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Gary Condit to Break His Silence About Chandra Levy

Aired August 23, 2001 - 17:00   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: This is INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington. Gary Condit's political future is on the line as the congressman breaks his silence about Chandra Levy.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Bob Franken in Modesto, California, where Congressman Condit is taping television interviews here at the walnut ranch of a friend near Modesto and where he sent a letter to all his constituents.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm Bill Schneider in Washington. As Condit splashes himself across the media, should he be taking tips from Hollywood?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill with the first concrete sign that Elizabeth Dole is moving towards a run for the Senate.

ANNOUNCER: Now, Judy Woodruff takes you INSIDE POLITICS.

WOODRUFF: Thank you for joining us. Well, for months, Gary Condit's face has been plastered on television screens, newspapers and magazines. Now, in just a matter of hours, Americans will finally hear from the congressman.

Condit's network television interview is a major part of his new media blitz after his long refusal to talk publicly about his relationship with intern Chandra Levy or about her disappearance.

Our national correspondent, Bob Franken, is in California outside of the Modesto area ranch where Condit has taped that interview.

Bob, how much do we know about what he said?

FRANKEN: Well, we know that it's going on right now. This is a ranch that belongs to Paul Warda, a longtime political friend and supporter of Congressman Condit. He was called a couple of nights ago, he told us, and asked whether they could use this location. They were trying to keep it away from media exposure. As you can tell, that didn't work. The interview is going on right now. You can see the walnut trees in back of me. Perhaps in back of me, you can see the big satellite dish from ABC. ABC, of course, is the one that's going to be running the interview this evening with Connie Chung 10:00 p.m. Eastern. That interview is going on. It will be followed by an interview with a local television station from Sacramento. And then local newspaper interviews. Already, Condit has done an interview on Wednesday with "People" magazine. We always hasten to point out that it is owned by the same company that owns CNN, AOL-Time Warner. That magazine is going to hit the newsstands tomorrow. Also tomorrow, there will be an interview with "Newsweek." So that's where we are right now, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Bob, how is the letter that reached Condit's constituents today in his congressional district, how is that letter fitting into his overall media strategy?

FRANKEN: Well, what he wanted to do is to get the letter to constituents before the television interview started. And you can see here that he succeeded. The letter, in fact, got here well before the interview started. We were here, as a matter of fact, when the postman delivered it.

There's some really interesting aspects to it. What is really interesting is the fact that he really says nothing about his relationship with Chandra Levy and offers no apologies. But first, let's talk about what it says in the letter. First of all, he denies any involvement in Chandra Levy's disappearance. He talks about the media pressures saying, "I will be interviewed on television and hopefully I will be able to answer questions that help people understand. It is not something I look forward to. But this has gone on long enough. "This," he means the relentless media coverage over the four months that Chandra Levy has been missing.

He goes on to say, "Before speaking to the media, I wanted to write to you. I have known many of you for a long time. You know me to be hard working, committed to our issues, and dedicated to my community and my family. I hope you will understand," he goes on, "that I am also not perfect and have made my share of mistakes." That is the closest that he comes to an apology that many of the constituents are seeking because of the time that he did not speak candid about the relationship with Chandra Levy, the missing former intern, that he finally acknowledged, according to police sources to investigators in their third interview.

He goes on with something very interesting politically when he says, "For now, I want my work in Congress to improve our communities." And everybody, of course, is going to look closely at the term, "For now." His staff and advisers say repeatedly that he is going to stay in Congress, not resign, and that he's going to run again and try and have another term. But, of course, this always leaves open the possibility, Judy, that he could change his mind.

WOODRUFF: Bob, the letter also suggests that Condit has cooperated fully, he says, with the police, with the authorities. How does that square with what the police have said?

FRANKEN: Well, it depends on which policeman is talking when. Not too long ago, Police Chief Ramsey made some comments on a radio station in Washington suggesting that it would have been helpful if Condit had been more forthcoming about the full extent of his relationship with Chandra Levy in the first interview. There were four interviews, and the chief was suggesting and some critics have that the delay in doing so might have also delayed the effectiveness of the investigation for Chandra Levy's whereabouts, which of course, as we know, has not been successful.

WOODRUFF: All right, Bob Franken, reporting from Modesto, as Gary Condit tries to repair his image and reach out to voters in the Modesto area. He may want to seek advice from P.R. experts in a different part of California, according to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider -- Bill.

