"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Politics News
The selection of Connie Chung to interview Gary Condit for his first televised chat about the disappearance of Chandra Levy was funny in that queasy-making, modern-day way. He’s an indistinct congressman on the sad fringe of a sad story. She’s a second-tier TV newsmagazine factotum struggling to round up the tabloid target-of-the-moment to boost a career.
In their own worlds, they are each stars, after a fact: He’s a big-wheel Democrat in Modesto and Fresno, two overlooked cities in California’s Central Valley, and a ladies’ man of no little ingenuity; she is no doubt destined for the hall of fame of helmet-haired interviewers, and besides that married to sometime TV host Maury Povich, one of the few people in her profession she looks positively classy standing next to. (In the strange calculus of celebrity news coverage, their marriage makes them by an order of magnitude more worthy of notice.)
Chung and Condit deserve each other, even if we deserve neither. But to wish them away is to wish to exist in a different world, and to forget, for a moment, the mystery, perhaps a tragedy, at the center of the story.
The tools with which Connie Chung managed to land Condit, some journalists will argue, made her victory somewhat Pyrrhic: He argued for, and got, a limited half-hour session recorded live to tape. This made it easy for him to stall and harder for her to keep control or think up follow-up questions. It hasn’t been reported whether the 10 p.m. airing time (on both coasts) was part of the deal, but it certainly worked to keep viewership relatively low.
But then, Chung could argue that, in the end, it’s not a news story (assuming Condit did not actually have something to do with Levy’s disappearance) and of course Chung’s not really a journalist, so in the end does it matter?
In the event we saw a craggy, prematurely aged boy-man, distracted and wide-eyed, attempting to craft Clinton-like lies with a patina of principle. (Since, like Clinton, he’s obviously not a man of principle, the contention seems forced.) Condit is a hapless, timeless character, Errant Man in all his shabby, decayed, defiant glory.
Facing him, desperate in her own way, was a woman of contrasting modernity, amoral by definition and struggling vainly for identity in a peculiar profession in which personal notoriety is more valuable than gold.
The two faced off across this void, with agendas concrete as a sound bite but evanescent as rumor. She had to look journalistic: She hounded him on the question of whether he had an affair with Chandra Levy with a surprising doggedness, repeating herself time after time. He did not answer, for reasons that still seem unfathomable. It was the ultimate infomercial, a show pushing products no one could possibly want: Gary Condit’s morality, and Connie Chung’s career.
It wasn’t pleasant to watch.
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They met on the California ranch of a friend of Condit’s; we saw a camera shot of Chung and Condit walking and talking outside, an obviously posed setup. And then came a recap of the case, complete with a lot of docudrama footage.
It was not an auspicious beginning. In the actual show, Condit said he had nothing to do with Levy’s disappearance, sometime around May 1 of this year. He said he’d last seen her on April 24 or 25. And that he’d talked to her one last time, for about a minute, on April 29.
He said he didn’t kill Levy and that he had had nothing to do with her disappearance.
He said he did not have an affair with Anne Marie Smith, the flight attendant who says that she slept with him for a year and that he’d tried to pressure her into lying about it. He also said he had not been involved with a former staffer, the woman who gave him the now notorious watch box that he’d been noticed discarding in an Alexandria, Va., trash can.
(It will be interesting to follow the fallout from those last two contentions. On the other hand, why would he lie about them at this point?)
No one could expect much from Chung, but she tried her best. She fought mightily against the chains that she herself had forged. She asked him, again and again and again, if the pair were sleeping together, though not in those words. Condit evaded the question again and again:
“I’ve been married 34 years. I have not been a perfect man. I have made mistakes in my life,” he said, with minor alterations, four or five times.
More grossly, he kept citing a specific request from the Levy family not to discuss the details of their relationship, a request that the Levy’s attorney has since said was never made. Hiding behind the feelings of the family is a decidedly unclassy act; his obfuscations, of course, have become the focus of their pain.
Had he come clean at the beginning (Yes, I did sleep with her; no, I don’t know where she is), they would still be in the same amount of pain, of course; but he would be thankfully out of the picture.
But Chung could not shame or trick Condit into talking. She could not threaten to end the interview if he did not answer. And, in the thick of it she could not muster any but the most easily returned volleys as to why he should answer.
Chung and her researchers made only one major factual error: She asked him about a flood of phone calls Levy was supposed to have made to Condit in the days before her disappearance. “Her phone records show that she called you repeatedly,” she told him.
In fact, Michael Isikoff reported in Newsweek two weeks ago that the initial reports of that flurry of phone calls were erroneous.
Chung’s one shining moment came when Condit made a reference to April 31. The intrepid newswoman dashed in to catch him in a misstatement: “There is no 31st,” she said triumphantly.
She was out of her league but she was Joan of Arc next to Condit, who refused to answer her questions and suspiciously parsed those he did choose to answer.
