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What Happened to Chandra Levy?

Aired July 6, 2001 - 19:30   ET



ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: ... this evening, when Chandra's aunt, Linda Zamsky, issued a 16-page statement attacking Condit for lack of candor that impedes the investigation and claiming that her niece had an intimate, bedroom relationship with the congressman.

Whatever happened to the 24-year-old intern, politicians on both coasts are keenly interested in the political fate of the 53-year-old Democratic congressman. According to party sources, Condit has privately told House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt that he has no intention of resigning.

But is he dead politically? Does this look like a Republican takeover in the closely held House of Representatives? Democratic strategist Paul Begala is sitting in for Bill Press on the left tonight. Welcome, Paul.

But first, to CNN correspondent Bob Franken for the latest from Congressman Condit's camp. Bob, Marcia Ein (sic), a political relations consultant -- Marina Ein, I'm sorry, a political relations consultant has been hired by Congressman Condit. In her name, they put out a statement tonight. What did it say?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, this has been reduced to your typical Washington situation, no matter what the specifics of it are. Both sides have public relations consultants, both sides have Washington attorneys.

And tonight Marina Ein put out a statement in her name -- not Congressman Condit's name, not Abbe Lowell the lawyer's name -- saying that the congressman has cooperated with police entirely, as has his wife in the efforts to try and find Chandra Levy, and the rest of the discussion, the type of thing that Linda Zamsky brought up is not worthy of discussion, it's just part of media frenzy, as he put it, to try and fan the flames of material that really impedes getting the Chandra Levy matter resolved -- Paul.

PAUL BEGALA, GUEST CO-HOST: Well, Bob, do you have any sense if the Levy family, who as you said has their own spokespeople and lawyers, are they going to fire back in this increasingly bitter tit- for-tat?

FRANKEN: If you're wondering if they're working over the weekend to do something, these are public relations people who are controlling this, and they rarely work weekends.

BEGALA: Bob, thank you very much. I feel for that too, I don't like working weekends either. Thank you very much for that report, Bob.

And joining us right now is Dan Schnur from the great state of California. Mr. Schnur, let me begin with you, you are a Republican political strategist out there on the left coast. Is the Republican Party going to try to make political hay out of a case of a young woman who is missing?

DAN SCHNUR, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don't think you can try to make political hay out of this, Paul. It is such a sensitive situation. Completely aside from the political implications for Gary Condit, the surrounding circumstances for this young woman and her family are such that it's very hard for the party, and it wouldn't be appropriate for the party to try to take political advantage of it.

Having said that, if Gary Condit does not stay in office, or even if he does stay in office, there are recruitment efforts going on down in his district to identify candidates to run for that seat, who would not have run have these circumstances not arisen.

NOVAK: Joe Cerrell, you have been doing damage control on Democrats, on campaigns going back to Adlai Stevenson, not Grover Cleveland's vice president, but the guy who ran for president in '52 and '56. How do you believe that Gary Condit up to this time could have done a possibly have done a worse job of damage control?

JOE CERRELL, DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL CONSULTANT: Well, thank you for the historical reference. The -- I think Congressman Condit probably ought to have a session, an open session with the news media.

It is a no-win situation. If he comes and meets with the media, I mean, there are all over him, and if he doesn't -- which is what he has been doing -- they want to know what he's hiding. I think he needs one of those session where maybe he comes out, gives a statement -- himself, not anybody else -- and at the same -- and at the same time does not take a whole flock of questions.

It would be one of the biggest news conferences that, Robert, that you have ever attended.

BEGALA: Dan Schnur, it seems to me there is really three power centers in this that Congressman Condit has to deal with, and you have been a flack for some of the best in the business, including John McCain -- they are I think the police, the Levy family and the media. The police seem to be happy with how Congressman Condit is conducting himself, but certainly the Levy family and absolutely the press are not. Can he afford to anger two out of those three power players?

