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Interngate: The Sequel

Fed up with sexual scandal, Washington has abandoned Gary Condit. His predicament is vulgar. But does that make him a plausible suspect?

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If you work in cable television, you may have prayed for it. But you never thought you'd actually see the same story line again in this lifetime: A doctor's twentyish daughter from California comes to Washington as an intern, falls for a politician twice her age, and confides the details to an aunt who lives nearby. The politician denies the affair, then admits it.

Newsweek documents a long pattern of womanizing. Before long, authorities are looking into charges that the politician has obstructed justice.

The parallels are remarkable -- blessedly, ratings-enhancingly -- but I'm more struck by the differences between the Monica Lewinsky saga and what is currently happening to Representative Gary Condit. Condit is facing his crisis virtually unarmed. He can't invoke executive privilege. He can't bomb Third World countries. He has no war room. His luck is terrible. Even his own flacks seem to bring him mostly bad publicity. Last week, "P.R. whiz" Marina Ein unintentionally got him on the cover of both New York tabloids in a single day.

Worst of all, Condit seems to have lost his friends. For critical weeks, fellow House Democrats said almost nothing in public about the scandal. Charlie Rangel finally weighed in, mostly to attack Trent Lott for attacking Condit. It wasn't a particularly vigorous defense. I asked Rangel if he would be willing to campaign or raise money for Condit in 2002. Rangel laughed. He didn't say yes.

Do Condit's colleagues privately believe that he committed murder? Do the police? Does anyone? Consider the evidence of Condit's guilt that has accumulated to date: Chandra Levy left her apartment for the last time without taking her handbag. This fact, according to political consultant and part-time criminologist Susan Estrich, is the key to the case: "The only two places I'd go without a purse," Estrich wrote in USA Today, "are the gym (which she had just quit) and the back of a motorcycle -- something I don't ride, but Condit does."

There you have it: Condit did it. On his motorcycle. The proof is in the purse.

No wonder Condit hasn't been arrested yet. There is no evidence that he was involved in Levy's disappearance, much less her murder. Everybody knows this. Still, no one seems to feel sorry for him. Why? Perhaps because his story evokes bad memories. The era of sex scandals officially ended in Washington two years ago. Causing a new one is considered a vulgarity -- a belch that smells like Clinton.

Or almost like Clinton. The aroma this time is slightly different. This is the straight-to-video version of the Lewinsky scandal. Condit is Clinton played by an actor you've never heard of. You almost expect him to have a porn-star mustache.

Even the tabloid coverage has a grainy look. A couple of weeks ago, the tabs reported that one of Condit's former girlfriends once found two neckties knotted together beneath his bed. This was offered as proof that Condit is a practitioner of "kinky sex."

Kinky? Chicken blood is kinky. Batman costumes are kinky. The "anal-oral contact" famously listed in a Starr Report footnote is kinky. But neckties? Maybe in Modesto. In Washington -- resolutely square, no-casual-Fridays Washington -- they're yesterday's sex toy.

Which may be the real moral of the story: Sexual snobbery is at work here. News accounts portray Condit as a blow-dried cheeseball, a farm-team pickup artist in polyester pants. For all the reports of his widespread womanizing, Condit never comes off as a playboy. You can't picture him having an interesting affair, with travel and decent hotel rooms. It's easy to imagine him cruising for chicks in some racquetball club in central California.

And there are people who would like you to imagine it. The Levy family, for one. The D.C. police, for another. Both have motives for keeping Condit in the news. The Levys want the police to continue searching for their daughter. Intensive press coverage, they realize, is the quickest way to get the police to act. Stories about sex and congressmen are the most likely to receive intensive press coverage.

It makes a kind of sense. But it's still an ugly bargain. The next time you read a detail about Chandra's affair with Gary and think, "It must be hard for her family to see things like that in the newspaper," remember that if it weren't for the family, you wouldn't be reading it. We know that Condit and Levy had an affair because Levy's family confirmed it, then continued to feed the story with media interviews.

The police have an even more straightforward reason for tormenting Condit: ass-covering. The D.C. Police Department is legendarily bad. Washington cops bungle more investigations, solve fewer murders, get arrested for corruption more often, and shoot more people by accident than any American Police Department I'm aware of. Locally, they're a joke. (The good news is, they're rarely around, so you can usually drive as fast as you want in the District.)

Not surprisingly, the D.C. police screwed up the Levy investigation from the beginning. And that would have been the headline, if it weren't for Gary Condit. Condit gives the department perfect cover for its incompetence. Of course Chandra Levy is still missing, the cops imply; Congressman Condit hasn't fully cooperated.

Except that Condit has cooperated, and about as fully as anyone could. He has been questioned by investigators three times, with the juiciest details leaked afterward to the Washington Post. His apartment has been searched. He has given a DNA sample. When the cops wanted to talk to his wife about his mistress, Condit set up the interview.

Still, police pretended not to be satisfied. So Condit underwent a polygraph test, given by an examiner with 35 years of experience in the FBI. He was asked if he had harmed Chandra Levy or knew where she was. He said "no." The test indicated Condit was telling the truth.

The cops scoffed, dismissing the test as "self-serving" because Condit's attorneys set it up. A police spokesman said the department wanted a new test, this one administered by a current employee of the FBI. But if Condit had been able to beat one exam, as the cops implied, why wouldn't he be able to beat another?

Good question. Not that anyone asked it. Not that it matters. Condit has no plans to take another lie-detector test. It wouldn't help anyway. His life in Washington is already over.


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