Blaming Clinton for Chandra

Conservatives are using the Gary Condit controversy to renew their attacks on Bill Clinton. The Democrats' refusal to speak up has made the job much easier.

Published July 28, 2001 8:43PM (EDT)

Last week, after I reported that Rep. Gary Condit's spokeswoman Marina Ein had made startling -- and unsavory -- speculations about Chandra Levy's character, I had an odd and telling encounter. As I walked into the MSNBC studios, about a block from the Capitol, I announced my name, and an attractive middle-aged woman standing nearby grabbed my arm, looked me in the face with a steady intensity and blurted out "You are my hero!"

I stared her in the face as she continued to speak and I knew she was a famous person I'd seen many times before, but couldn't quite place. Then it hit me: It was Kathleen Willey.

Becoming Kathleen Willey's hero was a thought that had never crossed my mind. I let the surreal moment wash over me; and let me say, Willey and her new husband Bill Schwicker couldn't have been more gracious. But Willey's instant identification with Chandra Levy is just but one example of the odd mix of nostalgia and vindication with which the far-flung crowd of Clinton-bashing chatterers have greeted the swirling mystery surrounding Rep. Condit and missing intern Chandra Levy.

Tune into any cable TV chat show these days and you will see a gaggle of faces from the bygone days of impeachment: the same familiar peroxide blonds jabbering not only about Gary Condit, but retrospectively re-fighting impeachment with endless analogies between Condit's shenanigans and those long ascribed to Clinton.

Take former federal prosecutor and one-time Dan Burton aide Barbara Olson. In her now-regular slot on "Larry King Live," Olson (who is married to former Clinton scourge, now Solicitor General Ted Olson) can scarcely find a thread of the Condit saga that doesn't remind her of similar misdeeds practiced by the odious former president. The Condit team's character assassination of Chandra Levy? Just like Bill Clinton. "We have seen this before, the character assassination. We went through this with Bill Clinton." Condit's creepy pasted-on smile? "The television cameras really do show you something about people. You can see into hypocrisy. You can see a lot through a television camera -- we saw that with Bill Clinton." Condit aide Mike Dayton helping arrange trysts for his boss? Been there, done that. "This is a very sad dij` vu," Olson told Larry King Thursday night, "to what we had with Clinton and the troopers." (Of course, Olson recently attacked the author of the infamous "Troopergate" story, turncoat Republican poison-pen David Brock, for "reinvent[ing] history and reinvent[ing] his own past." But that's another story.)

Other familiar faces are returning all along the chat show terrain from "Geraldo" to "The O'Reilly Factor" (where has Laura Ingraham been?). On another CNN chat show, New York Post columnist Robert George recently darkly joked, "Do you think Monica Lewinsky thanks her lucky stars that Linda Tripp saved that dress? You never know what could have happened if there hadn't been some evidence there, too."

It's true: There are no end of uncanny parallels between the Chandra mystery and the impeachment scandal of 1998: A fetching Jewish intern from California, the daughter of an oncologist; a 50-something politician watching his life swirl away into a black hole of humiliation; even a rotund, grand-standing malpractice lawyer from back home brought in for some opera-buffa comic relief in the scandal's early weeks.

Yet what attracts these right-wing chatterers to this story like moths to a flame is something much more: It's about proving that the fun-house fantasy Bill Clinton they always talked about really does exist. A chilling serial philanderer, with spooky underworld connections, who sends goons to shut up witnesses, obstructs justice and is willing to resort to even murder to protect his career. Of course, these are Clinton conspiracies we're talking about -- we'll have to learn much more damaging information about Condit before he can become as contemptible a character as Clinton in their eyes, but you get the idea.

In other words, if there were no Gary Condit, Clinton-bashers of the Barbara Olson variety would have to invent him. Come to think of it, they already did. But having a real-life version of him to knock around is just too much to resist. And with Democrats running scared on the scandal, there's no one out there to combat the slur.

For anyone familiar with Gary Condit's pre-Chandra political career, the idea of him as a poster-boy for Democratic amorality is humorous to say the least. As one of the House's most conservative Democrats, Condit was an outspoken proponent of the sort of family values rhetoric one expects to hear from Southern Republicans. "Gary Condit is not even a Democrat," says longtime Clinton advisor Paul Begala. "He was one of 10 in the House to vote for the Bush tax cut. He voted to put the Ten Commandments in schools. I don't care if he's got a D by his name."

But if right-wing efforts to conflate Bill Clinton and Gary Condit are overdrawn and opportunistic, they may still be sticking. According to an admittedly questionable Republican-paid-for poll released on Wednesday, Democrats are having difficulty getting their message heard above the din of Condit craziness, and after healthcare the topic most Americans identify with the Democratic Party is Gary Condit.