SCHNUR: He really can't. And it's appropriate to mention the police, because clearly if there is a legal requirement that we are not aware of that keeps him from talking, that has to take precedence, but assuming that what we know from the police is accurate, that he is not a suspect in the young woman's disappearance, I agree with Joe Cerrell. It is absolutely incumbent upon the congressman to come out, tell his side of the story.

There is a legal standard that demands that a man is innocent until proven guilty...

CERRELL: Thank you.

SCHNUR: ... but there is a standard of public service and for politics that demands that an innocent man defends himself to those who supported him over the years. And at this point, I think it is entirely appropriate for Gary Condit not just to come out and make a statement, as Joe Cerrell said, but to answer questions until there aren't anymore.

BEGALA: Well, the statement that his -- that Condit's attorney put out earlier today and then also his public relations flack, that went out this evening, both hinted and described what's going on now probably accurately as a media frenzy. Is their strategy a wise one, to try to provoke a media backlash and maybe evoke a little sympathy for the embattled congressman?

SCHNUR: I don't think you can provoke that backlash by surrogates, through lawyers and through spin doctors. I think if there is going to be a backlash, it would ensue if Gary Condit himself stood up, answered -- made a statement, answered questions from the media mob, and then at that point he might engender a little bit of sympathy, but as long as he stays in the background and lets surrogates do the dirty work, I think it's unlikely.

CERRELL: I would like to go back and I'd like to agree if I could with Mr. Schnur, since he agreed with something I said, and that is this is still America. I mean, not only is a person innocent until proven guilty, there has not been an allegation of any illegal activity by the congressman. I mean, let's give him his due -- that's the reason I think he should be -- and we are both agreeing on that -- make himself available to the public and come up with a statement.

But let's not get too far down the line, you know, indicating that maybe he has done something wrong, or there is some foul play that has been going on. We don't know that. I would like -- if we could spend as much time trying to find Chandra Levy, maybe we wouldn't be talking about Gary Condit.

NOVAK: But, Joe, something very different has happened in the last 48 hours. Up until now, there has been a lot of speculation, gossip, about Gary Condit's nocturnal activities, but yesterday Chandra's aunt gave an interview to "The Washington Post," and today she put out a statement, where she detailed -- in Technicolor I would say -- her niece's relations with the congressman, how they went out on these assignations, their techniques, the fact that she used his name.

And Linda Zamsky in the interview with "The Washington Post" said this about Chandra talking about the congressman: "He was emphatic, it had to remain secret. If anybody found out about this relationship, it was done, over, kaput." That is really tough stuff to deal with and something quite different than we have had before yesterday, isn't it?

CERRELL: Mr. Novak, if in fact, the aunt or anybody else is accurate, we still haven't -- we still haven't tied anything illegal that was taking place, we still really haven't solved the problem of Chandra Levy.

We don't know what took place. I mean, we are having one woman's opinion, you know, against the congressman's opinion. I'm willing to give it some time to try to find out the truth and try to find the young lady, which will bring out the truth.

NOVAK: Well, Joe, I agree with you 100 percent that there is nothing illegal been done, but you and I both know the stupidities that can be made in public relations, and one of my favorite newspapers, one of America's great newspapers -- it runs my column -- "The New York Post" had a wonderful front page today, and it said -- it is taken from the Web page of Congressman Condit: "Help wanted, interns full time to work in Representative Condit's office. Apply through his Web site." I mean, when you really get dumb, is there anything even a Joe Cerrell could do to help you?

CERRELL: First of all, the young lady in question was never an intern in Congressman Condit's office. Second of all, both of us know because we utilized interns what a great value it is to the intern as well as to the people that they are working with. I mean, I'm not going to come down against interns.

Now, whether some -- whether they are making a mistake about the Web site -- I haven't seen it -- and if in fact that is what it is, I think the timing is rather poor. Mr. Schnur would never do that with his interns at the University of California.

