words, Condit is telling the truth and everyone else is lying.
Ms. Dowd confessed to a bad case of "Redemption Fatigue" involving "gray-haired, blow-dried scoundrels trying to sin 'n spin. I can't bear one more non-admission admission ... trashing the women challenging your version, wrapping yourself in semantics, blaming the media (and) indignantly portraying yourself as the victim ... It was sickening enough when the intern hadn't vanished." Indeed it was!
Condit's "handlers" were equally pathetic. His $500-per-hour attorney, Abbe Lowell - who defended ex-President Clinton during congressional impeachment proceedings - blamed the congressman's staff for putting out "misleading" statements. In Washington, where I served for several years, only the most despicable politicians blame their loyal staffers for their own mistakes. When NBC's Tim Russert was through with him, however, Lowell was wearing the same weary, hangdog expression as his client.
But the real victims in this sordid affair are the missing (and probably dead) Ms. Levy and her parents, who are desperately seeking any scrap of information about their daughter's fate. Instead of showing real compassion for their plight, however, Condit has continued to suggest that they must have been "confused" when they accused him of lying to them about his relationship with Chandra.
On the other hand, the Condit saga may have a silver lining, as suggested by University of Virginia political science professor James Ceaser in the conservative Weekly Standard. Ceaser wrote that the affairs of Condit and other high-ranking Washington politicians "have at last shown the world that the American capital is a sophisticated town, the rival of its European counterparts."
Perhaps the French will love us after all. It's a sad commentary on the state of morality in our nation's capital.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.