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, the Condit story really is a tabloid story. And who has more experience in handling tabloid stories than Hollywood? These days, celebrities rely on media training experts to help them deal with personal crises. So we went to one in Hollywood and asked her: If Gary Condit were your client, what advice would you give him about how to handle his interview tonight?


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Meet Carole Hemingway, media training expert. "Condit has to come clean," Hemingway says.

CAROLE HEMINGWAY, MEDIA TRAINING EXPERT: And the fact that he bumbled so badly in the beginning he needs to acknowledge.

SCHNEIDER: Hugh Grant certainly did that when he went on "The Tonight Show."

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR: I think you know in life pretty much what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing. And I did a bad thing, and there you have it.

SCHNEIDER: Gary Condit doesn't quite do that in his letter to his constituents. In fact, he insists he was fully cooperative with the authorities, but he does say, quote, "I am not perfect and have made my share of mistakes." That may not be enough.

HEMINGWAY: He needs to show that this event has had a dramatic impact on him. And so, therefore, it has changed his thinking on many things.


SCHNEIDER: Evangelist Jimmy Swaggert played the repentant sinner when he got in trouble and he survived. Politician Gary Hart dismissed the charges against him as irrelevant. He did not survive. We'll see tonight if Condit sounds like a changed man. In a case where there is a personal tragedy, something more is required.

HEMINGWAY: He needs to show grief about Chandra Levy. And as a father of himself, he needs to show that he can identify as a parent with the Levys and he understands them completely.

SCHNEIDER: One comparable case? Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: This last week has been an agonizing one for me and for the members of my family. And the grief we feel over the loss of a wonderful friend will remain with us the rest of our lives.

SCHNEIDER: In his letter, Condit tries to separate his private behavior from his public performance. Will the voters buy that distinction? They did once before.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, 42ND PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.


SCHNEIDER: Is it easier to survive in Washington or in Hollywood? Well, probably Washington, where it's just politics. You know, people in Hollywood have real enemies.

WOODRUFF: I think we've got some real ones here in Washington, too.

SCHNEIDER: You haven't spent enough time in Hollywood.

WOODRUFF: Bill Schneider.

Well, what Gary Condit says later tonight and how he says it could damage or help salvage his political career. A little earlier, I talked about this with three people who know the potential pitfalls of working with and within the news media: Lisa DePaulo of "Talk" magazine, Democratic consultant Mark Siegel, and Fraser Seitel, a public relations consultant. I started by asking Fraser Seitel what Gary Condit needs to accomplish tonight.


FRASER SEITEL, PUBLIC RELATIONS CONSULTANT: I think he's got to accomplish several things. First of all, he's got to apologize. This is what everybody's picking apart the letter about: There's no apology. The two words he should keep repeating, as far as I'm concerned, is "profound apology" to the poor Levys, to his own family, to his constituents, et cetera. That's number one.

Number two, he's got to explain to some degree the relationship with Chandra. How it started, what it eventuated into and something about the relationship. He's got to acknowledged that. Number three, he's got to say, as he did in his letter, "I had nothing to do with her disappearance."

And then, number four, he's got to explain why it took him so long to come out with steps one, two, and three.

WOODRUFF: Mark Siegel, would you add anything to that?

MARK SIEGEL, DEMOCRATIC CONSULTANT: I would. I think people who are watching the show tonight, especially the people in his constituency, have to have some degree of empathy with his position. So he has to be strongly sympathetic. He has to apologize. He has to be remorseful. He has to look sincere. And he has to make it appear that whatever he did in not being forthcoming, he did not to protect himself and his political career, but to protect the privacy of his family, and in particular, his wife.

WOODRUFF: All right, let's talk about the questions that should be posed.

Lisa DePaulo, what are the most important questions that should be put to him?

LISA DEPAULO, "TALK" MAGAZINE: Well, one of the first questions is why Gary Condit didn't notice that Chandra Levy was missing. They talked to each other three times a day. She was practically living with him until his wife came to town. Did he try to call her after the 1st? If not, why not? Did he notice that she wasn't calling him?

About his wife, you know, did she ever have a conversation with Chandra? Chandra's friends say that Gary Condit led her to believe that he was going to leave his wife for her and that she was pressuring him do that at the end. Is that true? Why did he send his staff out to lie for him for so many months, because...

WOODRUFF: Well, let's -- go ahead.

DEPAULO: I mean, either he had them lie for him or he lied to them. It has to be one or the other.

WOODRUFF: Well, let's stop there.

And Fraser, let's take that first question. Why didn't he notice her missing sooner? When did he notice when he tried to call her that she wasn't around? How would he answer that?

