Did Condit make that phone call?

The congressman's wife and another alleged mistress are pulled into the investigation, while a suicide theory emerges to explain Chandra Levy's disappearance.

Published July 2, 2001 12:56PM (EDT)

Over recent weeks the not-always explicit line of reasoning on Chandra Levy's disappearance has run something like this: If Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., really wasn't anything more than friends with Levy, why doesn't he just say so? Or if Condit had an affair with Levy and she then disappeared for some unrelated reason, why not cut his losses, admit the affair and move on? Despite the relative conservatism of Condit's central California district, the example of Bill Clinton and Condit's pre-Levy incident popularity indicate that such an admission could be politically survivable.

There is, of course, another possibility: that Condit is deeply implicated in Levy's disappearance without bearing any legal responsibility for her fate. How would that be? The most obvious possibility is that Levy took her own life after being jilted by Condit at the end of an affair.

According to reporting by Fox News and the New York Post, Condit did tell police he had such a conversation with Levy on April 29, the day before the last day anyone saw her. According to Fox and the Post, Condit used the term "close relationship" to describe what would amount to a breakup call early on April 29. Condit's spokesman denies the representative made any such admission (though his credibility on such matters is now stretched perilously thin). But similar denials of any such admission by high-level police sources contacted by ABC News must be taken seriously and throw the reality of this alleged admission into doubt. (For the moment, Fox, the Post and ABC each stand by their contradictory reporting.)

If Condit did make such a call, however, it would fit well with other details we already know -- namely, that after this conversation with Condit allegedly took place, Levy subsequently made a series of pager calls to Condit on April 29 and 30. And if Levy took her own life, Condit would have no legal culpability. But while his moral responsibility would be fuzzy, politically such a scenario would surely be fatal.

It's understandable that police and Condit's flacks moved so aggressively to squelch reports of an April 29 phone call (true or not) because a rapid and messy deterioration of the Condit-Levy relationship, timed so close to her disappearance, would make it difficult to believe that the two occurrences were not in some way related.

Condit's attorneys have now provided police with an action-packed timeline of his activities on the crucial days of April 28 to May 3, and have revealed that his wife, Carolyn Condit, was in Washington during that period. Now a U.S. attorney is negotiating with Condit attorney Abbe Lowell to establish ground rules for the FBI to interview Condit's wife. The agency wants to find out whether she saw or heard from Levy on the days in question, presumably to verify the alibis the timeline provides for Condit.

The latest information, reported widely over the weekend, is that police are considering the possibility that Levy was murdered somewhere in her apartment building, and her body later dumped. Police plan to search nearby garbage dumps with cadaver-sniffing dogs. Condit, meanwhile, faces further embarrassment from reports that the police and the FBI are expanding their inquiry to include an alleged history of extramarital affairs on Condit's part. (A flight attendant who was interviewed says she broke off a yearlong affair with Condit after hearing of Levy's disappearance.)

Once police speak to Condit's wife, they will likely get a clearer idea of whether Condit is at the heart of the Levy story or just a high-profile bit player in her disappearance. And the rest of us will get a better idea of whether Condit is a very bad man or, more likely, like Chandra Levy, just someone with very bad luck.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

MORE FROM Joshua Micah Marshall

Related Topics ------------------------------------------