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In the end, it was perhaps the most surprising moment of Rep. Gary Condit’s now infamous sit-down with ABC’s Connie Chung. Quizzed about his personal connection with missing intern Chandra Levy, Condit refused to answer, citing several times a “specific request” made by the Levy family not to talk about the now-infamous relationship.
That seemed odd, because for months Robert and Susan Levy had been publicly beseeching Condit to come forward and tell all he knew. Yet sure enough, two days before the ABC taping, attorney Billy Martin, representing Chandra’s parents, had this exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:
Blitzer: “What does the Levy family want to hear from Gary Condit Thursday night?”
Martin: “Wolf, the only thing the family wants to hear — and I spoke with Dr. Levy and Mrs. Levy today — they just want to hear information that could lead to information on Chandra’s whereabouts or what happened to her. They don’t really want to hear anything about the relationship.”
Only Condit knows whether his team of counselors combed through a mountain of TV transcripts to find an excuse to avoid answering The Question, or whether he was sincerely trying to abide by the family’s wishes. But based on the record, Condit seemed to have a point: The Levys’ hired legal representative went on national television and said Chandra’s family did not want to hear him discuss his relationship with their daughter.
Yet the ABC tape had barely stopped running on Thursday night when Martin was back on the air. Appearing on “Nightline,” and attacking Condit for his tendency to “parse words and to interpret things in a way that will benefit him,” Martin tried to explain away his comment to Blitzer by suggesting he had been asked, “what questions would the Levys have of Congressman Condit?” — which is why, Martin said, he answered the way he did.
Despite the obvious discrepancy between what Martin had actually been asked and what he now claimed, Koppel let the explanation slide. The next morning, Martin was on “The Today Show,” where host Matt Lauer asked about the same “specific request by the Levy family.” Once again Martin simply recreated the CNN interview to his liking, telling NBC viewers, “I was asked on the Wolf Blitzer show, ‘What would the Levys personally ask of the congressman if they could?’”
That was good enough for Lauer:
Lauer: So at the very least, he took what you said and used it out of context?
Yet good luck finding the back-and-forth Martin described in any CNN transcript, because it simply never took place. Instead, Martin invented dialogue to cover up his obvious strategic error. Of course, mainstream journalists covering the story, the same ones who spent the entire summer chewing over endless Levy minutiae, were free to check Martin’s version of events. To date, not one has pointed out Martin’s obvious, and clumsy, deception.
On the contrary, the press, pretending to objectively cover a missing person’s case, rewarded Martin’s bold-face dissembling. Time magazine wrote that Martin “appeared on Nightline to shred Condit’s claim that the Levys made a ‘specific request’ that he not discuss the details of the relationship.”
“Shred”? The only thing Martin came close to shredding on “Nightline” was the truth.
It’s hard to imagine that any player in the Levy/Condit saga, operating under the media’s constant klieg lights, would play as fast and loose with the facts as Martin did in that instance. But he’s done it consistently throughout this televised drama. And give the high-powered attorney credit. He recognizes a free pass from the press when he sees one, and he’s taking full advantage of it. That’s his job.
But the media’s job on a story like this — at least in theory — is to accurately track news developments and ferret out answers when important discrepancies arise. So, what’s the media’s excuse for collectively ignoring Martin’s growing list of whoppers and flip-flops?
Say this for Martin: the Levy/Condit story sure got a lot more interesting once he joined the fray as the Levys’ public point man in late June. Within days of Martin’s arrival, the press was suddenly reporting intriguing, thinly sourced stories, like the news that Condit forced Chandra to leave all I.D. behind when she met with him. (That was a tantalizing tidbit, since the police say she left her I.D. behind in her apartment the day she disappeared.) Also reporters were suddenly chewing over the tasty nugget that perhaps Chandra was pregnant when she disappeared, which was the closest anyone could come to creating a motive for the congressman wanting to have his young lover killed.
Who fanned both rumors? Martin and his “investigators,” two retired D.C. detectives. Turns out that the police handling the case no longer think either story is true and, not surprisingly, continue to insist, as they have all along, that Condit is not a suspect in Levy’s disappearance.
Has a single reporter grilled Martin about his penchant for fictionalizing the Levy saga? Not yet. Instead, it seems the press, in love with the Condit story, has done everything it can to disregard Martin’s flip-flops.
