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What's Ahead for Congressman Gary Condit?

Aired August 30, 2001 - 21:57   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Bill Hemmer live in Atlanta.

You've just heard from the staff tonight; in a moment, you'll hear from our panel. What difference, if any, have the five members of Gary Condit's team made on this story? And what about the political, the personal and the legal future for the Democratic congressman? We'll examine it all this evening, but first, live in Modesto is CNN's Bob Franken with us this evening.

And Bob, I heard three things from these people tonight: They defended their boss to the hilt, no one ever asked them any details about what happened, and they all think -- well, pretty much all of them -- think he should take a shot at running again.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, except for one, Jackie Mullen, who says that it's just not worth it. She was quite emphatic about that. That of course is similar to the sentiment expressed also on LARRY KING LIVE on Monday night by Chad Condit, that a career in politics is looking uglier all the time.

HEMMER: We have a couple of soundbites here that we want to pull for our viewers, Bob, at this time. The first one from Jackie Mullen, the woman you just referred to, about whether or not Gary Condit should have come out at an earlier time. We will listen to it, play it and come back and talk about it.


JACKIE MULLEN, CONDIT STAFFER: I would have like to have seen him go out in the very beginning and say to the media, "I'm not going to talk about this. I have nothing to say to you folks, you know." This is something that's between me and my family. This is private." But I wish he would have said, "I'm not going to talk to the press."


HEMMER: So then, the question begs, would it have made a difference in hindsight, Bob?

FRANKEN: Well, in hindsight, that's what he really said by not saying anything, saying that I've got nothing to talk about. He did -- he did put out a couple of paper statements, as we call them, not submitting to interviews, but just saying this has nothing to do with the search for Chandra Levy. And of course, what Jackie Mullen is suggesting that he should have done early on. He tried to do during his interviews last week, and they really turned around on him. People just believed he was not being straightforward.

HEMMER: Bob, do we know why these members came forward on "LARRY KING" tonight? Who put them up to it? Was it their decision, did they run it past Gary Condit? Do we even know?

FRANKEN: We do know that Gary Condit and his advisers are still sitting there trying to figure out some way to turn this around, that is why Chad Condit went out on Monday night. There was quite a bit of a debate within the Condit camp about whether he should do it. Quite a few of the advisers didn't think he was ready for prime-time, but after it was over, they thought that well, maybe he did better than his father.

Now come members of the staff. I can tell you that they've been making polite inquiries the last couple of days about what would be the response if they wanted -- they wanted to be interviewed, and of course the response was, "you bet," and so you saw the results of this tonight. But no, none of this is just happening spontaneously.

HEMMER: And of our members on our air here on CNN, Bob, no one asked the congressman about specific details over the past four months. A quick soundbite again, Bob, and we will come back to you in a moment.


MAGGIE MEJIA, CONDIT STAFFER: I don't feel that what he does is any of our business, outside of the federal level, and his staff assistants.

LARRY KING, HOST: Did it upset you?

MEJIA: Well, yes, of course. Yes, of course, it did, it upset all of us. It hurt. It hurt because all of us was being attacked, and it's like a mother defending her child, and vice versa.

KING: You feel that close to him?

MEJIA: Yes, I do. I wouldn't be working for him and I wouldn't be today against doctor's orders if I didn't feel that strongly.


HEMMER: It may strike some, Bob, as quite curious as to why no one would approach the congressman and ask him anything about the details. Do you find it a similar way or not?

FRANKEN: Well, quite frankly, I think that a lot of times people just decide to take things on faith, or to just not know. They were willing to go out and accept the congressman's assurance that there was nothing, there was no affair between him and Chandra Levy.

I should point out that was the same claim that Congressman Condit was making before his fellow members of Congress, and then we learned in his third police interview that he had admitted to investigators that he had had an affair with Chandra Levy, and the staff members can claim -- they can claim anyway -- that they were surprised. Sometimes that's called deniability.

HEMMER: So then what happens next? What is the latest move in this chess game that has been played really in many places on "LARRY KING LIVE" throughout this week?

FRANKEN: Some of us are calling it the "LARRY KING LIVE" strategy. Well, we will have to find out if there are any other surrogates out there, we will have to find if the congressman decides he wants to do still another interview trying to set things right. Of course, everybody would like to interview Mrs. Condit, his wife Carolyn Condit. I can't even tell you if that's a possibility right now, but certainly everybody is trying for that interview.

And of course, the congressman also has to decide what he wants to do politically. Does he want to stay in office, is this part of an effort to try and turn the political fortunes around? Is he considering resignation? Most think that's unlikely. A lot of people believe it's likely he's giving serious thought to the possibility of not running again the next time the election comes up.

HEMMER: You raise all good questions and issues. We'll get to them all this evening. Bob Franken, stand by there live in Modesto.

Also with us this evening, Greta Van Susteren is live in Washington, we will speak with her momentarily. Also, Bill Schneider in Washington as well to talk about the political fallout.

Tonight on Capitol Hill, CNN's Kate Snow will give us that perspective momentarily, and we will also talk with CNN's Jeff Greenfield momentarily here as our special report on the Gary Condit political future continues right after this quick break. Stay with us.


HEMMER: Once again, welcome back to our special look, "What's Ahead for Gary Condit?" We are going to take you live to Washington and introduce our panel again. Greta Van Susteren, host of THE POINT here on CNN is with us live. So too is Bill Schneider in Washington and Kate Snow is up on Capitol Hill. And as always, Bob Franken at his location in Modesto, California.

Quickly, want to go around the horn here. Greta, first to you. What did you make of this tonight, and does it have any measurable impact at all?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's hard to really understand in an hour what these people are really all about, but let me give you my basic observation having watched them. They seem like very nice people who are very devoted to their congressman, they're very familiar with all the good works he has done as a congressman, and they admire him. However, what they didn't talk about, and for obvious reasons, is what we in America may see as perhaps his dark side. He is -- he has done some things that are very disappointing to constituents and to other Americans, but understandably, they like him, they admire him, they saw his good things, and they are willing to give him somewhat of a pass on some of the darker things that he's done.

HEMMER: And I want to talk about some legal matters that we touched on tonight in a moment, Greta, but to Bill Schneider. Does it make a difference or not?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, what we are looking for is explanations, explanations of -- well, there are really two mysteries at the heart of this. One is what happened to Chandra Levy, that's the important one, and the other is the mystery of Gary Condit's behavior.

What Larry was looking for in these interviews tonight was, what's an explanation? Give, please, you're his staff, give us some explanation for his behavior, because most Americans and, according to the polls, most of his constituents have concluded, sadly, that he was more interested in keeping his affair secret and protecting that than he was in finding Chandra Levy.

That's a very negative sort of conclusion, so Larry was saying, is there some other explanation? But they didn't really give it.

HEMMER: We did not get that deep, you're right. Kate Snow, to you, why would aides go on national TV and defend their boss and virtually defend themselves in certain cases?

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Bill, it's interesting, because it's something you almost never see here in Washington. I mean, I don't know if people have a sense for this, but as a reporter you typically call an office and you are put in touch with a press secretary, you don't get to talk to those people that we saw on "LARRY KING LIVE" tonight, you don't get to talk to the person who works at the front desk, or the person who has been the member's personal secretary.

Those people are off-limits completely, so I think what they were probably trying to do -- and some Democratic aides have told tonight that this is a wise thing for them to do -- is to soften their image, put out some people who are real, who can tell real stories and come across maybe a little bit better than Gary Condit did last week.

HEMMER: In a moment, Kate, I'm going to have you frame up a picture for us for Washington going back to work next week with Gary Condit in toe. Before we get to all that, though, Mike Dayton, the top aide, was on with Larry King tonight. He talked about possibly making false statements at one time that he now regrets. Quick listen to that now.


