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Should Rep. Gary Condit Talk Publicly About His Relationship With Chandra Levy?

Aired June 25, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Forget missile defense. Forget the patients' bill of rights. The only thing anybody in Washington is talking about these days is the case of the congressman and the missing intern. The intern, 24- year-old Chandra Levy, from Modesto, California, working here in D.C. at the Bureau of Prisons, but missing since April the 30th. The congressman, hometown Democrat Gary Condit, who admits she was a good friend, but denies any romantic involvement or knowledge of her whereabouts.

Over the weekend, Condit met a second time with D.C. police, who say he is not a suspect in her disappearance. But Condit still refuses to talk with reporters about the nature of his relationship with Ms. Levy. Should he talk to the media? Or is he better off keeping his mouth shut and letting the police do their job? We'll debate that issue in a few minutes. But first, we get the latest on the police investigation -- Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Chief Gainer, thanks for coming in.


NOVAK: Why would you want a second interview with Congressman Condit? Exactly what were you looking for, and did you get it?

GAINER: Well, we wanted a second interview to clarify some of the things we had talked about the first interview and to go into some of the things that have arisen since that interview had taken place. There has been a lot in the press, a lot on television, a lot from the parents, and we wanted talk to him about that.

NOVAK: Were you satisfied that you got good answers, or not?

GAINER: Well, we won't be satisfied until we have Ms. Levy home, so we'll hold the congratulatories until then.

NOVAK: Tell me this, sir: when you first wanted -- made it clear that you wanted to talk to him again two weeks ago, you had a lot of trouble pinning him down. He didn't call you back one day, he was not anxious to talk to you. All, I'm sure, in the lifetime of police work, you have come across people that have something to hide and they just can't quite find time to talk to the authorities. Did that make you suspicious?

GAINER: No, not really. That was really more scheduling angst than anything else. We were patient. We knew eventually we'd get together with him, and we were comfortable with that.

PRESS: Chief, let me ask you this: Ms. Levy's parents have hired their own attorney and a team of investigators to look into her disappearance, which indicates they don't have any confidence in the D.C. police. Why should we have confidence in what you're doing?

GAINER: I don't think that's why they did it at all. We've met with the Levys, Chief Ramsey and I did, and had a very good meeting with them, and I think they've hired their own attorney to translate a little bit, because the criminal justice system can be a little undaunting to people, especially people who are hurting like they are.

They have a very competent attorney, they have two investigators who are former members of our department, so I think, frankly, they can add something to it. They know the limits of their authority, and they recognize the power of our position, and I think anybody that can bring information, we will take it.

PRESS: It's been reported that you have conducted over 100 interviews in this case. Again, that second interview that you had with Congressman Gary Condit -- the media has been very interested in it. In your work, of those 100 interviews, how key was that interview to your investigation? How important was it to you?

GAINER: It was not the linchpin of this investigation, but it was of great interest to us, and there is more work to be done on it, but the smoking gun was not in that interview. We never thought it would be, and we are happy that we had it.

NOVAK: Let me give you a quick final question chief: do you think she is dead?

GAINER: I hope not.

NOVAK: What do you think?

GAINER: I don't think that's the case. There are those distinct possibilities that she went off on her own and is trying to hide her identity, that she may be injured and not know who she is, that she may have met her untimely demise, or she may have killed herself. We promised her parents that we will remain optimistic, and in this business you have to be an optimist.

NOVAK: Chief Gainer, thank you very much.

GAINER: Thank you.

NOVAK: We will be back with a couple of top lawyers to find out why is the congressman so reluctant to talk.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he needs to be forthcoming from his -- from his -- in his own words to his constituents, because it's really snowballing and getting out of hand.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are a little slow to badmouth him around here, from my consensus, until they get more evidence.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The missing Chandra Levy is now a household name in Washington, but becoming even more familiar is Congressman Gary Condit, a moderate Democrat from California's Central Valley. During 12 years in the House, he has kept a low profile, and even today refuses to speak out publicly about his missing 24-year-old friend. Is that prudent or is it self-destructive?

We're asking two high-powered Washington lawyers: Democrat Lanny Davis, who spent the past eight years trying to protect Bill Clinton, and Republican Joseph Digenova, who during the same time span was taking pot shots at the Clintons -- Bill.

PRESS: Despite that, Joe, we are glad to have you back.

