Talk about your worst Washington nightmare. You're a married congressman; you're "close friends" with a young female intern; she suddenly disappears.
Gary Condit (D-CA) must wake up every morning in a puddle of sweat haunted by the vague impression that something horrible has happened. Then the full weight of consciousness takes his breath away.
The cause of his night sweats, of course, is the disappearance seven weeks ago of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old intern with whom Condit was "just friends." Levy vanished April 30, the day she was scheduled to return home to Modesto, Calif., for her graduation from a master's program after her six-month internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons. She never showed up.
Police found her apartment intact and her bags packed. Missing only were Levy, her keys and an uncashed check for $100. No one has seen or heard from her, but records indicate Levy called Condit several times on a special line during the 24 hours before she disappeared.
Things don't look good for Condit, the exact nature of whose relationship with Levy has been the olive in everyone's martini the past several weeks. And Condit hasn't helped himself much. By declining to discuss his relationship with Levy publicly, he has helped mold reasonable interest into full-blown obsession.
We don't need much instruction to condemn a politician for spending too much time with a younger woman and then behaving sheepishly. Just good friends? We know what that means as well as we understand the real meaning of "She's got a great personality." Or "I did not have sex." Vivid is the memory of cautious deceit on a politician's face as he denied romance with an intern.
Of course, it's entirely possible that Condit is telling the truth. Giving Condit the benefit of the doubt, maybe he's just trying to protect his family from innuendo. He has a seriously ill wife, who has remained in California during his D.C. tenure, and two grown children.
Maybe he understands, as most seasoned politicians do, that whatever he says will be used against him. Better to be silent and wait out truth and, in Levy's case, hope. We can acknowledge those possibilities along with the probability that Condit is innocent, certainly as concerns Levy's disappearance.
We can also entertain the possibility that Condit is seeking the higher ground of privacy. Like the female candidate in "The Contender," rather than defend himself against prurient accusation, Condit withholds the imprimatur of dignity that a response would provide. "Personal relationships are no one's business" is an ideal worth defending.
Except, that is, when another's life hangs in the balance. Then the ideal becomes a dubious subterfuge dusted off for self-justification. Even though Condit has spoken to police and to the young woman's family, his refusal to comment publicly allows constituents and the media to infer something sinister even if he has nothing to hide.
His own lawyer's comments, meanwhile, are so illogical as to seem aimed at concealment. In one instance, the attorney, Joe Cotchett (cq) called questions about whether Condit and Levy were having an affair "ridiculous, because it is not relevant to the inquiry of her disappearance." Correction: When a person disappears, everything is relevant.
It is unthinkable that Condit knows anything about Levy's disappearance, and no one's suggesting that he has special knowledge of her whereabouts. But if Condit wants to take the moral high ground, he should face his constituents and tell the whole truth, whatever it is. Anything else makes him look cowardly.
Americans, as we've witnessed, will forgive a man a weak heart but never a weak spine.