MIKE DAYTON, CONDIT'S TOP AIDE: I made denials, I made emphatic denials, you know, perhaps, hindsight, you know...

KING: In retrospect?

DAYTON: No, but I mean, I'm saying -- I always say what I believe to be true. I mean, you have got to put yourself in my shoes. I'm getting calls at 8:30 in the morning, D.C. time, it's 5:30 out here, and I get a call from a reporter saying she's going to air a story, you know, right then, that these two are dating, and I've never even, you know -- I've heard of this woman, but I don't even put them together, I don't even know who she's talking about, so obviously I'm going say no.


HEMMER: If nothing else, an interesting revelation tonight, Greta. Legally, is it binding? Could it get him in trouble? Or do you look at things like the watch box that was mentioned tonight and Anne Marie Smith, the flight attendant, also?

VAN SUSTEREN: I think, you know, of course, the prosecutors are always suspicious of everything associated with this case. My observation is that he seemed like a nice guy, once again, but incredibly naive as to the personal of his congressman, and I really think that he really does like his congressman, and that perhaps he and his colleagues feel like they have been under siege by the media.

They feel much like they have been the subject of the investigation, subject of the media, like their congressman. Do I think he got into legal trouble with that? No. Do I think that the made statements he thought were true at the time? Probably. Do I think any prosecutor would ever waste time or money on that? No.

SCHNEIDER: You know, Bill, there was an interesting comment by one of the women on his staff, which was revealing. She said: "I feel like a mother defending her child." That's just how powerful she felt. It was an emotional connection there, and it was just that personal.

HEMMER: And one also wonders, given that response that Greta was just talking about to Bob Franken out in Modesto, clearly it would make a difference, at least in public perception, if some of these matters were clarified, would it not? After all, again tonight, we heard some defensive posture at times, did we?

FRANKEN: Well, we did, but what the strategy clearly is here is to try and paint a picture of Gary Condit as the good guy, as the guy who is in fact, being mistreated. They're pressing all the buttons. I can tell you that as one of the people that they complained about who hangs out outside Congressman Condit's office, it's really quite a friendly relationship, actually.

There's a lot of banter that goes on between reporters and staff members. But they are trying to take advantage of the fact that demonizing the media is oftentimes very successful if you're trying to defend yourself. And presenting Gary Condit as somebody who is severely misunderstood is clearly what the staff members were sent out to try and do tonight.

HEMMER: Yes, Bill Schneider is shaking his head, yes, and I know sometimes it can backfire as well.

Can I put you guys on hold just a second here. We're going to move on to another issue quickly here. And clearly, the Condit staff members have taken a strategy, as we mentioned, to deliver their message through the national media, CNN and Larry King included.

Tonight, Howard Kurtz of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" examines now whether or not the strategy in place is working.


CONNIE CHUNG, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Did you kill Chandra Levy?


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From the moment his interview with Connie Chung was over, Gary Condit's political stock has been plunging faster than the Nasdaq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It may have been possible to have a worse performance, but I can't imagine how.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Condit committed public relations hari-kari on national television. You normally expect someone to put their best foot forward; Condit put his foot in his mouth and didn't take it out for 30 minutes.

BILL PRESS, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": I thought he should have just been honest with the American people, admitted that he'd had an affair with this woman, and then moved on.

KURTZ: Condit didn't fare much better in his sit-downs with "Newsweek," "People" and a Sacramento TV station, drawing criticism even from such Democratic stalwarts as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and California Governor Gray Davis.

Even his own advisers complained, no names attached, of course, that he hadn't stuck to the script, which called for a show of contrition.

(on camera): Once Condit bombed so badly in his brief media blitz, he needed a new PR strategy, and fast. With his support crumbling, his team decided to send out the surrogates.

(voice-over): First up: Attorney Abbe Lowell, gamely defending his client's performance.

ABBE LOWELL, GARY CONDIT'S ATTORNEY: He did it as part of a process to start talking to his constituents, and it's wrong for people to sort of do this like it was a movie, thumbs-up, thumbs-down.

KURTZ: That, however, isn't how the media world works. And the polls were a disaster: 60 percent of those in a CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup survey said they believe the congressman was involved in Chandra Levy's disappearance. Condit's wife, Carolyn, has been conspicuously silent. She even looked unhappy on the cover of "People."

But another Condit was willing to face the cameras on his dad's behalf.

CHAD CONDIT, GARY CONDIT'S SON: The fact of the matter is, Gary Condit has been forthcoming with law enforcement folks from the very beginning. And there is no honor in kicking somebody when they are down.

KURTZ: Tonight the Condit camp tried to fill the void, dispatching a half-dozen staffers to stand by their man on "LARRY KING LIVE." Another Democrat, Bill Clinton, relied heavily on surrogates to defend him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But Clinton was president, far slicker than Condit, and his intern wasn't missing.


HEMMER: Howard Kurtz is with us now, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES" up in Washington. Howard, good evening to you.

KURTZ: Hi, Bill.

HEMMER: Let's talk about the story, as it is being driven, possibly, by the cable news networks, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC included. There's something strange about waiting for an attorney to come on with Larry King at 9:00 to deliver us the latest news. How does this work, this symbiotic relationship that we see today in American politics and in American news?

KURTZ: Well, I've said all along that this is a legitimate, compelling human drama that ought to be covered, but the excess and the relentlessness with which all the cable networks are now feasting on this tragedy, all of them included, creates this void, and something has to fill the void. So if Gary Condit won't come out, we see his son, we see his staff. We see his lawyer. They may not add much, but they provide a piece of programing which all the commentators can then analyze and dissect afterwards.

HEMMER: We talked a lot about the media this evening so far with our panel. We heard a little bit about it too during Larry King's show tonight. Another one of the Condit staff members now, talking about the media and the role they play in this. Quick listen now.


PAT AUSTIN, CONDIT STAFFER: We're in our office and they're outside our office every day, all day. Even when we're not there on the weekend. We have constituents that come in and out of the office, and they occasionally stop these people and interview them. A lot -- often we have seen them -- if a person, and they come back in and tell us. And if the person tells -- reiterates the fact that they like Gary Condit, they don't want to talk to them. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Truth be known, Howard, on big stories like this, the Levys, the Condits use us, we use them. Is there a way you see to strike an effective balance, when it comes to this, or is this just the way it is?

KURTZ: Well, in a hyper-competitive environment, you do see a lot of excesses. You've seen some mistakes. Certainly, Congressman Condit helped drive the story by refusing to talk for three long months and not having a lot of good answers even when he did give a round of interviews in that brief media blitz. I think the only reason that there isn't more of a backlash against the press on this story, the way there was in the Monica Lewinsky saga, is that we finally found a figure who's less sympathetic to the public, even than journalists.

HEMMER: So you think if he came cleaner with Connie Chung, this might be a different issue right now?

KURTZ: I think if Congressman Condit had given some interviews, gone on TV, held a press conference in the early weeks, well before Connie Chung, the whole tenor of the story would have been different. It certainly would have been a big story, but not quite this feeding frenzy that we see today.

HEMMER: Hindsight's perfect, isn't it? It's 20-20. Howie Kurtz, thanks for staying up late with us tonight. Much appreciated.

KURTZ: Thank you.

HEMMER: Let's bring in CNN senior analyst now, Jeff Greenfield, live in New York, for his perspective tonight.

It's been an interesting strategy, Jeff. What's your take on it. based on what you've seen tonight?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Well, if you assume that these staff members, whether they went out on their own or were asked to, are reflecting what Congressman Condit and his people would like, you begin to see the outlines of a political strategy, should he try to hold on his seat -- namely, remind people of another Gary Condit other than that evasive, highly unpleasant figure we saw with Connie Chung, a caring congressman, a man who is a friend to the high and the low alike.