Condit said two or three things that seemed beyond the pale. He refused to give credence to Chandra Levy’s having supposedly told her aunt about their affair. Chung did her best to point out the problems with his refusal to credit the report: Was the aunt lying, then, or was Levy fantasizing?
“I don’t know why she told the aunt what she told the aunt,” Condit said. “She told the aunt apparently a lot of things.”
He was at his most Clintonian while defending his behavior while speaking with Levy’s parents, refusing to concede that he’d lied to them about their relationship. “I’m sorry and I regret if [Levy's mother] misunderstood what I had to say,” he said again and again.
He wouldn’t say how often Levy came to his apartment; he admitted “mistakes” but even when pressed would not even say what those mistakes were, or whether they were moral.
He spoke of the local police, and their contentions that he hadn’t been forthcoming enough, the same way he did about Levy’s parents. But when Chung pressed him he went back to the parsed, “I answered every question that law enforcement asked me.”
And he said flat-out that Anne Marie Smith was lying — about their affair, and about his having tried to get her to sign an affidavit she said was false. When Chung brandished it in front of him, he produced this bit of evasion:
“Well, that’s a lawyer-to-lawyer statement … That is a statement that a lawyer sent to another lawyer. I did not have anything to do with that.”
Condit’s strategy is a mystery. He really does act more like a criminal than a politician caught with his pants down. He is not contrite. He’s stolidly defiant. He almost seems to believe what he is saying.
Does Condit have a point? Does he deserve a private life?
The one thing you can say for Condit’s creepy behavior is that, perhaps, an attorney got him alone in a room early on and said he was in legal danger and talking about it might really get him in trouble. (His defenders on the talk shows make the point that there are a lot of innocent people in jail who spoke too much at the wrong time. The only problem with this argument is that none of them are U.S. congressmen.)
The contention that it’s just about a person’s private sex life, and beyond public purview, is wrong for a number of reasons. For the first, he’s already been caught. We all know what he was doing; it’s an insult to our intelligence for him to stonewall.
Second, he’s a family-values politician who’s supported sticking the Ten Commandments up in classrooms. And is there any better image of Christian hypocrisy than a Bible-waving pol shtupping at least two women not his wife?
Three, he’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee; Chung should have asked him, “What would you have done had you been asked to provide classified information to someone on pain of your affairs being revealed?”
And finally, this is a republic. Our legislators work for us, and we have an interest in their honesty. A Condit elected on a platform of “I’m going to fight for your interests and my God-given right to boff 24-year-old interns” would be a man we could trust.
Still, the journalist’s duty at this point is to deplore the excesses of the press and note sternly that there are important issues concerning the environment, genocide in Rwanda, and the use of the budget surplus that face America and the world right now.
But the Condit-Levy story is a nagging puzzle and a teasing whodunit, complete with a ripping good cast of characters, including a dismayingly naive victim; a bad guy who all but twirls his mustache for our delectation; a shadowy wife; lots of other women; red herrings galore (that ABC news producer and Condit’s squishy alibi!); and many other ancillary mysteries (like the Modesto minister who claimed his daughter had an affair with Condit and then, not altogether unconvincingly, retracted his story.)
But more than anything, there is one knotty issue. It is of course improbable that a congressman took out a hit on a 24-year-old woman.
And yet the most interesting thing about the Chandra Levy case is that the alternative is almost as improbable.
It seems likely that she met some random end unrelated to her affair with Condit — when, apparently, she’d left her apartment, seemingly just for a moment, without her cellphone and wallet. Another coincidence.
And this random crime has seemingly resulted in the utter disappearance of her body, even though this almost never happens in random crimes.
At the media’s best, the much-derided 24-hour news channels take on this puzzle and worry it to death in a delectable mud fight of First Amendment exultation.
At their worst, on a night like tonight, you have a different reaction. Chung, desperate to achieve her identity, to be as famous as Barbara Walters and not be a punch line anymore, decided she would zero in on Condit on one point: Were he and Levy sleeping together?
You can enjoy the sight of a horn-dogging congressman hung out to dry and yet still have the sinking feeling that this question, or its answer, really doesn’t have anything to do with a missing young woman or actual criminality.
You couldn’t blame Chung for insisting, and yet, after a while, the spectacle surpassed the unappetizing and reached the almost nauseating.
In the end, Condit reached that dizzying nirvana of the information age known as the Clinton Effect. We know the guy’s a heel, and he knows we know he’s a heel. But he also knows, via a political sixth sense that we can only marvel at, that, in the end, we don’t quite have the goods on him.
In this case, he can refuse to talk and split pointless logical hairs with impunity, or at least until we get tired.
Connie Chung never tired, of course. Her unexamined interest in the story transcends morality and mystery and has been tempered by years of cotton-candy interviews with cotton-candy celebs for a litany of forgotten newsmagazines.
Ours is less adamantine, and subject to myriad human frailties: Uncertainty. Exhaustion. Disgust. And regret and dismay at the fate of a woman named Chandra Levy and the continued political existence of a creep named Gary Condit.
Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.More Bill Wyman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)