The lonely task of scrutinizing Martin’s strategy has fallen to the Daily Howler, manned by media critic Bob Somerby. For instance, on the question of Chandra’s pregnancy, according to the Daily Howler the first public mention of that scenario came on July 6, when the New York Daily News reported “investigators working for the Levy family” were “considering the possibility that Levy, 24, could have been pregnant.”
It’s important to note that the family investigators came as part of the package deal when the Levys hired Martin, who himself has routinely referred to them as “my investigators.” And in early July, Martin’s investigators, based on nothing but a voice-mail message Chandra left her aunt regarding some “big news,” floated the trial balloon that Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Appearing on the CBS “Early Show” days later, Martin was asked by co-host Jane Clayson about the possibility of a pregnancy. Martin played it coy, suggesting he didn’t want to harm the investigation, so therefore he could not say whether it was yes or no. Clayson asked pointblank, “You know the answer”? Martin said he did know.
Five days later he forgot.
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Martin was asked by host Tim Russert about a possible pregnancy. Suddenly the answer was a mystery. Again, citing an ongoing investigation as the reason he couldn’t be more specific, Martin simply changed his answer, telling Russert, “We do not yet have a final answer on that.”
The notoriously well-prepped “Meet the Press” host should have known that earlier in the week Martin offered a drastically different answer on CBS. Russert simply let it slide. The pregnancy story now had legs, and played out all summer on cable TV.
And Martin fanned it every chance he could. He later told CNN’s Roger Cossack the pregnancy question represented “a crucial piece of this investigation.”
Cossack, like Clayson and Russert before him, asked Martin if he personally knew the answer to the pregnancy question. Offering his third version, the attorney said he couldn’t even answer that question.
Back on CBS in late August, Bob Schieffer queried Martin about the possibility of a Chandra pregnancy. (See a pattern here?) Martin was sticking to his latest version (“I don’t think I can answer that question”), but not before darkly spelling out the possible implications of the press’s favorite game of what-if: “Could she have been pregnant and could something have been done to her in an attempt to abort the pregnancy? Could that have been an issue between the congressman and Chandra?”
Yet while Martin was out spinning, the Levys seemed to be telling anyone who would listen that they didn’t believe the pregnancy story. For instance, on Aug. 15, Larry King asked the parents if they thought Chandra was pregnant. Dr. Levy’s response: “No.” Finally some reporters ventured off script and found some other sources. On Aug. 24, CNN’s Bob Franken reported “The hard facts from the police: There is, quote, no indication she was pregnant.”
The same day, Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, making the TV rounds following her interview with the Levys, reported conclusively, “[Chandra] was not pregnant. Her own mother says Chandra Levy was not pregnant at the time of her disappearance. She had just had her period a week or two before her disappearance … [The mother and daughter] had it at the same time, and they had it over Passover [April 14], when the daughter was visiting.”
How could the fact that Chandra was not pregnant at the time of her disappearance possibly represent, “a crucial piece of this investigation,” as Martin had suggested all summer? Why didn’t the Levys ever step in and tell their lawyer to stop spinning that sinister tale if they knew it to be false? And why didn’t the press pick up on the obvious discrepancies?
For some reason, reporters have been oddly uninterested in looking at how and why Martin’s stories have shifted over time. Take, for instance, the now infamous phone conversation between Condit and the Levys just days after Chandra disappeared, in which the congressman reportedly denied he was intimately involved with their daughter.
During his ABC interview, Condit suggested Mrs. Levy “misunderstood” the phone conversation, and that she’d asked him about several different congressmen. Martin reacted angrily to Condit’s charge that Mrs. Levy “was lying” about the phone call. Yet Condit made so such claim.
And the details of that pivotal conversation — Martin has stressed there is “no doubt” about what transpired — have actually been altered with amazing regularity.
On “Meet the Press” Martin reported Dr. and Mrs. Levy “both spoke with [Condit], and he was asked point blank, “Did you have a relationship with our daughter?” And he said, “No.”
According to Martin, it sounded as if both Dr. and Mrs. Levy had posed the crucial question.
One month later, Martin repeated the same scenario on CNN, suggesting the two had acted as a pair: “Both Dr. and Mrs. Levy personally spoke with the congressman and asked him: — were you having an affair with Chandra?”
Aug. 19 on CBS, the same construction: “They both called the congressman’s office to speak with him. They were reaching out for help. And he denied having anything but a professional relationship.”
