World

Season of Sleaze

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN July 30 2001
World

Season of Sleaze

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN July 30 2001

Season of Sleaze

World

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

By whispers and then by shouts, the word spread swiftly throughout Washington one morning last week: Condit’s on TV!!!! And so, in office after office in the capital, ordinarily reasonable people in business suits— the sort who defend utility companies in arcane regulatory hearings, who negotiate trade deals with executives in Asia and, yes, who write sober analyses of political trends—crowded around televisions to catch a glimpse of. . . Congressman Gary Condit, Democrat from California, sitting with his starched-shirt colleagues in a routine meeting of the house committee on agriculture, where the subjects du jour were such exotica as price supports for sugar crops, subsidies for grain sorghum and export assistance for cotton producers.

Every Washington summer has its spectacle, and this year’s is more mysterious than Watergate, more tawdry than Monica and, potentially, more tragic than Whitewater. In the other imbroglios, the only thing that was lost was innocence. This summer—which inevitably will be remembered as the Chandra summer—a young woman is missing.

At the center of the storm is Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old intern. She hasn’t been

seen since April 30. Plus, she was having an affair with Condit. Who, it turns out, also had an affair with a flight attendant. And maybe some others. Levy’s bags were packed, her identification left behind in her apartment. Just before her disappearance—last week’s juiciest new revelation—she apparently had been on MapQuest, an Internet site used by the mobile or the merely bored.

You still with me?

I hope so, because I haven’t yet mentioned the corpse-sniffing hounds; the computer-generated images of what she would look like if she coloured her hair, cut it or wore it in a pigtail; or that the congressman, who has not been charged with anything, once ran for office as a moral leader (motto: “A good example”).

Washington is a city of stories, but right now nobody’s much interested in the other stories around town, like the threat of new budget deficits, the friendship pact between Russia and China or even (the messy remnants of the last media spectacle) the sober and well-meaning report recommending ways to avoid embarrassments like last autumn’s election in Florida. Stand at the corner of Connecti-

cut Avenue and K Street, where Washington does business, and the phrase “regulatory reform” will not be audible. There at the intersection, as on television, it is all Chandra.

Why? You know perfecdy well why, and it has nothing to do with the high-toned mutterings of the pundit class. A pretty young woman has vanished, her lover is probably not the smartest guy on the select committee on intelligence. And the eerie appearance of the words “intern,” “politician” and “investigation” in the same sentence is simply too much for anyone to resist, especially in a town that says it’s relieved the colourful rogue who lived in the White Fiouse has left but that secretly misses the scamp.

The Chandra chase is, to be sure, potentially horrifying; few people expect her to step safely off the Delta Shuttle some afternoon. And yet there are elements of it all that are oddly comforting. Chandra’s family is represented by Billy Martin, who once advised Monica Lewinsky’s family.

When Condit took his liedetector test, the man who explained the event was none other than Abbe Lowell, whose last star turn was in the house judiciary committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Washington doesn’t only preach full employment, it practises it.

Fuelling it all are two toxic influences in Washington: the Internet and the intern network. The Chandra episode has spawned an email exchange that, one day recently, spewed 145 separate messages—heavy on conspiracy theories—into computers all around town. And thousands of interns are at work stuffing envelopes on Capitol Hill, working copying machines at the interior department, collating documents at the Pentagon, but mosdy gossiping about Chandra. She may be lost, but in Washington at least, Chandra Levy is everywhere. ES]

A story of sex and intrigue is the talk of Washington

DavidM. Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe.