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California Congressman Gary Condit Speaking Publicly for First Time About Chandra Levy Disappearance

Aired August 23, 2001 - 09:18   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: California Congressman Gary Condit is speaking publicly for the first time about the Chandra Levy disappearance. He is sending a letter to constituents, and he's giving some news media interviews. So can he save his political career?

Joining us to talk about that, Ron Brownstein, chief political columnist for the "Los Angeles Times," also Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for "The National Review." They are both in Washington.

Gentlemen, good morning.

Well, look what we have here, we have a copy of letter that was arriving today at post -- mailboxes all over Modesto, California. You guys hang out. I'll read the letter, and we'll talk about it, OK.

All right. Here it goes. It's dated august 22, 2001. It reads: "Dear friends and neighbors, Chandra Levy has been missing for nearly four months. I'm sorry that the pain the Levy family and Chandra's friends are feeling has grown worse with each passing day.

"When Chandra's dad called me to tell me she was missing, he asked for my help. I contacted the police to see if a reward fund would help find her. They said it would, so I started one.

"Since that day, and every day since, I have cooperated and worked with law enforcement to find Chandra. I invited the police to my apartment and asked the FBI to help.

"Despite my best attempts to help the police find Chandra, some in the media have criticized me for remaining 'silent.'

"I have not been silent with those in charge of finding Chandra.

"I have answered every single question asked by the police and FBI.

"When tabloids turned the tragedy of Chandra's disappearance into a spectacle and rumors were reported as facts, I decided that I would not discuss my private life in the media.

"Some suggest that not talking with the media could mean I had something to do with Chandra's disappearance. I did not. I pray that she has not met the same fate as the other young women who have disappeared from the same neighborhood.

"I will be interviewed on television and hopefully I will be able to answer questions that help people understand.

"It is not something that I look forward to. But things have gone on long enough.

"Before speaking to the media, I wanted to write to write to you, I have known so 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 also will understand that I am not perfect and have made my share of mistakes.

"For 30 years as a local mayor, county supervisor, state assemblyman and congressman, thousands of people have come to me with their personal problems.

"A son in trouble, a mother in a nursing home, a job that was lost, a farm going broke, a mortgage that couldn't be paid.

"And each time, people trusted that I would treat their problems with care.

"I hope our relationship is strong enough to endure all of this.

"For now, I want my work in Congress to improve our communities. Please know that you can still bring me your concerns and your problems.

"Thank you for the kindness you have shown Carolyn and my family.

"Sincerely, Gary Condit."

That is the letter that is arriving today in mailboxes across Modesto, across Congressman Condit's district.

Ron, let's start with you, some of the points in that he gets right to the point about Chandra, obviously, and also talking about pain, not just pain of Chandra's family, but it sounds like the pain that he's been through as the focus of the speculation as well.

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": To me, the real point of the letter is to underscore the message of him going out and doing this media blitz in the first place, which is he wants to at least keep open the option of running next year. He is moving toward seeking re-election, which probably doesn't make a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill totally happy. But the only reason to be doing all of these things is to try to make himself more viable in that district next year, and obviously, if he is going to have any chance of being viable in that district, he has the to convince people in the district he is contrite, and that he recognizes, as he says in the letter, that he has made mistakes, and try to move on.

I notice, Daryn, I was also struck by effort to tie in his previous work, his sort of constituency work into this, in the sense of saying that he has built a relationship, in effect saying, you know me in ways other than this. And he expressed the hope that that would be strong enough to carry him through. We will have to see on that.

KAGAN: Well, Ramesh, on that point, at the beginning of the letter, he talked about I was there to help the Levys, and just toward the end of the letter, he says, I've been there to help you with all the problems that you had as well?

RAMESH PONNURU, "NATIONAL REVIEW": That's right. I wonder if he couldn't have found a more appropriate word to use than "relationship," and saying he hopes the relationship is strong enough to endure. Unfortunate echoes I think from that line. I think that this letter was more calculating than contrite.

I mean, one of the other interesting things about this letter, is that there is definitely attempt to deflect attention to the media, and make the allegedly tabloid coverage of the story the issue, rather than the subject matter of all that coverage.

KAGAN: Kind making him a victim.

PONNURU: Absolutely.

KAGAN: And the idea the victimhood would continue on to tonight -- I'm going to do this interview tonight on television, I don't look forward to it, I don't want to do it, but I'm going to do it?

PONNURU: Yes, we're all feeling pain here. We're all just together in our pain.

KAGAN: So, Ramesh, to you, does it sound like a man who is clearly running for re-election?

PONNURU: I don't know about that. I think Ron's right, he's keeping option open for that. I think he also wants to be raising money for his campaign, that he can use to pay off some of his legal bills. I would not be surprised if in the end, though, he decide not to run.

KAGAN: Ron, in your paper in the "L.A. times" George Skeleton (ph) writes, "The first thing Gary Condit has to do tonight when he goes on television is convince people that he's not a murderer, that he didn't murder Chandra Levy." The idea that he might have had an extramarital affair, that is the light stuff compared to what the serious allegation are here?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think that the burden is really in the district. Even though it's a nationally televised interview, and we're interviewing people in Times Square and what they think, I think his audience is really much more circumscribed than that. I think it's both the voters in district, which is a socially conservative district, as a district that voted for George Bush, and his colleagues on Capitol Hill. I think he's got two burdens to overcome if he is going to try to resurrect and sustain his political career. One is to convince people in the district that he had nothing to do with this, and he ultimately is someone whose character is strong enough to return to office despite this affair. And secondly, I think he's got to convince them he can work on Capitol Hill, that he can be a functioning member of Congress. This is not abstract ideological district he represents. It's one with a lot of nuts and bolts concerns. He has to show people that he can be effective, that he is not a pariah in Washington, that he can be effective on their behalf. And I suspect that is going to be part the subtext text on the interview. He's going to have to show on the one hand, that he's sorry for what happened. On the other hand, he still has to show that he has some spark and spunk left and that he can be an effective advocate for their concern, so it's not an easy needle to thread.

KAGAN: No, it's not. We're going to take the interview away from Connie Chung and pretend one of you giving the interview tonight. Ramesh, what is the number one question you would ask Gary Condit if you were doing the interview tonight?

PONNURU: I can hardly imagine a question he doesn't have a completely decent answer for, that the answer will -- any tough question, the answer will be, I did it to spare my family. I think this interview is a nonevent.

KAGAN: And real quick, Ron, what question would have you ask?

BROWNSTEIN: I think why he waited so long to tell police about the personal relationship. He may in fact have the answer I did it to spare my family. But I think people need to hear that, and that would be the question most people want answered.

KAGAN: Ron Brownstein, Ramesh Ponnuru, gentlemen, thank you.



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