SEITEL: I think he's got to anticipate questions like that. And it seems to me what he's got to do is put out what happened with the relationship? "The last time I saw her was on this day. What we said at the time is, 'We'll talk in the future.' We left it open ended. I first learned of her disappearance on thus and so." In other words, on that question, which I think is a good question and Connie Chung will ask it, he's got to be prepared to talk about that to preempt the question like that, it seems to me.

WOODRUFF: What about Lisa's question about Mrs. Condit? Did she ever have contact with Chandra Levy? How important that he answer that?

SEITEL: On Mrs. Condit, well, I think that he's got to again -- he's got to elaborate on, you know, as Mark said, first of all, he's got to take the hit with his wife. "This is terrible for my wife and family, and I apologize profusely to them. But my wife learned of the relationship at this time," or "We discussed it at this time. I have discussed it with them."

And I think also he's got to put some parameters on how far he's willing to go with respect to his family and also with respect to the relationship with her.

WOODRUFF: Well, Lisa, if -- are those the kinds of answers that are going to satisfy people like you who've been paying attention to this story for months?

DEPAULO: No. I think the answers -- the only thing that will satisfy people at this point is really explaining how he felt about her, what he was doing in those weeks, what he was saying to her, what she was saying to him. And only then can he move onto the next thing of: Why did you wait 67 days? He said in his statement today or his constituent letter, "I answered each and every one of the questions from the FBI." Well, then why did you not answer truthfully the most important question?

WOODRUFF: Mark Siegel, you've been around Democratic politics for a long time, you've known Gary Condit. Are these the kinds of answers that he's going to feel comfortable giving? Of course, we don't know what's in his mind.

SIEGEL: Well, I saw the letter that he sent out to his constituents, Judy, and it's totally unacceptable. He didn't accept personal responsibility. He never said he was sorry. He never used the term regret or remorse. He seemed to deflect this whole thing on the press or on the tabloid press, you know, CNN, NBC, "Washington Post," "New York Times." To me, it's not the tabloid press. But in any case, the problem was one that he created and he created it by not being forthcoming at the very, very outset.

I think his only possible defense is to say that he was trying to protect his family and to shield his family. And he has to come out right from the beginning and saying he made a terrible mistake in trying to protect his family.

WOODRUFF: Lisa DePaulo, what other questions should be asked?

DEPAULO: Well, I think we really have to look at -- you know, ask him a lot more about the relationship, ask him a lot more about his curious behavior since May 1st. Why did he ask Anne Marie Smith to sign the affidavit lying about the relationship? Why was that such a big priority for him? What was with the watch box and, you know, where is the watch, come to think of it?

WOODRUFF: Well, what about those two questions, Fraser? How can he deal with those?

SEITEL: The -- on the watch box, you know, once again without knowing the facts, I think that's the kind of question that you say, "I panicked. I saw these people following me all over and I lost it." You take the hit. I think what Mark is saying, you never going to satisfy the people who are his critics and he's not going to be able to do that much tonight anyway. But you take the hit, you apologize. You do everything that was not in that letter.

In terms of the second question, the obstruction of justice, my answer would be: I don't know. I think on that one, you've got to talk to a lawyer, because if he says, "I didn't obstruct," and he did obstruct, then he's got a problem.

WOODRUFF: Let me just ask all three of you: Are we being unrealistic today to expect Gary Condit to provide us with new information that he hasn't already given the police that we haven't already heard in the public arena, Lisa?

DEPAULO: Well, I think the police are -- you know, can't wait for 10:00 tonight, because if he says anything at all that is different from what he said or didn't say to them in those four meetings, it's going to be very interesting. But I do think if this constituent letter is any indication, it's going to be a great night of television.

WOODRUFF: Mark Siegel?

SIEGEL: I think it's very important that he refer to Chandra Levy with some degree of humanness. It's been -- whenever he's referred to her in the past, it's been very distant. He has to demonstrate that he deeply cares about this woman and the circumstances of her abduction, death or whatever circumstances. We haven't sensed that yet. And if he could make us understand that and make us also understand that everything he did with respect to the stewardess and the watch was again all part of this attempt to protect his family, he might develop some empathy.

WOODRUFF: And Fraser?

SEITEL: I would think, Judy, you nailed it, that this is -- we're not going to learn much new. This is predictable. This is ritualistic cleansing of a transgressor that Bill Clinton did and Monica Lewinsky did and O.J. Simpson tried to do and so on. I think that what Mark said is that he's got to be contrite, he's got to be remorseful, and he's got to try to move the ball up the field a little bit from where it is now.