BEGALA: No, in fact -- and Dan Schnur, you are teaching out there at Cal Berkeley, so I am going to draw experience there, as well as your experience in practical politics to ask you to evaluate the battle of the press releases that we saw this afternoon.

First, we had most recently a statement from Marina Ein who is the press flack for Congressman Condit, in which she says, and I quote: "The congressman and Mrs. Condit have talked with authorities a number of times. Their complete willingness to do this with police investigators should not be confused with their decision not to fuel an already out-of-control media frenzy. They do not believe that making public statements on this subject, or attending media events, will do anything positive or constructive in the effort to locate Chandra."

That was in response to Chandra Levy's aunt who, earlier today, said that Condit's lack of candor was hampering the investigation. Who is winning the PR battle here?

SCHNUR: Right now, nobody is winning the PR battle -- a battle of surrogates, a battle of spokespersons, a battle of press releases. All it does is intensify the media fury. And as long as Condit remains Condit, that fury is just going to continue to grow. Had he spoken at the beginning of this crisis -- and let's say for the sake of argument the aunt is telling the truth, that there was an inappropriate relationship, and let's say for the sake of argument that the D.C. police are telling the truth and he is not a suspect in her disappearance -- then, for Gary Condit to admit an inappropriate relationship with an intern might have been a painful thing to do, but it would certainly put him in a much, much better position now with his constituents and with his supporters than he's gotten himself into by remaining silent.

BEGALA: I have to agree with you. I think it's a good idea to always tell the truth and to be up front about these things, even if they're painful. But do you really think it would end the feeding frenzy from the media, or wouldn't it just be like pouring gasoline on fire?

SCHNUR: It wouldn't end it, but as you know, Paul, from politics, you concede a point in order to make a larger one. And if Gary Condit had made that painful admission, I think it would have given him some more credibility than he currently enjoys, on the much larger more serious question of this young woman's disappearance. You know as well as I do, if Bill Clinton had admitted the Lewinsky thing at outset, Al Gore might be president today.

One lesson that politicians never learn is that the longer you stonewall, the worse the consequences get to be.

NOVAK: We're going to take a break, but Joe Cerrell wanted to get in there for a second. Go ahead, Joe.

CERRELL: I just want to point out that you can't win either way. I happen to think that this thing is, with all public relations and attorneys and everything, I don't know. I think it's fueling it. I don't think it's calming it.

But on the other hand, if they weren't doing it, then Mr. Begala, Novak would be criticizing that nothing is coming forward. This is, I hate to say, a no-win situation. It's an impossible situation.

NOVAK: All right. We're going to have to take a break, and when we come back we'll discuss: If it's a no-win situation, does that mean we're going to soon be talking about ex-Congressman Gary Condit?


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Paul Begala sitting in on the left, where we and everybody else in Washington are talking about the curious case of the missing intern and the California Congressman who's at the center of the storm.

Joining us in our discussion tonight, two veterans of the California political wars, Republican strategist Dan Schnur and Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell -- Bob?

NOVAK: Joe, we looked around in our archives at CNN, and we found an interview with Congressman Gary Condit about what President Clinton should do in the Monica Lewinsky affair. And this was the advice from Congressman Condit. Let's listen to it.


REP. GARY CONDIT (D), CALIFORNIA: The fact is that the information is going to get out eventually, fall, and then let's get on to making the decision of what we are going to do about what we think happened.



CONDIT: All we're seeing is, get all the information out there, let the American people make their decision. Let us make our decision.


NOVAK: Now, why didn't he take his own advice when he ran into an intern problem?

CERRELL: Well, there is no doubt people -- people don't take their own advice. They don't listen to themselves. They know how to advise other people what to do, and that's what Mr. Condit did. I mean, there's a great deal of pressure. I mean, we're talking about the world is watching this. I mean, it's not just CNN, but CNN International is watching this issue. So you've got the pressures are coming down on you and, you know, unfortunately he didn't take his own advice.