JOSEPH DIGENOVA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Thank you, Bill, nice to be back, as always.

PRESS: Joe, Congressman Condit has met with Ms. Levy's parents, he's met with the police twice. We've just heard chief say that they're satisfied with his cooperation so far. What possible obligation does he have to meet with reporters, no matter how much we might want him to?

DIGENOVA: Well, he really doesn't have any obligation legally. As a matter of public relations and simply politics, it really matters what his constituents think about this. He doesn't have to worry about anybody except that district in California.

And when this is over and they have made a judgment about him, then he will know whether or not his strategy was the correct one. I do think he made a mistake early on by not having a lawyer from Washington representing him immediately, because he has suffered greatly from a kind of silence which makes it look like he has something to hide, and of course there is no reason for anybody to make that assumption.

PRESS: Well, I would certainly agree that he'd been better off if he hired you or hired Lanny or hired Victoria Toensing, for example...

DIGENOVA: I couldn't agree more about that. PRESS: But let's get back to the media. I mean, there are some 580 missing people in Washington, D.C. This year, so far, 98,000 a year across the country. We never hear about any of those. Isn't it pretty clear that the media is not interested in Chandra Levy as a missing person. They are interested because there is a possible sex scandal between an intern and a member of Congress.

DIGENOVA: I do think that's absolutely right. And I think the silence of the Congressman through either a spokesperson or somebody, in refusing to define that relationship has fed that suspicion. And that is exactly what is at play here.

Now again, whether or not his silence is wise, we will find out at the end of this process and I hope it comes with her being alive and joking about it when it's all over.

NOVAK: Lanny Davis, you have been watching congressmen for a long time. In fact, you even tried to be one yourself. You ran not very well, but you did run for...


NOVAK: But we had this little sound byte by Bob Schieffer of CBS saying he has been around a long time too, but has never seen a case where a Congressman with a constituent in trouble, avoids talking about it. Usually they are just hounding the cameras to talk about that constituent. How can you explain it? Doesn't that make it suspicious, that he is trying to hide something?

DAVIS: Well, look, I wrote a book in which I urged people when they were in trouble to tell it all, tell it early, and tell it themselves. And that is the advice that you would generally follow here.

But I would like to make a distinction between him categorically denying any involvement or knowledge about the disappearance in this tragic situation with Miss Levy, versus his personal relationship, where he has every right in the world to say, that's none of your business, I'm not going to answer questions on that.

But until he categorically denies that he was not involved in this disappearance, he will create this suspicion, and I think it's a problem for him.

NOVAK: Well, you do have a degree as a spin doctor, I believe. No other kind of doctor...


NOVAK: And you know images are everything. If we can show you one of the most remarkable images you want to see: and that is a Congressman running away, running away, look at this! He is just being chased by the media, running away. Isn't that, for a spin doctor, absolutely disastrous piece of tape for his image? DAVIS: It's disastrous, yes, certainly. But it is also unseemly as I think Bill Press was pointing out, that we have this press frenzy without the slightest bit of evidence that Gary Condit has done anything wrong.

NOVAK: But that encourages -- he's running away!

DAVIS: But it's going to be -- running away at some point when this frenzy is accosting you. And you know there's a photograph Bob, of Congressman Gary Condit between Miss Levy and another intern. The other intern was cropped out of that photograph and they've been using the photograph of just him with his arm around her.

This is what is turning a lot of people off about the press in the country today, and why there is some sympathy with Congressman Condit, notwithstanding the fact that he really should come forward now and deny it if it's true that he anything to do with the disappearance.

PRESS: Let's say that Gary Condit was romantically involved with Miss Levy, which, by the way, I happen to believe, even through he says it wasn't, but let's say he was. What business is that of ours or the media?

DIGENOVA: None. Except in this case, she has disappeared, and she did visit his office, and apparently, she visited his apartment. That has been confirmed so there is some evidence linking him to her physically.

And in that sense the interest in him, because he is a public figure, I think is understandable because a young lady is missing. It doesn't mean he doesn't have privacy rights, because she wasn't an intern is his office. She didn't work for him. So there is not that kind of link.

At the same time, people are human in every sense of that word, and that includes the people in the media. And this is a very interesting case and the fact that he is not speaking, and has chosen not to speak albeit ineloquently through his office spokesperson and his lawyer in California, I think he has been harmed by that tremendously.

