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RETHINKING THE SCARLET "H": Is It Fair To Call Gary Condit A Hypocrite?


Friday, Aug. 17, 2001

On July 17, the folks at "we report, you decide" Fox Cable News interviewed a psychic to provide viewers with information on Chandra Levy. Earlier that evening, on CNN, pundit-at-large Barbara Olson, a former federal prosecutor, had been analyzing Condit's facial expressions to justify her stance. She was troubled by the fact that Condit could still smile. All told, this was enough non-news for me to tune out the story for almost a month.

Being a student of scandals (I've studied them from Colonial America to the present), I know that this charge is far more deadly to a political career than accusations of extramarital activity. Like a felony conviction, to be branded with the scarlet "H" is usually fatal for a politician. As Jonathan Last stated, "unhappily for Condit, in the modern political world, hypocrisy is the last mortal sin."

With the verdict having been rendered, I decided to look at the facts more closely, so that I might better understand this judgment. But what I found raised more questions than it answered. It is less than clear to me that Condit is a hypocrite — which is not, of course, to say he is a model citizen or Congressman.

The Making of A Hypocrite

Hypocrisy is defined as "the false profession of desirable or publicly approved qualities, beliefs, or feeling, especially a pretense of having virtues, more principles, or religious beliefs that one does not really possess." Let me share two examples.

Mark Twain used to tell the story of the ruthless Boston businessman who said to him, "Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, climb Mount Sinai, and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top." Twain said to his cold-blooded capitalist friend, "I have a better idea, you could stay home and keep them."

Of course, no politician deserves Hall of Fame status more than Richard Nixon, who established his duplicity long before being undone by his infamous White House tapes.

During the 1960 televised debates between presidential candidates Nixon and Kennedy, Nixon repeatedly demanded that Kennedy disown the earthy language used by former President Truman, who was an active Kennedy supporter. Nixon wanted Kennedy to applaud Eisenhower, who was supporting Nixon, as having restored "the dignity of the office." Kennedy laughed. Nixon scowled. When the debates had ended, a waiting newsman asked Nixon for a comment, which he got: "That f___ing bastard Kennedy, he wasn't supposed to be using notes."

But did Condit, like Twain's businessman and like Nixon, really speak one way and act in a way that was precisely opposite? A closer examination of the record suggests the answer may be no.

The Charge of Hypocrisy

Others have reached this conclusion, too, but it would be difficult to find a jury with more impeccable credentials than those I've cited. The Chicago Sun-Times is a highly regarded newspaper, and Ms. Means and Mr. Alter are well-respected journalists. Their charges do not appear partisan.

In addition, as a Blue Dog Democrat, Condit is hardly one to stir deep partisan feelings. As a Democrat, he is slightly to the right of center; he often votes with Republicans, yet remains loyal to his party. His politics are representative of those of the constituency in his northern California district.

Jonathan Last observed that Condit's critics do not appear upset at "his apparent serial adultery or begrudging cooperation with the police," but rather only at his perceived hypocrisy. And those who find Condit a hypocrite appear to do so based on his position relating to President Clinton's impeachment.

Condit and Clinton

The New York Daily News was the first to dig up what many find to be a hypocritical posture: It reported that while Condit now was "ducking press questions about his friendship with missing intern Chandra Levy," in 1998 he had called for the public airing of every detail of then-President Bill Clinton's affair with an intern.

"Only when we strip away the cloak of secrecy and lay the facts on the table can we begin to resolve this matter – honestly and openly," the Daily News reported Condit wrote in a 1998 letter to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging full disclosure of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report. "We owe the American people an honest evaluation of the facts."

Is Condit's calling for the release of the Starr report inconsistent with his refusing to make public statements about his own infidelity with Miss Levy? Not necessarily.

Both the DC Police and FBI requested all involved with the investigation of Chandra Levy's disappearance to not make public statements. Her parents went public because they did not believe the investigation was moving fast enough and, understandably, thought it was not proceeding to their satisfaction: they want their daughter home.