WOODRUFF: And Lisa, is there a surprising question you would throw at him that maybe nobody else has thought of here?

DEPAULO: I would certainly ask the investigators of the Levys first, you know, what their surprising question would be, because he hasn't spoken to them. And I'm sure there's a couple there, and I'm sure that Connie Chung has them.

WOODRUFF: Are there curb -- what are the curb balls he should expect, Fraser and Mark?

SEITEL: The one that I wouldn't want to be him if she asked him was: Do you know for a fact, yes or no, was Chandra Levy pregnant? That's a tough one. The other one, it seems to me is what you raised before, the obstruction of justice. That one he's got to be very careful about.

SIEGEL: Well, I don't know if Connie Chung will ask the pregnancy question. It's very direct and blunt and would be quite awkward. And I don't know how he would answer it. In any case, we know that they had a physical relationship so it would be an appropriate question. But I think fundamentally...

WOODRUFF: Did you say an appropriate or an inappropriate?

SIEGEL: It would be an appropriate question to ask if she might be pregnant if in fact they were intimate. She could be pregnant, but we don't know that. But I think it's critical that he not try to deflect this problem on to the press as he did in the letter or on to anyone else. He has to accept responsibility for his own actions.

WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to have to leave it there. Mark Siegel, Lisa DePaulo and Fraser Seitel, thank you, all three.


Stay tuned to CNN tonight as we cover Congressman Gary Condit's decision to go public. At 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Wolf Blitzer will have a special report, "Gary Condit Speaks Out." At 9:00 p.m., Larry King has the first interview with "Vanity Fair's" Judy Bachrach, who interviewed Condit yesterday. And then at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, following the Condit network interview, tune in for a half-hour special: "Condit Speaks: The Reaction."

We're going to take a break. When we come back, California consultants, we'll talk to them about how people in Condit's congressional district are reacting to all of this.


WOODRUFF: Modesto is an anchor of California's 18th congressional district, which is located in the state's Central Valley. Many residents there are offering mixed reviews of the letter Congressman Gary Condit sent them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's being honest about it. I got nothing against him. I'll vote for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that it's pretty transparent. He wants to remain in power and he's doing whatever is necessary to convince the -- his constituents that he's an all-right guy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think he's doing the best he can. I really don't think -- I think everything is honest with him.

QUESTION: You're still a supporter?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somebody who lies to get out of a problem to me is a very weak person. And I don't want somebody like that representing me.


WOODRUFF: In the 18th district, known for many years as "Condit country," registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans, but voters of both parties tend to be conservative. Democrat Condit won a seventh term last year with a solid 67 percent of the vote. But in the presidential election, Republican George W. Bush won the district.

Well, let's talk more about Condit's district and the congressman's appeal to his constituents with Sal Russo. He is a Republican political strategist in California; also with us, Bill Press of CNN's "Crossfire." He's a former chairman of the California Democratic Party.

Gentlemen, thank you, both.

Sal Russo, to you first. This letter that Gary Condit sent out, how did it strike you?

SAL RUSSO, CALIFORNIA GOP STRATEGIST: Well, it seemed a little cold, frankly, Judy. You know, Gary's been a very good congressman for the district, well-liked. And I think people in Modesto in the 18th district are sort of taken aback. It's a kind of a district where a man's word is his bond, a handshake is a deal. They're used to being straightforward and up front. And when this thing broke and suddenly Gary was acting more like a criminal defendant than their congressman, I think that it's taken a big toll on them. And I think they'd like to have him be a little bit more forthcoming and be like the Gary Condit that they really know.

WOODRUFF: Bill Press, the letter too cold in its tone?

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Yeah, I think that Sal's right. I think Gary Condit should have been more of a mensch. He should have stepped up to the plate. He should have taken responsibility. I think he had a responsibility actually to explain the nature of his relationship with Chandra Levy, to explain the fact that he had nothing to do with her disappearance, to say, "I'm sorry." He did say that, but he never said he was sorry for what he did. He never took responsibility for what he did and what he didn't do. It seemed to me if the letter were meant to raise questions and get people to watch the interview, it might work. If it were made intended to answer questions and get them back on his side, missed the target.

WOODRUFF: What purpose do you think the letter serves, Sal Russo?