When it's over, however, his silence may be his best friend, because there will be no tapes of him saying anything about this case, either later or now or forever. So, in one sense his strategy may be working in the long run, although in the short run, I think it is a pretty bad one.

PRESS: I -- just, full disclosure, am not a friend of Gary Condit's...

NOVAK: I want to hear this.

PRESS: Because I was state chair when he was a democratic member of Congress.

NOVAK: And you we one of the few...

PRESS: And if I may finish my point...

NOVAK: Ahh, I'm sorry.

PRESS: I have not talked with him but through a friend, been in touch with him to say, I thought he should come forward and talk. And one of the reasons that I know he is concerned about it, is just what you pointed out: that this videotape, the idea, I did not have sex with that woman, would be a videotape played over and over again no matter what happens.

Your counseling him, right, let's say you are.


PRESS: How can you open that door like a crack, without the media saying we want to know everything!

DIGENOVA: Right, you don't. You let your lawyer speak for you. And that was the problem with the Abbe Lowell news conference the other day. In other words, Abbe Lowell went outside...

NOVAK: Abbe Lowell is a prominent Washington lawyer.

PRESS: Who is now representing...

DIGENOVA: He has basically said, I can't tell you anything, but I will be working with Billy Martin, And that was fine, expect the press was expecting information. They didn't get it. And it caused more of a problem than it should have.

But at this point, I think Congressman Condit's strategy apparently is working for him. He is comfortable with it. And certainly his lawyer is comfortable with it, and they are communicating with the Levy family lawyers, so we shall see what happens.

PRESS: You couldn't say, OK, we were romantically involved, without all these questions about how, when, where, how many times, and all that stuff.

DIGENOVA: There are lots of questions the press would ask.

NOVAK: Well -- I apologize.

DAVIS: That's OK. You can't do this halfway.

DIGENOVA: It's either all or nothing.

DAVIS: If Congressman Condit really wants to put an end to all the speculation about the private relationship and about what happened, he shouldn't be talking through his lawyer. His lawyer is going to have to decide whether he has criminal vulnerability here. If he does, he has to listen to his lawyer's advice, Abbe Lowell...

NOVAK: I'm puzzled, are you suggesting that he does tell all or he doesn't tell all?

DAVIS: I'm suggesting he has to do a pivot. If he's protecting a private relationship and he doesn't want to talk about it, then I respect that. But he has to do the pivot and say, I'm going to hold a press conference and answer questions about my knowledge in absence thereof, which I think is the case, of the disappearance.

NOVAK: But not talk about the private relationship if there is one.

DIGENOVA: I can't speak for someone who is probably embarrassed about something that he didn't want to talk about. I have been there. But I do respect somebody's right to not answer those questions. But he got to come forward and deny his involvement in this disappearance.

NOVAK: Both of you, you and Bill, both are liberal, Democratic politicians. Former politician. Both seem to say that the people of the Central Valley of California have no right to know whether a 24- year-old woman here as a intern in the government, was having an affair with the Congressman, a married man.

Let me just tell you what the Modesto Bee, that is the hometown newspaper of Gary Condit, said in Saturday's editorial quote:

"If Condit expects to keep the respect of the public, his colleagues, and his northern San Joaquin Valley constituents, he must face the questions that he himself has helped fuel through his prolonged and mysterious silence. Ignoring those questions will not make them go away."

NOVAK: That's strong, isn't it?

DAVIS: That's hogwash, as well as strong. It represents a minority opinion when about it was about Bill Clinton, when it was about people in this city that have private relationships, that they don't exactly announce publicly, and most people make the distinction, as they did with Bill Clinton, between private conduct that they don't prove of and public performance in office.

That's why Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, and that is why to this day, when he left the White House, short of the pardons, he had a high approval rating.

DIGENOVA: Short of the pardons. Let me just say something about that.


DIGENOVA: Here is the thing, Bob, the editorial in the "Modesto Bee" demonstrates a very important factor here: there are risks here for Congressman Condit in not speaking. They are not legal risks, but political risks. And ultimately, the people of his district will make exactly the judgment that that editorial speaks about.

If they think and believe he has something to hide, he will pay a price for that. Again, it may not be a legal price, because there's no evidence he has been involved in her disappearance or has committed any crime, but this is a political issue: Should he be answering questions? Some people out there think he should.