Is Condit a hypocrite for honoring the request of the police and FBI? Requesting that the completed Starr investigation be made public (while unaware of its contents, as all members of Congress were) is not the same as refusing to talk publicly about an ongoing investigation, particularly since Condit is still not — according to law enforcement authorities — a suspect in that investigation.

When I did a bit more digging into the context of Condit's call for the release of the Starr Report, I found that it may be Condit's critics, and not Condit, who have been hypocritical. In September 1998, on two occasions, Condit sought unsuccessfully to have the House make the Report available. On the second occasion, Condit explained his reasons on the Floor of the House:

This is an attempt to allow all the Members of this House to have access to the information. It is an attempt to speed the process along so we can bring it to closure. The American people want us to bring this issue to closure.  There is no reason why every Member of this House cannot have that information. We are not grade school kids. We understand it, and we know ultimately we need to make a decision. So my intent, Mr. Speaker, is simply to speed this process along so that we can make a decision and get back to the business of living our lives and running this country

Finally, on October 8, 1998, Condit was one of 31 Democrats who voted with the Republicans for an impeachment investigation. Immediately following the vote, he explained why he had so voted on National Public Radio.

To summarize, Condit told his NPR interviewer that he wanted the White House to have a chance to get all the facts on the table. It was necessary, he thought, to have a fact-finding hearing to bring the matter to a close. He wanted to see all the major players, including Clinton and Starr, testify. Condit was not sure the Congress should take the Starr report as fact. Rather, both sides should be heard before making that determination. Finally, he felt that the sooner the matter was examined, the quicker it would be completed, and he believed that most people wanted it finished, and done thoroughly.

Unlike many members of the House, Condit did not hold himself out as a paragon of virtue during the impeachment debate. The most potentially hypocritical remark I could find him to have made was: "Without question the President's behavior was inexcusable and indefensible. It was wrong."

Condit's own adultery might be seen by some as rendering this remark hypocritical. But it is not clear whether he is referring to the Lewinsky affair, or to the charge that the President lied under oath. It strikes me as being a bit hypocritical to give his statement a worse case interpretation, without letting the man explain what he meant in 1998.

A Crucial Vote Against Impeachment

Moreover, even if Condit was referring to the Lewinsky affair, Condit did not say adultery was unforgivable, or that an adulterer in public office should immediately resign.

To the contrary, he urged that Clinton should be forgiven, noting that Clinton had "apologized to the American people," and arguing that "to overturn the electoral will of the American people requires a much higher threshold than personal misconduct."

There is one additional theory to consider: Is a member of Congress who commits adultery implicitly a hypocrite merely because he or she continues to serve?

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi suggested as much, when he said infidelity was incompatible with congressional public service. But Representative Christopher Shays (R. Conn.) had the best of the debate when he shot back that "If infidelity is the test (of public service, and by extension hypocrisy), there'd be a number of members of Congress who should resign."

Hypocrisy, it turns out, is not Condit's real problem. His real problem is different. He lied.

Condit's Lies

Novelist Evelin Sullivan's new non-fiction work, The Concise Book of Lying, describes a lie as any intention to deceive. Lies come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors -- lies of vanity, flattery, convenience, interest, malignity, benevolence, wantonness, and fear.

It would appear that Condit's initial public response that he and Chandra were "good friends" was a lie of fear. He also seems to have lied out of fear in his public statement that Chandra was never at his apartment, and in his statement to Chandra's mother that he did not have an affair with her. And according to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D. CA), he lied to her, too.

We do not know for certain whether Condit lied to law enforcement authorities. But one thing is clear: He has not lied under oath, for no testimony under oath has been taken.

Because mendacity is widespread in politics (and life itself), more so than sexual infidelity, it is considered excusable by many. Condit may survive lying about his sexual conduct, to both his colleagues and constituents. But we are nowhere near the end of this story.

Absent some break in the investigation of Chandra's disappearance, we may never know what really happened and why. As for Gary Condit, his fate will be determined when he ultimately does answer questions publicly. Until then, or until some further revelation about Chandra's disappearance, I'm going to tune out again.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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