RUSSO: Well, obviously, it's part of a strategy. I think that he has to re-engage with his constituents. You know, as a first out, maybe it's going to be a start, but it was lacking in many ways. I mean, in some ways, he challenged the Levy family by saying that he cooperated with Mr. Levy from the first day on, contradicting kind of the feeling that the Levy family expressed. He said he cooperated with law enforcement from the first day. You know, police sources, at least anonymously, had disagreed with that. He kind of challenged some people. And I think it's kind of risky to challenge the Levy family and the police, because they can come back and contradict him. So it's a weak first step. I think tonight, his interviews with the networks and then with the local media is going to be the key to this thing.

WOODRUFF: Bill Press, obviously, the people in the district we heard from just before this interview is not a scientific sampling, but clearly, there's some division of opinion there. How do you account for such different reactions to all this?

PRESS: First of all, Judy, you have to understand this district. I mean, this district is a very -- as you pointed out, a very conservative district. Just is as far from San Francisco and Los Angeles as you can get. You might as well be in Wyoming. I know this district well. I've worked this district a lot. It's a very conservative district. At the same time, these people are very good people, they've very decent, you know, close to the ground, agriculture still the big industry there by far.

WOODRUFF: Decent even though they're conservative, right?

PRESS: Yeah. No, no, seriously, they're...

WOODRUFF: Coming from Bill Press.

PRESS: No, they're very good people and they're God-loving people. And I think they're willing to -- they've loved Gary Condit over the years. I think they're willing to stick by him, if he, you know, really is up front and he -- about what he did wrong and he ask for their forgiveness. So far, he has not done that. If they do that -- I think if he does that, I think he'll find that they might be willing to stay with him.

WOODRUFF: Sal Russo, do you think so? Do you think he has a chance of holding onto this seat?

RUSSO: I do. I think Bill's perfectly correct in describing the district. These are really good people. They like their congressman. They really want to believe everything that Gary says. And I think if he can regain their trust and confidence, which he's got a long ways to go, I think they're prepared to forgive them. But I think the ball's in Gary's court. And what he does over the next few weeks is going to tell the story. I think, you know, this is one of those districts where, had he gone back to Modesto and hit the coffee shops every morning and gotten his side of the story out, he'd be in fine shape today...

PRESS: Absolutely.

RUSSO: ... rather than conducting himself like a potential criminal defendant.

WOODRUFF: But Bill Press, if you're a voter in Gary Condit's district and you supported him all these years, and he has been silent on so many of these questions for months, how are you then to turn around and accept an explanation suddenly this evening?

PRESS: It's going, -- it's a huge challenge. I would not be satisfied yet. I would not be satisfied with his conduct so far. I would not be satisfied with this letter. I'd be watching this interview tonight. It's a huge challenge. It may call upon skills that Gary Condit doesn't have. We're going to find out. But there's no time for a spin. He's got to be blunt, he's got to be forthcoming. He's got to tell the truth, and he's got to get down on his knees and ask forgiveness.

WOODRUFF: And Sal Russo, you think he can do that? That it's possible, right?

RUSSO: I certainly think he can. Like I said earlier, he's been a good congressman and very well-liked. This is a district that wants to vote Republican and yet they've reelected Gary with overwhelming numbers. So they want to support him if he gives them a reason. In the last four months since Chandra Levy's disappearance, he hasn't given them very many reasons to stick with him.

WOODRUFF: All right, Sal Russo and our own Bill Press, thank you both. We appreciate it.

RUSSO: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: And we will have much more on Condit and his media blitz this hour. Stay with us. This is INSIDE POLITICS.

ANNOUNCER: How political figures in the hot seat often try to control the media and the message.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not going to discuss Congressman Condit. Evidently, he's making a statement to the nation tonight. Let's just see what he says.


ANNOUNCER: While the president's tight-lipped about Condit, he did have some good things to say today about former rival Elizabeth Dole. And we have news about her would-be Senate race. Live from Washington, Judy Woodruff brings you more of INSIDE POLITICS straight ahead.


WOODRUFF: Some past television interviews, like those you just got a peek at, have pulled in large audiences for the networks. History shows the guests in the spotlight often benefit from the heavy exposure. Howard Kurtz of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" joins me now, with more on Congressman Gary Condit's news blitz and how other public figures have managed to do in these situations.

Howard, what about this media strategy that the Condit people are engaging in?

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, CNN'S "RELIABLE SOURCES": Ironically, Judy, for a guy who hasn't uttered a word in public for three months, Gary Condit is now trying to control not just the message, but the images and the news cycle. So for example, the letter to constituents that he sent out doesn't surface until this morning, too late for the morning papers to have a whack at it.