NOVAK: Joe, I've seen a lot of reports about Congressman Condit being a conservative, or sometimes a right-wing Democrat, and you know, he -- I checked on how he voted on impeachment of President Clinton. He voted no on all four counts, and then he was kind of a good buddy of Governor Gray Davis. We got a little film of him walking around with Gray Davis, shaking hands with him, embracing, kissing -- right there.

He's not a right-winger. He is a mainstream Democrat. isn't he?

CERRELL: He is a moderate to conservative. He heads the Blue Dog Democrats, which is a more conservative organization. He votes the issues. He's got a wonderful record as a member of the legislature. Matter of fact, to show, though, his independence, speaker Willie Brown had a group called the Gang of Five. He was one of the leaders of that organization, that tried to oust speaker Willie Brown because they did think he was too liberal.

But again, this is not a liberal-conservative issue. This is an issue of what the people up in Modesto and Merced and the areas of the San Joaquin Valley -- what do they think about Congressman Condit? And I think they're very proud of him so far, and until we know something differently, I think they're going to stay with him.

BEGALA: Well, Dan Schnur, let me bring it back to Washington, because while his voting record may not be a problem in Modesto and Merced in his district, I think it is in Washington. One of the problems that Condit has is he doesn't have any friends here in town. He doesn't court the media, and probably more importantly, he's not very loyal to his party. He was one of only 31 Democrats in whole House who voted for the expanded lynch mob inquiry into impeachment back in 1998. And just very recently, he was one of only 10, in the entire House, of his party, to vote for the Bush tax cut.

So isn't it part of his problem that when he needs friends right now, he looks around his fellow Democrats and they're not there?

SCHNUR: Well, Joe Cerrell made the right point. He's the head of the Blue Dog Democrats. And a Central Valley Democrat in California, Paul, is a lot like a Southern Democrat in other parts of the country. John Breaux, Zell Miller, Gary Condit -- they all come from the same ideological wing of the party.

But back to Bob Novak's point, Gary Condit and Gray Davis are very close. When Davis announced his campaign for governor it was Gary Condit that took him up and down the Valley. And in fact, it was rumored in Sacramento, at least before the situation developed, that Davis was looking for a way to bring Condit back to California, to position him to run to be his -- Davis' successor in 2006. Clearly, that's out the window.

BEGALA: You sly dog, Schnur.

SCHNUR: Clearly, that's out the window.

BEGALA: You sly dog.

SCHNUR: He is very well respected in his district, but I'll tell you, "The San Francisco Chronicle" this morning, which serves the upper valley -- Modesto, Lodi, Stockton, that whole area -- had six stories about this. The lead editorial, two columns, three news stories. There is only so long that a media rampage like this can go on before it has an impact on even the most popular politician in the world.

CERRELL: That's true.

BEGALA: I want -- Dan, I want you to save that tape because what you will see when you look at it with pride is that you went through all that with a straight face.

Now, we began this discussion -- you said, we're not going to try as a Republican Party to make political hay, and here you are, somehow trying to smear Gray Davis...


BEGALA: ... with the alleged and potential problems of Gary Condit, who is a politician whose problems are in Washington.

SCHNUR: Well, then let me clarify. I've got a million differences with Gray Davis, but it's clear that he had nothing to do with this. That's not my point at all. My point... (CROSSTALK)

SCHNUR: My point is that Gary Condit had a bright political future, and the longer he waits to answer the necessary questions, the harder it's going to be for him to reclaim that future.

NOVAK: Joe Cerrell, I don't know if you have been in Modesto recently. I haven't been there in many years. You go to Modesto much?

CERRELL: I thought you and I took John Glen there back when he was campaigning for the presidency.

NOVAK: It might have been, but I am told that the voters in Modesto might forgive Congressman Condit if they thought perhaps he had done some violence to this girl, not that anybody is accusing him of it, they might forgive him for that, but they could never forgive him for philandering. Is that the kind of place Modesto is?

