(Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2001)
This much we know is true: Chandra Levy is missing.
The bright young woman with wild dark scribbles of hair vanished from her Dupont Circle apartment, carrying with her only her house keys. She was supposed to return from Washington, D.C., to California in May. Instead, she disappeared, leaving her parents in Modesto distraught and frantic -- and providing the rest of us, in our well-rehearsed role as the nation's voyeurs, with the summer's most lurid real-life mystery.
At least, that's the way it's being treated in the tabloids and in much of the mainstream media. It has all the ingredients: A Washington intern. A married congressman. Their affair, which he reportedly confirmed to Washington authorities over the weekend. Her disappearance. His evasions, which have created the perception that he has something to hide.
And, finally, the spin: the readiness of Robert and Susan Levy as well as Rep. Gary Condit to hire high-powered Washington attorneys and public relations people to manipulate public opinion, bending the truth to serve their own purposes.
In Sacramento and across the country, people are talking about Chandra Levy and the congressman, finding clues in the most mundane of details, filling in the blank spaces with conjecture, refusing to let truth get in the way of a good story.
In Joan Didion's hands, this could be a novel of power and privilege and the prices paid, an ironically detached story of the emotional seaminess underneath a placid Central Valley surface. There would be descriptions of sky, of fields, of languishing neurotic spouses. It would be fiction, and you'd put it back on the shelf when you were through reading it.
But this is truth: A young woman is missing, perhaps a crime victim. Her father sobs into the cameras. Her mother looks perpetually stunned, caught in a state of horrified disbelief. Chandra's story is less sensational than sad, a family's tragedy.
For the media, of course, Chandra has provided the familiar scandal dance. Minor characters -- the aunt, the friend who interned in Condit's office, the flight attendant -- appear, then fade. Hired guns battle for public opinion on Larry King and news conferences televised live. Gossip is presented as reporting. Lies are told. Lives are reduced to caricature. Reputations crumble.
Shame on us for being so eager to lap it all up.
But what other choice did the Levys have? Thousands of people go missing each year, and we hear about few of them. If Chandra were your daughter, you'd do whatever it took to keep the attention of the public and the police focused on her. You'd endure the coverage, and you'd hire the people who know how to play the game.
The summer is slow, and sensational stories sell.
As the police have repeatedly said, Condit is not a suspect. Infidelity isn't a crime. Yet he seems a less than sympathetic character, a public servant slow to fulfill the moral obligation of putting aside his own personal and career concerns for the sake of helping find a missing woman, his "good friend."
In his silence, the mystery has grown. The media attention has blazed unabated.
Chandra Levy's picture is in People this week. It was on the side of a NASCAR race car in Daytona Beach, Fla. Night and day, it's on CNN, ABC, Fox News, CNBC. She has become a tabloid headline, right up there with Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey. For much of the world, Chandra is just another story -- another scandal, another subject of rumor and innuendo, this summer's Monica Lewinsky.
A few years ago, she was a Modesto Bee intern. She wanted to go into law enforcement. She thought, according to her aunt, that Gary Condit would marry her one day. She was a young woman, in short, coming to terms with the world -- foolish to be involved with a married man but learning to find her way.
And now she's gone, a mystery whose truth still hasn't been told.
The Sacramento Bee's Anita Creamer can be reached at (916) 321-1136 or email@example.com.