He does the interview with "People" magazine -- which is known for its kind of soft-focus coverage of celebrities -- poses for the cover with his wife to send the image that she is standing by her man. Picks Connie Chung for the interview, but imposes ground rules. 30 minutes, no editing. Again, an attempt to give him the advantage.

WOODRUFF: Right. Now, Howard how have -- we know, we saw some quick excerpts there as we were leading into this segment. How have politicians in the past used television, used these big interviews to get themselves out of a jam?

KURTZ: The lesson of the last 50 years seems to be that when in trouble, head for the cameras. And don't let the networks slice and dice your remarks. Politicians have been using the airwaves to salvage their careers ever since Richard Nixon gave his famous "Checker" speech in 1952.


RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.


KURTZ; Candidate Bill Clinton did the same things nine years ago by going on "60 Minutes" to admit problems in his marriage after the Gennifer Flowers story surfaced.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the American people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) know what it means and know the whole range of things that it can mean.


KURTZ: O.J. Simpson may have been acquitted of murder, but he knew that much of the country thought he was guilty when he sat down with Ed Gordon of Black Entertainment Television.


O.J. SIMPSON, ACCUSED MURDERER: No, I did not commit those murders. I couldn't kill anyone. And I don't know of anyone that was involved.


KURTZ: Presidential accusers have also used the networks to defend their credibility. Kathleen Willey with CBS's Ed Bradlee, Monica Lewinsky with ABC's Barbara Walters, Juanita Broaddrick with NBC's Lisa Myers. Those were big television moments as well, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Howard, we call them "big gets." Clearly this was a big get for Connie Chung and ABC. Was it is a good choice for Gary Condit?

KURTZ: Probably about as good a choice as he could have made under the circumstance. Because what Gary Condit needs is a journalist who is serious enough and has enough of a reputation to be credible among the media and political communities. Connie Chung clearly is that, but she is not known as an interrogator. She's not a Ted Koppel, she's not a Mike Wallace. Probably helps that she's a woman, particularly if Condit wants to kind of express sympathy for the Levy family.

So he is trying to walk that line of appearing to submit to a tough interview but controlling the format, again, no editing, only 30 minutes. And sitting down with somebody who he hopes at least will give him a fair break.

WOODRUFF: Howard, you have covered these kinds of stories over time. What are your expectations for tonight?

KURTZ: I'm not sure we're going to learn a lot of new information from Gary Condit about his relationship with Chandra Levy, what happened to her. Certainly his letter to the constituents did not signal a whole lot of that. I think what is important -- journalists, of course, will be parsing and analyzing and dissecting every word, every verb.

But the important thing for Condit is kind of image he projects to the average viewer. Does he look credible? Does he look uncomfortable? Does he look like he's hiding something? And so the stakes are pretty high not just for Connie Chung and her reputation, but for the Congressman trying to salvage his political career.

WOODRUFF: Howard Kurtz, thanks very much.

For more now on the Condit interview, the news media's behavior, and why stories like this interest so many people, I'm joined from New York by our own senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield. Jeff, we've just been listening to Howard Kurtz's take on this. What's your take on just how this story has become as big as it has?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, because what it's really become is a -- the latest example of what is a national entertainment, which may sound very harsh giving that there is a missing and possibly dead woman involved here. But there is a long history of these things. It involves sex. It involves crime, it involves an important or semi-important person, a backbench Congressman. And therefore it becomes something more than a news story. For instance, it becomes fodder for late-night entertainment.

Normally you would not think people could joke about a situation that may well involve a death. If the late-night comedians were joking say about Columbine, they would probably be thrown off of the air. But because this now this becomes entertainment, it's permissible to treat it more like a drama or a farce or something like that, than a real-live story with a possible tragic ending.

WOODRUFF: How did we get to this point? Who or what is responsible for that?

GREENFIELD: Well, part of it is, we, in the sense of human nature. I mean, there was always an appetite for this. You can go back literally to the dawn of the last century when the girl in the "Red Velvet Swing," an actress named Evelyn Nesbit, her husband killed her one-time lover.

And it was covered massively by the media, including "The New York Times." The Lindbergh baby kidnap and trial was not only an important criminal trial, it was also a national entertainment. Witnesses went on the Vaudeville stage.

The other thing that we can say is that we were narrowly, all news networks, had taken this human appetite, this appetite that we've always had, and given it a chance to be fed literally round the clock constantly. And so when you add that the appetite for such stories, they are diversions, people claim to be studying them, but they actually, I must say, get a kick out of them, and cable networks give them a chance to get hooked all the time.