And on CNBC Aug. 20: “Dr. and Mrs. Levy, they called him and asked him, ‘Were you having an af–an affair or relationship with my daughter?’ He said, ‘No.’”
Yet following the Chung interview on ABC, Martin was suddenly adamant: Mrs. Levy alone had posed the key question to Condit. All those earlier references about Dr. Levy asking too were simply abandoned.
As for the dates, Martin told Tim Russert Mrs. Levy called Condit the night of May 5, and that Dr. Levy called him the next day, May 6.
Appearing on “Larry King Live” over the summer, Dr. Levy reversed the ordering, saying he called Condit the night of May 5, and Mrs. Levy called on May 6.
Earlier, appearing on NBC’s “Dateline” in August, the Levys told Stone Phillips Dr. Levy called Condit on May 7, and that Mrs. Levy also called him on May 7.
(When it comes to dancing dates, Martin is rivaled only by Jim Robinson, attorney for Anne Marie Smith, the flight attendant who says she had an affair with Condit. Often on TV to detail the much-talked about phone conversation in which Condit allegedly told Smith he “might have to disappear for a while,” Robinson, as the Daily Howler noted, has now offered up no less than four different sets of dates for when that conversation took place; May 5 or 6, May 11 or 12, May 17, or on May 9. The press pretends it doesn’t notice.)
None of this is to suggest dates and facts can’t get temporarily mixed up, or memories can’t be sharpened over time. But for Martin to go on TV time and again and pretend each new version of the story he recites represents the unvarnished truth is absurd. And to suggest the Levys alone have a corner on the truth when it comes to recalling that private phone conversation with Condit is also a stretch.
But not for Martin. He told ABC’s Ted Koppel that Mrs. Levy was so sure about what was said during the conversation in question that any suggestion by Condit that she was confused constituted, “a lie.” That was on Aug. 24. On Aug. 19, five days before the Chung interview and five days before the phone conversation became a touchstone for honesty, the Levys appeared on “Larry King Live” and were asked about the call:
Mrs. Levy: “I think I remember asking him whether he had an affair with her.” (emphasis added)
And according to an overlooked passage in a recent Washington Post profile of Susan Levy, by her own admission Levy “suffers from auditory dyslexia: Sometimes words and conversations get mixed up in her mind.”
Are those plausible reasons to believe there could be honest disagreement about who said what to whom nearly 16 weeks ago on the phone as the emotional and heartbreaking disappearance story unfolded? Not for the Condit pundits. “This is not a conversation that Mrs. Levy could possibly remember incorrectly,” said Talk contributing editor Lisa DePaulo, appearing on CNN and speaking on behalf of most Condit/Levy chatterers.
Meanwhile, Martin was busy throughout the summer laying a peculiar groundwork of discrepancies. On Aug. 8, Martin stressed that because Condit had refused to meet with the family’s investigators, “we don’t know what he said to either the D.C. police or the FBI.”
Eleven days later, back on CNN, Martin flip-flopped when he said “according to our information” Condit had withheld crucial information from the police during his interviews. So which is it? Does Martin know what Condit told the police or FBI, or doesn’t he?
Questioned in August on CNN about Carolyn Condit’s presence in Washington the weekend Levy disappeared, Martin played dumb. Citing “the public record,” he noted somewhat ominously that “that was one of the rare occasions that she did come to D.C. Why was she here that weekend and what were their plans? I can’t answer any of those questions.”
Yet Martin must have been the only person closely following the story who couldn’t answer those questions. That Mrs. Condit was in town to attend a gathering of the Congressional Wives Club hosted by Laura Bush had been widely reported in the press and not at all disputed.
With the press applying no scrutiny whatsoever to any of Martin’s utterances, it’s no surprise the power seemed to go to his head as the saga dragged on.
By August, Martin was brazenly telling NBC, “Congressman Condit is a witness to Chandra’s disappearance.” And days later, the attorney told CBS’ “Face the Nation,” “I would love to clear Gary Condit as a suspect. But I can’t do so.”
What’s so astonishing is that not once this summer did an interviewer ever step in and pose Martin with a single tough question about his routine inconsistencies or exaggerations.
If the media is going to devote endless resources to covering a D.C. sex scandal for four months running, can’t it at least report the story honestly?
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.