Presumed Innocent

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Last Thursday night, more than a month after the intern named Chandra Levy vanished from Washington, California Representative Gary Condit traveled to the Jefferson Hotel (yep, Dick Morris slept there) to meet with Levy's parents and their attorney, Billy Martin (yep, he represented Monica Lewinsky's mother). The meeting lasted about 20 minutes and did not include Dr. Robert Levy. Dazed during an earlier meeting with the D.C. Police and a tour of its "Synchronized Operations Command Center," where tips are processed, the doctor couldn't face the Congressman who had called his daughter a "good friend," then had gone silent about her disappearance. Condit had never told the parents he had received repeated calls from Chandra in late April, just before she went missing from her studio apartment near Dupont Circle. What else hadn't he told them?

The meeting fell back on safe platitudes about family — Condit, 53, has two twentysomethings of his own — but did little to allay what a source calls Susan Levy's "controlled anger." Since the start of this case, Condit has drawn ever more attention to himself by so obviously trying to deflect it. He might as well walk down the Capitol steps with his jacket pulled over his head. There's good reason not to talk to the media — the beast gets hungrier the more you feed it. But is there any reason not to talk to the police? Clamming up makes you look like you're hiding something. After Condit's first attorney, Joseph Cotchett, blurted out that Condit's wife had been visiting the weekend of Levy's disappearance — a fact Condit omitted in his first "casual" interview with the cops at his condo — the police finally decided a second interview was in order. ABC News reported that the police knocked on the door of Condit's apartment in mid-June only to be brushed off. As of last Friday night, the police were still waiting for a convenient time.

With 1,500 unsolved homicides in the past decade, the D.C. police department will never remind you of Law and Order. By not grabbing the security videotape in Chandra's apartment building before it was automatically erased and taped over, cops missed the chance to see who came and went that crucial week. By not pressing Condit to tell them everything he knew about Chandra, they may have lost the chance to follow leads while they were fresh. Condit's side kept trying to steer reporters to a theory of a serial killer (several young women have disappeared from around Dupont Circle). Police have looked for similarities in the death of a government attorney named Joyce Chiang, 28, who was missing for three months before she turned up dead. They found the cases "unrelated." California Congressman Howard Berman, for whom Chiang once worked, moved heaven and earth to help the investigation, even pressuring FBI Director Louis Freeh. Two agents from the bureau's criminal unit are now working on the Levy case.

Like would-be starlets in Hollywood, interns come to Washington with big dreams and a hunger to be noticed. Monica's neediness and naivete weren't an aberration. As Clinton was, Condit could be a politician capable of surviving the infatuation of an intern getting out of hand--if that's what happened. Condit is a retail guy in his home district, so sensitive to his constituents' needs that he helps them find apartments in D.C. Unable to say no, he had as many as 10 interns on staff one summer. A workhorse on the Agriculture Committee, he serves the farmers of Modesto, a town of pickups and soda fountains where American Graffiti was filmed, and does it so well he routinely wins re-election by close to 70%--and was considering a run for statewide office. His district is conservative but hasn't balked at a lifestyle that's surprising for the son of a Baptist minister. His wife, who suffers from a chronic illness, has never moved to Washington. He likes night spots, parties, stogies and rock concerts (he once jumped into a mosh pit). A Harley driver, he posed for raunchy biker magazine Easyriders and a spoof calendar called Hunks on the Hill.

Most of the things folks in Washington fight over are trivial; we don't know what to do when we come up against a matter of life and death. If Chandra was a good friend, wouldn't Condit be more stricken? Isn't he betraying whatever friendship they had by not volunteering every detail about their relationship? The only way his conduct makes sense is if he's slavishly heeding the advice of all criminal attorneys: say nothing, for it could be used against you. But that makes him look guilty and hardhearted, whether he is or not.