CERRELL: It is a moderately conservative community. The San Joaquin Valley, but I think they are also smart enough people who are going to going recognize that they have had a good assemblyman, a good congressman, and, again, there is no allegations at this time of anything that is illegal.

You know, and I think they will -- we also have, Mr. Novak -- we have 16 months until that election. A lot will -- it may be up, it may be down but there is a long time before we are going to really know all the facts about Chandra Levy.

Hopefully, as we are talking, she is over at the CNN bureau in Washington, she's showing up, she's turning herself in. I hope so.

NOVAK: That's -- well break into this program if that is the case. Joe Cerrell, you say that the constituents in the Central Valley will stick with Mr. Condit. But, let me read you an NBC news Zogby international poll of Condit constituents. "He should have said more publicly: 53 percent. Already been candid: 19 percent. Not sure: 20 percent."

That means that 19 percent of his own constituents, we are not talking about Washingtonians, or Los Angelenos, or New Yorkers, his own constituents, only 19 percent, thinks he has been candid. He has a hill to climb doesn't he?

CERRELL: But it didn't say that 59 percent -- they just want him to say more. I would like him to say more, but I'm still on his side. It doesn't mean that those 59 percent are uptight with him. They want him to say more. I think Mr. Begala, Mr. Schnur, yourself, I think we all agree we'd like him to say more, we'd like him to go public on this to try to explain that a lot of the gossip is just gossip, and let's concentrate on the real issue of finding the young lady.

BEGALA: In fact, Dan Schnur, today CNN is reporting that Congressman Condit met with Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader and has assured him he has no intention of resigning. That is always the first step -- that they are starting to push you toward resigning -- do you see a time at which this guy becomes an Albatross and maybe the Democratic leadership in Washington or there in Sacramento, California, come to him and say, you got to go?

SCHNUR: I don't think that's the kind of thing that would have much effect if it ever came to that point. As you noted earlier Gary Condit is very much an independent. What he will ultimately answer to, for better or worse, are the wishes of his constituents. And again to keep coming back to the same point, the best way he can repay them for all the support they have given him over the years is to be honest with them, to stand up, to make a statement and answer the questions. I think that is the best thing for everybody concerned.

BEGALA: Let me ask you for a final question of prediction. Will the stonewall hold, and if not, when will it break?

SCHNUR: The stonewall will not hold. It cannot hold under this much pressure. I don't know when it breaks but the longer it takes for him to come public, the tougher it will be for him to rebuild what has always been a very promising political career.

NOVAK: Joe Cerrell, do you have a quick answer to that?

CERRELL: I'm not excited about agreeing, but in honesty I have to agree. Let's try to get this behind us. Let's try to get it over with, let's come forward and discuss the issues, otherwise the media frenzy is going to continue and a good man is going suffer.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, Joe Cerrell, Dan Schnur for a spirited discussion. And then Begala and I will be back to clear up this mystery in closing comments.


NOVAK: Paul Begala, in this city I don't know about your experience, all anybody is talking about is the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case, and nobody thinks she is suicide, nobody thinks she ran away, nobody thinks she was abducted. But they all have bizarre theories. What's your theory?

BEGALA: I don't know what my theory is, but I think Dan Schnur was right when he said it's become a crisis. And part of the tragedy here is that everybody is only talking about a woman who is missing. And I think he would be a lot better off and so would we all if he would just come clean.

NOVAK: But the aunt really did him in when she gave all these details, and nobody disbelieves her. What's he going to do about that? Say no, it isn't so?

BEGALA: Well, he's got to fess up if it's true. But even worse than that what the family said today was, his lack of candor is harming investigation. And the police are trying hard and the FBI is helping, trying to find this woman and that's what's most important.

NOVAK: What he needs is Paul Begala and James Carville to get him through this.

BEGALA: We're retired on intern cases, thank goodness. From the left I'm Paul Begala. Good night from 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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