Democrats plausibly point to a more prestigious and nonpartisan Pew Poll that shows Democrats still riding high with the public and unaffected by the investigation into Levy's disappearance. But if Democrats have managed to avoid the guilt-by-association tactics of Olson & Co., their luck may not hold forever. Condit has become a national symbol of (at the least) the lying, craven politician. And the only ones teeing off on him appear to be conservatives. Congressional Democrats have been surprisingly reticent about criticizing the California congressman. The same Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who gravely denounced Clinton's immoralities from the floor of the Senate in late 1998 has repeatedly ducked the "Chandra question." And House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., continues to insist that Condit is doing "everything possible" to assist the investigation into Chandra's disappearance, a statement that seems more and more comically untrue as each day goes by. (A Lieberman spokesman declined comment for this article, while Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith, when asked about his boss's reticence, told Salon there were "very few known facts" and that the "prudent thing to do" was to wait until more details became known.)

The Democrat most outspoken in his criticism of his fellow Democrats' silence is former Clinton White House special counsel Lanny Davis, known as an ardent Clinton defender long before the name Monica Lewinsky became a household word. "The distinction may not be an easy one for them to make," Davis told Salon on Tuesday. "There's a 'there but for the grace of God go I' sense about it." But as Davis argues, Condit's conduct is a moral issue quite apart from his sexual practices. "This is about selfishness. It's about caring more about your own embarrassment than finding a missing person. I am totally presuming Gary Condit is innocent of involvement [in Levy's disappearance] but I am extremely angry that he valued his privacy more than finding Chandra Levy."

Late on Tuesday, Condit's own close ally Charlie Stenholm, a conservative Texas Democrat, did issue a stinging rebuke of his House colleague. "Through his actions and behaviors," said Stenholm, "Congressman Condit has brought controversy and discredit to his family, his district and the Congress." Stenholm was the first elected Democrat to break the party's wall of silence on Condit's actions. But since he was one of only five Democrats to vote for Bill Clinton's impeachment, Stenholm's new-found outspokenness doesn't so much break the pattern of Democratic silence as confirm it.

So why are Democrats so mute on Condit? There is a natural reluctance to kick a colleague when he's down; also, Condit was well liked by his House colleagues. And since the situation is more awkward for Democratic talking heads than Republicans, few prominent Democrats want to hit the shows at all. "Most people of the prestige [Democrats] don't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole," says a producer for one popular cable TV chat show. The rare politico on Larry King's panel willing to tussle with Olson is the hapless Mark Geragos, Susan McDougal's former lawyer, who suffers the twin disadvantages of defending Condit and seeming to have almost no knowledge of the case whatsoever.

Then there's the conspicuous opportunism of Republicans like Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who loudly called for a House ethics investigation early this month, which probably did more than anything else to keep Condit's fellow Democrats in line. "There are a number of members who've come up to me and said, 'You know, I was ready to say something until Barr did. But I don't want to associate myself with anything Bob Barr says,'" Davis says. There's also the less high-minded possibility that Democrats may not be crazy about the prospect of a Condit resignation, since a special election in Condit's rather conservative district would greatly complicate California Democrats' redistricting plans for next year.

But perhaps it's not so much that Democrats need to act like the familiar GOP chat-show scolds and pile on Gary Condit as that they should be attacking the recrudescent Clinton-bashers for trying to turn the Gary Condit scandal into yet another smear on Bill Clinton and, by association, on the Democratic Party itself. "I don't know why it should be so difficult," says Davis, "But a lot of them are worried that people won't understand the distinction." Indeed, Democrats' silence tends to retrospectively tarnish the rightness of standing up for Clinton during the manic foolery of impeachment. Defending Clinton during impeachment wasn't about taking a stand for scofflaws. It was about taking a stand in favor of privacy and against the craven manipulation of the mechanisms of the law to serve partisan ends.

Rather than being similar, the Clinton and Condit cases could scarcely be more different: In the Clinton case, out-of-control prosecutors used a trumped-up crime to shoehorn their way into getting at private, consensual sex. In the Condit case, Condit's defenders have used sex as a talisman to ward off attention to what is potentially a crime of the very highest order.

It remains to be seen how much fallout for Democrats there will be from Gary Condit scandal. Certainly it's possible that the Republican attempt to seize the moral high ground will fizzle, as their jihad against Clinton ultimately did. But Republicans are clearly intent on using the scandal to drive home the argument already in play in many parts of the country: That national Democrats are indifferent to questions of values and proper conduct. You wonder why so many Democrats seem intent on making that argument as easy as possible to make.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

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

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