NOVAK: Let me ask both of you the same question. We asked the chief, Gainer, and he knows more about it than you do, and he really wouldn't answer it: Do you think she is dead?

DAVIS: I refuse to speculate, other than feel sorry for her parents. And everybody out there should remember there are two people with a daughter they don't know is dead or alive. And I'm not going to speculate about that.

NOVAK: But will you speculate?

DIGENOVA: I don't think she is. I think she is alive.

PRESS: I want to ask you -- put you on the spot first, and then come back to Modesto. Former U.S. Attorney here -- former independent counsel, there are 558 -- I just found the exact number -- missing people so far in this city, so far this year. Eight weeks, there have been as far as we know no progress and no leads. What confidence do you have in this police department to solve this case?

DIGENOVA: I have a lot of confidence in Chief Ramsey and Assistant Chief Ramsey (sic)...

NOVAK: Gainer.

DIGENOVA: Gainer, excuse me, Terry Gainer and Chief Ramsey. The department has gone through a very difficult people -- period of expansion a number of years ago under another mayor, in which the wrong kind of people were put on the police force.

Chief Ramsey and Chief Gainer are trying to fix the department. It is the toughest job in a free society to run a police department. To run one that needs a lot of help and has to be fixed is even tougher. I have confidence in the chief and in Terry Gainer to run the place and to make sure that right people are working on the right cases.

PRESS: OK. Let me jump back to Modesto for just a second, because, as you pointed out earlier, that's proof in the pudding is how well he does in his district. Here's somebody I would trust more than the "Modesto Bee," which I happen to know well, it's the mayor of Modesto, I think more in touch with the people.

Here's what the mayor said, quote: "I don't think there's anybody in this community who thinks he's hindered the investigation by his silence. If Condit ran again, I'm sure he'd win." Here is the big one: "Unless he's hiding something, and I hope that's not the case."

Now, with the "unless" which I think all of us would agree...


PRESS: ... we're working on the assumption here he had nothing to do with that disappearance. Just by not talking, the people of Modesto are saying, "all right, Gary."

DIGENOVA: Well, I'm not sure that's the case. I think there's a lot of -- I think there may be a silent majority out there in Modesto hoping that he says something soon, because I think the longer he waits as a public official and doesn't say something, particularly about the substantive issue, as Lanny said, that's really bad. He has got to open his mouth as a public official.

I think he has a ,duty certainly on the substantive issue about whether or not he was involved, to personally -- not through a written statement, address that question. Of course, if he does, then he is going to be subject to questioning.

NOVAK: I want to get the last question into the compassionate liberal Lanny Davis. What do you think of the fact that he was so -- Congressman Condit was so uncooperative with the woman's parents who are heartbroken and really was just not having any part of them. Isn't that deplorable conduct by the congressman?

DAVIS: I don't know if that is true, Bob. I understand that he spoke with them...

NOVAK: After a while.

DAVIS: I certainly would be very, very angry if he wasn't fully cooperative with them, but let me just finally pose one quick comment. If this weren't about a disappearance, would we be demanding that he speak about the private relationship and when...


DAVIS: And the answer has to be no, that we've got to draw...


PRESS: ... thank you very much...

DIGENOVA: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: ... for coming back in, and Lanny Davis, those two high- powered Washington attorneys.

Bob Novak and I will come back with a coupe of high-powered closing comments.


NOVAK: Bill, it's typical that you would ignore and downgrade the newspaper in Gary Condit's hometown and elevate the politician who says everything is OK, but because when the newspaper -- what the newspaper is saying, I would bet is an indication of real trouble for the congressman, because, you know, one thing about Monica Lewinsky: she wasn't missing.

PRESS: No, Bob, here's the problem -- you know what the problem is -- and I hate to say it because I'm part of it -- there are 24-hour cable networks right now, and the media have to fill it, they have to fill it with something. They don't -- the media is not trying -- even the "Modesto Bee" -- they're not trying to find Chandra Levy, they're trying to get a lot of coverage about a sex scandal. That's all they are looking for. I think it's disgusting...

NOVAK: You know what that sounds like?

PRESS: As long as Gary Condit is talking to the cops and talking to the parents, he doesn't have to talk with the media.

NOVAK: Well, I think he does. I think he owes it. He is a political figure. And don't engage in self-hatred, it isn't becoming.

PRESS: No, it's not self-hatred...

NOVAK: Sounds like it to me.


PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE!



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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