Vasche: Don't feel sorry for Condit; he tried to hide the truth

March 2, 2009 

condit

Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif. looks on during a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, June 12, 2001. (Joe Marquette / The Associated Press)

When the news broke 10 days ago about the pending arrest of a suspect in the brutal murder of Chandra Levy, the words of two people triggered two widely divergent emotions in me.

The words of Levy's mother, Susan, made me want to cry.

"We have a life warrant of sadness and loneliness," she told our reporter, Michael Doyle, in describing what life has been like for her and her husband, Robert, in the eight years since their daughter's disappearance and death.

"It's more bitter than sweet," she said of the news that came Feb. 20 in a phone call from the Washington, D.C., police chief. "This still leaves a hole in my stomach."

The words of Gary Condit, on the other hand, made me want to gag.

"It is unfortunate that an insatiable appetite for sensationalism blocked so many from searching for the real answers for so long," the former congressman told a Washington television station. "I had always hoped to have the opportunity to tell my side of this story, but too many were not prepared to listen."

There was sensationalism, to be sure, fueled incessantly by the tabloid press and TV's talking heads. But Condit was disingenuous if not dishonest to say he never had an opportunity to tell his side -- or that people weren't prepared to listen.

For weeks after Levy's disappearance in May 2001, Condit was evasive when asked about his relationship with the 24-year-old former Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto. He was evasive with investigators, and he was evasive with his constituents.

I was aware of that when I met with Condit a few months later. I had gone with Dick LeGrand, then our editorial page editor, to Condit's Ceres home in hopes of persuading him to talk to us, and through us, to the people who had placed their trust in him by electing him to Congress.

That didn't happen. Our conversation was cordial, but we didn't get any real answers, and I left perplexed and disappointed.

In August 2001, we -- The Bee's editorial board -- came to the difficult but inescapable conclusion that we no longer could support the man we had endorsed for every office he had ever sought.

On Aug. 12, we published an editorial that opened with these four simple words: "Gary Condit should resign."

We didn't come to that conclusion because of Condit's by-then reported affair with Levy. Or because somehow we believed he was behind Levy's disappearance; we didn't know. Our editorial explained our reasons:

"This paper -- and the people he represents -- have attempted to give Condit the benefit of the doubt, while urging him to speak publicly in detail about his involvement. He has refused to do that, even while disturbing details about his role have become public. Still Condit has offered no explanation, no defense, no remorse.

"For 15 weeks, Condit has put his own interests ahead of the effort to find Levy. His self-absorption has been a lapse not only of judgment, but of human decency. With Levy's life at stake, Condit knowingly hindered -- if not obstructed -- the police investigation into her disappearance, letting the trail grow cold. ... "

And, we continued:

"Resignation is the proper course because Condit has irrevocably violated the public trust. ... No one expects perfection from Condit or any other elected leader; legislators are human, as prone to flaws and failures as the people they represent. But we do expect politicians to be accountable for what they do or don't do."

Instead of stepping down, Condit continued on. Seven months later, though, his bid for re-election came to an end when he was soundly defeated by Dennis Cardoza in the March 2002 primary election.

A little more than two months later, on May 22, Chandra Levy's remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

From the day Levy was reported missing, to the day her body was found, to the day Condit left Congress, we covered the tragic and troubling story as accurately, fairly and comprehensively as possible. Was our coverage perfect? No. Could we have handled some things differently? Yes. Anyone who ever thinks they couldn't have done differently or better is a fool or a liar. But as the Enquirer, the Globe and the other tabloids published titillating rumors, and as the "experts" on Court TV and other talk shows speculated wildly, we worked hard to hold our coverage to the highest tenets of journalism.

Condit's own silence and strange behavior led to his downfall. His once-promising political career at an end, he headed for Arizona and a new beginning selling ice cream, filing lawsuits and now, we understand, planning to tell his side of the story in a book.

But, revisionism doesn't work. No matter how he may try to rewrite the past, no matter whom he and his backers try to blame, Condit wasn't the victim then, and he isn't the victim now.

Chandra Levy was the victim then, and her parents are today. For the Levys, there never will be a new beginning, only, as Susan Levy said the other day, "a life warrant of sadness and loneliness."

Reach Vasché, editor and senior vice president of The Modesto Bee, at mvasche@modbee.com.

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