The Hidden Genius of Condit's PR Campaign

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Aug. 25 2001 8:20 PM

The Hidden Genius of Condit's PR Campaign

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Could there conceivably have been method in the apparent madness of Gary Condit's media campaign last week? Instead of confessing and expressing contrition, as his television and print audience expected, Condit fuzzed up the issue of his relationship with Chandra Levy and, more startlingly, flat-out denied the stories of two other credible women who claim to have had affairs with him. Was he saying these women were liars? The strategy baffled observers, including Lisa DePaulo of Talk, who noted that the "cat's out" on the issue of Condit's adultery--the only open question is whether he had anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance. Why didn't he just apologize for the adultery but say he had nothing to do with the disappearance? Most commentators have drawn the conclusion that he's a liar and a fool.

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They're probably right. But it seems to me at least possible he's not a fool.

After all, the worst threat facing Condit isn't that he won't be re-elected to Congress. The worst threat is that he'll be charged with Levy's murder. And when it comes to raising suspicions about his potential responsibility for her vanishing, Condit's own behavior has provided the most damaging body of evidence. A normal, smart politician--aware of the post-Clinton rules of engagement and innocent in Levy's disappearance--would have held a press conference the first week, admitted the affair, apologized, expressed genuine horror at his friend's disappearance, strongly denied any involvement, and offered his own views as to what really might have happened. (In short, he'd have said what the experts wanted Condit to say last week.) A pol who did this might survive; he might not. But it would be his obvious best shot.

Condit didn't do that. He said nothing in public for months, stonewalling his constituents until last Thursday. This bizarrely secretive, guilty-seeming behavior is the main reason many in the political class quickly turned against Condit.

But there has been one explanation that would seem to account for Condit's actions and still allow for his innocence--the Paranoid Adulterer Theory. It holds that Condit's simply obsessed with keeping his adulteries secret--so obsessed that he'll try to deny the obvious for weeks, even though it might make him look guilty of murder! So obsessed that he'll travel to Virginia, risking exposure and an obstruction charge, to throw out a watch box because it might be evidence of another romantic relationship. The political judgment underlying this foolish behavior may actually be sound--even if Condit could survive publicly admitting the Levy affair, he may tell himself, he'd never survive having all the other affairs disclosed, which is what might follow from admitting the Levy affair.

That's the structure of this mystery--there are two basic possibilities. One is that Condit's an egotistic two-faced pol worried that the massive scale of his infidelity will, if revealed, inevitably destroy his career and marriage. The other possibility is worse. Perversely, anything that makes Condit look more like a despicable lying adulterer makes him look less like a possible murderer.

And guess what he looked like in his interviews last week! Better still, for his criminal defense, he hasn't merely looked like an arrogant liar and adulterer--he has, as DePaulo noted, looked like an irrational arrogant lying adulterer. After all, if he's so deluded that he still thinks he can get away with denying that he had an affair with flight attendant Anne Marie Smith (an implausible claim his lawyer is already amending)--well, maybe he's deluded enough to have thought he could get away with denying he had an affair with Chandra Levy for weeks! Or that he could deny having had an affair with the woman who gave him the watch, as long as he threw away the box! Note how Condit's denial on Thursday actually got Connie Chung eagerly embracing the exculpatory Paranoid Adulterer Theory in the name of confrontational journalism: "But were you trying to cover up a relationship with yet another woman?" Chung demanded. Throw him in that briar patch, Connie!

Condit's irrational stance was rational in another way: The challenge police and prosecutors would face, given the case's structure, is finding evidence that distinguishes between the two possible models of Condit--i.e., evidence that points to criminal guilt in a way that can't be explained by his desire to cover up adultery. Such evidence already exists, but there's not a lot of it--at least not a lot that's been made public. There is some testimony (mainly in DePaulo's Talk piece and from Chandra's aunt Linda Zamsky) that matters between Levy and Condit may have been coming to some sort of head shortly before her disappearance. And there is the potential testimony of Condit's lovers that he required them to not carry their ID's with them--lending support to the theory that Levy was going to visit Condit when she left her apartment without her ID.

Is it coincidence that Condit's bizarre denials on Thursday directly challenged the credibility of Anne Marie Smith, who has confirmed the No-ID requirement, and of the second ex-lover who might be in a position to confirm it? Sure, Condit lost credibility points in the court of public opinion. But in a real court, in a real criminal trial, he preserved the option of challenging these women as publicity hounds and then relying on the "reasonable doubt" standard to save him. If he had confirmed their credibility by admitting having affairs with them, the ability of his defense lawyer to pull off such a Johnnie-Cochranesque trick would be severely compromised.

Were all those strategy sessions with Abbe Lowell really wasted? If you see this as a criminal case, and not a political case, the answer is: maybe not.

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