WOODRUFF: In other words, we should be pointing the finger at ourselves in part?

GREENFIELD: Yes, but I mean the other part, the other part, before people get too indignant at us, I mean, they always can, and it's their First Amendment right, is: If the appetite were not there, at least a large enough cohort to make it profitable for the cable network, we wouldn't be doing it.

One of the interesting things about this is that you don't need a the national frenzy, you don't need 90 percent of the country to be hooked on the story if you can get 3 or 4 or 5 percent for a network like CNN or our competitors, that's terrific. So, even if it's a relatively narrow group that wants every last scrap of information, it makes economic sense for people like us to give it to them.

WOODRUFF: Jeff, we've been talking about the entertainment factor here, the media factor, what is the political significance of this story? WOODRUFF: The fact that a Democratic congressman from a conservative district, who was certain of reelection before this, may have his political career derailed, which could well mean that the Republicans will pick up a seat, tells us once again that we are living in a time when the country is almost evenly divided politically.

Most of the time a politician's dilemmas don't affect control of one house or the other. But in this case if it's Robert Torricelli's potential trouble, the Senator from New Jersey, whether it is the retirements of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, whether it is the defection of a single senator like Jim Jeffords, every single member of the House and Senate, from a nonsafe district has the potential to flip control of one or both of those houses.

So, in this case once you get finished with the mindless speculation, the gas-baggery, and the black humor aspect that some people apply to this, you have got a fairly interesting political story going on here.

WOODRUFF: Yes, drama at every level and no gas-baggery here. Jeff Greenfield.

GREENFIELD: I hope not.

WOODRUFF: Thank you very much, Jeff. We will see you soon.

Capitol Hill reaction to Gary Condit's letter to his constituents and an update on Elizabeth Dole's possible Senate candidacy when we return.

Plus, President Bush weighs in on the chance that another Dole might decide to run for the Senate.


WOODRUFF: Gary Condit's letter to residents of California's 18th congressional district has already drawn some reaction from Condit's colleagues. For more on that and other political story developing on Capitol Hill, we join CNN congressional correspondent, Jonathan Karl. Jonathan, what are Condit's colleagues saying about that letter?

KARL: Well, we have on the record reaction from two members of Congress that represent really the two extremes of opinion on this. The first is from Sam Farr, who is a congressman from California, a fellow Democrat, who says in a written statement, quote, "Representative Condit has said that he plans to run and he is a member of our delegation. If he follows through on his plans to run, then he will definitely run to win and if he does run, then the delegation will support him."

Now Sam Farr is close politically and personally to representative Condit, so not necessarily a surprise. Another statement that is also equally predictable comes from Bob Barr, Republican from Georgia, who's already called on Condit to resign.

He says in a statement, quote: "This letter is nothing but a bunch of meaningless pap. It says nothing, it does nothing and it moves us no further down the road of learning any sort of substantive answers to this sordid matter."

Now, privately, though, Democrats that I have spoken to are much less supportive of Condit and this letter he has sent to his constituents than what we have heard from Sam Farr. One key Democratic leadership aide tells me that if his interviews go no further than this letter, then Condit will have serious problems not only with his constituents, but with fellow Democrats.

He's looking for Condit to be much more candid, much more open in those interviews tonight. He says he has a lot more to do than simply this letter. That's basically the reaction we have heard so far from Capitol Hill.

WOODRUFF: All right, Jonathan, now to a very different story in the wake of North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms' announcement yesterday that he will not seek reelection, he will retire next year. All of the speculation that among others, Elizabeth Dole may run for that seat. Now you have some new information about that today.

KARL: Yes, we have some new information on a couple of fronts. The first is that Elizabeth Dole has taken the first step towards changing her registration to become a registered voter from the state of North Carolina.

She is currently registered in the state of Kansas. She has written a letter, CNN has learned, to election officials in Kansas informing them of her intention to change her registration to the state of North Carolina, the first concrete step that he would have to take to become a candidate for Senate from the state of North Carolina.

There is also indication today that Elizabeth Dole will not have a clear shot at the Republican nomination in North Carolina. Richard Vinroot who is the former mayor of Charlotte, he was also the Republican nominee for governor in last year's governor's race in North Carolina. He lost the race but he has said that he wants to run for the Senate's seat and he has in fact, CNN has learned just within the hour, he has sent, via Federal Express, and via fax to the FEC, a statement of candidacy.

So, Richard Vinroot now a declared candidate for Senate for North Carolina, showing that he is clearly not afraid to run against Elizabeth Dole.

