Frame Game

Internette Privacy

The naked truth about Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, and the rest of us. 

The internette is back. Not the Internet, but the internette—the young, female Washington intern who gets caught up with a married male politician twice her age. Three years ago, it was Monica Lewinsky. Now it’s Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old aspiring public servant who vanished two months ago. In case you’ve been distracted by less important events in the Microsoft case, the congressional HMO debate, the Balkans, or the Middle East, here’s a quick summary. Prior to her disappearance, Levy had alluded to a mysterious older boyfriend. Phone records indicate that she had placed numerous calls to Gary Condit, a 53-year-old married California Democrat who is her congressman but not her boss. He says they were just good friends. The media demand that he say more. Should he?

Like the epic sagas of recent years—O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Elián González, the Florida recount—the Levy case has been puréed by the media into an amorphous soup of scandal and commentary. From this soup, a mushy conventional wisdom has congealed: Levy’s disappearance is a mystery, her relationship to Condit is a mystery, and he knows more than he’s telling us; therefore, no matter what else he may or may not have done, he’s guilty of “stonewalling” and, like Bill Clinton, owes us the truth. But the more you poke at this mush, the more it falls apart. What exactly is Condit obliged to reveal? To whom is he obliged to reveal it? What is the media’s rationale for pursuing the story, and how far does that rationale extend? The answers in Condit’s case differ from the answers in Clinton’s. Internette scandals, like internettes and internette users, have distinguishing characteristics.

Start with the question of what Condit should divulge. The media say he should “come clean” and “publicly detail the exact nature of his relationship with Chandra Levy.” As Time’s Margaret Carlson puts it, “There’s no evidence that Condit is connected with Chandra’s disappearance, but there is a lot of evidence that he is connected to her. Once Chandra went missing, he had an obligation to tell everything he knew about her.” Everything? The “exact nature” of the relationship? Why? This is the first errant legacy of the Lewinsky affair. Reporters assume that sex is fair game once placed in a legal context. But the context in Clinton’s case was perjury, a charge whose essence was the truth or falsehood of the alleged relationship. In Condit’s case, the context is far more serious—the internette may be dead—but the sex is less essential. If Clinton and Lewinsky had “sexual relations,” then Clinton, by virtue of having denied it under oath, was guilty of a crime. No such deduction can be made about Condit and Levy.

So, let’s separate the two issues in the Condit case. One is whether he had a sexual relationship with Levy. He denies it—not under oath—although circumstantial evidence strongly hints at it. (The denial his chief of staff gave Newsweek is hardly airtight: “He liked her. They talked a lot. But to my knowledge there was no romantic relationship.”) The other question is whether that relationship, if it happened, led to Levy’s death or gave Condit information about her that might unravel the mystery of how she died. Everyone agrees Condit must help resolve the second question. But why, beyond that, must he address the first?

The media’s instinctive answer is that Condit was, in the words of CNN commentator Steve Roberts, in a “position of authority over” Levy. But this is another false inference from the Lewinsky episode. Levy was an intern at the Justice Department, not in Condit’s office. His only “authority” over her was that of a congressman and an older man. Do age and occupation convict him of sexual harassment or disqualifying lechery? Do Condit’s constituents have, as Crossfire co-host Bob Novak asserted last weekend, a “right to know whether a 24-year-old woman, here as an intern in the government, was having an affair with the congressman, a married man”? By that standard, reporters ought to expose every Newt Gingrich-style adulterer in Congress. Are they prepared to do that?

If not, then Condit is obliged to address only the second question. And that’s basically what he’s done. According to Washington’s WRC-TV, police sources said that in his interview with the cops last weekend, Condit “answered most of the questions but did not elaborate on his relationship” with Levy. Assistant D.C. Police Chief Terry Gainer said Condit “was sharing as much as he felt he could.” The New York Post reported that Condit “continued his stubborn silence about their relationship, though he was helpful with details about [Levy’s] activities the day of her disappearance, police sources said.”

It’s true that without knowing the answer to the first question, investigators can’t interrogate Condit enough to be sure he’s telling the truth about the second. So, maybe it’s reasonable to demand that he say more about the relationship. The media insist that this be done publicly. But why? The legitimate purpose of divulgence is to let somebody check out Condit’s story, ask him further questions, and determine whether he’s given all the relevant information he knows. But somebody doesn’t mean everybody. Spilling the beans to the media isn’t necessary to the investigation. Often, it’s harmful. That’s why Gainer, appearing this week on the Today show, refused to say whether Condit had told the cops what kind of relationship he had with Levy. “People need to know that when they come to the police … we’ll hold that in confidence,” the assistant chief explained.

Lately, journalists have had a field day rehashing Condit’s quotes from the Lewinsky episode. They depict him as a hypocrite for saying back then that 1) Clinton should testify before the House Judiciary Committee; 2) “Only when we strip away the cloak of secrecy and lay the facts on the table can we begin to resolve this matter”; and 3) Congress should release the Starr report because “the American people ought to be able to see the information so they can make a decision.” But Clinton’s situation differed from Condit’s in each respect. The members of the Judiciary Committee were Clinton’s investigators—the equivalent of the D.C. cops in Condit’s case. The truth or falsehood of Clinton’s relationship had to be “resolved” because a special prosecutor had essentially implicated him in crimes. In Condit’s case, no crime has been alleged, much less backed up with evidence or attributed to him. “The American people” were entitled to see the charges against Clinton because he was their president. Condit represents only a single district in California. What answers does he owe the New York Post?

The other quote reporters have dug up from 1998 is Condit’s statement that Clinton should bare the truth to stop the scandal’s “drip-drip-drip. … You can’t close this issue without getting all the information out there. … The information is going to get out eventually anyway.” Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher puts this point in the media’s usual self-objectifying terms: “If there’s any lesson in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s that the details will out.” New York Times columnist William Safire makes the case for this media behavior more candidly: “This is a story, because this is a mystery, and a mystery is a story.”

Indeed it is. Strip away the sloppy assumption that Condit ought to reveal “everything” to “the American people,” and the basis for demanding complete disclosure comes down to curiosity. We want to know whether the internette slept with the congressman, whether he dumped her, whether she ran away or killed herself in despair, or whether pregnancy, shame, or fear of losing his job and his family drove him to murder. We want to know what attracted her to him, what attracted him to her, who else he slept with, and what his wife knew. It’s natural to want to know these things. But that’s all it is.

If you’re a cop assigned to investigate Levy’s disappearance, criminal justice entitles you to find out whether Condit has any information that helps you solve the case. If you live in Condit’s district, political accountability entitles you to find out whether he’s an adulterer or to vote him out of office for ducking questions about it. If you’re willing to demand that every politician tell the press whether, how, and with whom he or she has committed adultery, you’re entitled to demand the same of Condit. Otherwise, along with everyone else, you’re just fascinated. We’ve been here before. As Wolf Blitzer put it last weekend to Lanny Davis, Clinton’s spinmeister in the Lewinsky case, “You hear the words ‘politician,’ ‘Washington intern,’ ‘young intern.’ … You understand why there is so much interest?” Of course. We love internette mysteries. But let’s not pretend that our interest in that genre is about justice, accountability, Gary Condit, or Chandra Levy. It’s about us.