WOODRUFF: John, I know that one of the criticisms or questions, at least, that has already been raised by both Democrats and Republicans about Elizabeth Dole is the fact that she hasn't lived in the state for a while.

I actually talked to her on the telephone late last night. She was very emphatic in saying that she has deep roots in North Carolina. She said, at one point she said, when people know how much I have done in this state, you won't be hearing that criticism anymore. But how vulnerable do you think she is, based on the people that you have been talking with?

KARL: Democrats are clearly gearing up for this. As a matter of fact I learned that the Democratic Senatorial Committee has asked their council to look at the law in North Carolina to see if in fact Elizabeth Dole could legally register to vote in the state. And they have come back with an opinion. I have got ahold of the legal memo from the committee. It reads in part: "North Carolina law allows only those who permanently dwell in the state to vote in its elections. Under these circumstances a person who continues to maintain her permanent established home in another state would likely be ineligible to vote in North Carolina."

So clearly, Democrats gearing up to challenge Elizabeth Dole on this. As a matter of fact, the press secretary for that Senatorial Campaign Committee for the Democrats also has also put out a statement poking fun at Elizabeth Dole, saying that if she wanted to change her registration, it should be from Kansas to the District of Columbia, pointing out that she has lived in Washington D.C. since the Ford Administration, going on to say that for 26 years she has lived in the posh Watergate building here in Washington and suggesting that that should be her official residence, not North Carolina.

As you can imagine, Judy, clearly Democrats are a bit vulnerable on this issue given that it was none other than Hillary Clinton who moved to New York, a place where she had never lived and ran for Senate just last year and they were defending her on that count. So you and have a lot of back and forth, and I am sure that you will hear a lot more about that.

Also, some indication came today, also came that the Republicans here in Washington clearly want to see Elizabeth Dole go for this and have a clean shot at it. Bill Frist, who is the senator from Tennessee, who is in charge of the Senate campaign effort for Republicans, told a newspaper down in Virginia that, quote: "The one person that I have talked to in the past about replacing Jesse Helms is Elizabeth Dole."

So Bill Frist tipping his hand that, as far as the Republican primary down there in North Carolina, he would like to see Elizabeth Dole be the candidate.

WOODRUFF: And we don't know what that means for Republican Lauch Faircloth as well as Richard Vinroot. I would just say in the phone conversation last night the other point Elizabeth Dole made, is that she said, I am a business partner. She said, I am partner in a farm that's being developed as real estate property. She also talked about her family. Of course her 100 year-old mother lives in Salisbury.

All right. Jonathan Karl at the Capitol.

President Bush knows what it is like to run a campaign against Elizabeth Dole. Today in Texas he was asked if he would support her if she decided to run for the Senate.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will tell you Elizabeth Dole would make a fine candidate. I have competed against her once before and she was formidable and a fine lady, no question about that. But, I'm not going to get involved in the primaries. I, of course, look forward if she is the nominee of the Republican Party in North Carolina, I of course will campaign hard for her.


WOODRUFF: President Bush also had kind words for retiring Senator Jesse Helms, the man whose seat Dole might pursue. He called Helms a gentleman who, "served our nation with distinction."

Before we go to a break we want to show you some pictures now from Modesto, California. This is the mother of Chandra Levy. This is Mrs. Levy apparently getting a copy in the mail of the letter that Congressman Gary Condit sent out to his constituents. Opening that letter, and at least starting read it or at least look at it. This is the letter that the Gary Condit sent to all of the constituents in his congressional district. She, apparently -- well, she's not opening it up. But she is pulling it out of the stack of mail there, taking a look at it. Again, this is the mother of Chandra Levy.

A woman already serving on Capitol Hill is forging a new alliance. We'll tell you what's new with Congresswoman Mary Bono, when INSIDE POLITICS returns.


WOODRUFF: Now, some political passages. More than three years ago after Mary Bono won the House seat of her late husband, Sonny, the California Republican is engaged to be married again. Her spokesman says Bono plans to wed Wyoming businessman Glenn Baxley this fall, and that Baxley will move to Bono's home base of Palm Springs.

And, Al Gore is celebrating the birth of his second grandchild. Gore's oldest daughter, Karenna Gore-Schiff, delivered a baby girl this morning in New York.

Anna Hunger Schiff, weighed in at 7 pounds 8 ounces. A Gore spokeswoman says mother and daughter are doing well, and the whole family is very happy as they should be.

INSIDE POLITICS will be right back.


WOODRUFF: I am Judy Woodruff. "FIRST EVENING NEWS" is next.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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