Second, draw a very clear line between his private life, which is embarrassing, and relevant matters for the public. And third, remind the people back home, these are all people who have worked for his constituents, that he is a congressman who has served them and who should be judged on that, and not on that tarnished private life.

It was sort of interesting that every time we got into the area of the stuff that embarrassed Gary Condit, the staff members themselves either didn't want to talk about it or were extremely uncomfortable. HEMMER: Your show is coming up in 14 minutes time. You've been around American politics nearly your entire adult life. The perspective you're taking tonight, rather curious, how you rehab an image, huh, Jeff?

GREENFIELD: It's a very cold-blooded look at this. If you assume -- if you're Gary Condit and your media blitz crashed and burned and your son has gone out and defended you, your staff has gone public -- you know, the question we're going to be asking, a couple veteran political operatives and a journalist is: are there any tools of the political trade that Gary Condit can use to survive, or is this beyond repair? That's what we'll be talking about in about 12 or 13 minutes.

HEMMER: You got it, watching the clock, you're right. CNN, "GREENFIELD AT LARGE" follows us tonight. Jeff, thanks.

Our panel is back shortly. Kate Snow, Greta Van Susteren, Bill Schneider and Bob Franken will talk about it again when we come back here. Stay tuned.


HEMMER: Once again asking the question: what's ahead for Gary Condit tonight on LARRY KING LIVE. If you saw it here on CNN, five members of Gary Condit's staff gathered tonight and talked about their service and their work with the congressman.

Our panel, live in Washington. Bill Schneider is there, so is Greta Van Susteren. Kate Snow is on Capitol Hill and Bob Franken, as always, it appears now, is hanging out in Modesto, California.

Kate, let's go to you now. On the whole issue of redistricting, they're going to shuffle some areas of the country and change things around for voters, which may have a direct impact on the very district that Gary Condit serves. What's happening here?

SNOW: In fact, Bill, I just got a phone call during that commercial break with some very interesting information, which is we knew that some of these maps -- you know, every 10 years they have to redraw the Congressional lines in every state to account for new population shifts and growing numbers and that sort of thing. They're redrawing all of the 52 districts in California. We thought the maps were going to be coming out soon.

I've just learned that they have been coming out today to the members themselves. In other words, Democratic members in particular, were getting copies of what their district is going to look like after redistricting.

Now, I just talked to a Republican member whose district borders -- actually, a spokesperson for him -- whose district borders on Gary Condit's and follow me if you will, if his district changes, that could possibly reflect what's going to happen to Gary Condit's district and it sounds like what we thought was going to happen is indeed happening, that they are changing Gary Condit's district, they are moving it, they're taking the northern border and they're moving it north and adding more Democrats to his district.

This will have an impact presumably because these will be new voters, many Democrats, these are Democratic areas, Bill, that they're adding into his district, but these are people who never voted for Gary Condit before. So the speculation is perhaps those voters will only know him as someone who has been involved in a scandal.

HEMMER: And we've been taking the pulse, certainly, on voters. Bill Schneider, jump in.

SCHNEIDER: What is important is that one of his staff members said on Larry King tonight, we know the Gary Condit that others don't know. We know him personally, others the only know him through the media. That was the reason they said they went on Larry King.

There's a message there and it has to do with the strategy that Jeff Greenfield just talked about. What they're saying is, so do his constituents. They know a Gary Condit who is a attentive to his constituents and who does his job. And people who know him, they are saying, feel differently about him. From what Kate just reported, they're putting a lot of people in this district including Democrats, who don't know Gary Condit, who can only judge him from the media and that puts him at a very serious disadvantage.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what the problem is, Bill. It is almost like the staff that was on Larry King tonight were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In spite of all the good things that he has done, this is a terrible stain and of course the voters will get a chance to make a decision whether to send him back to Congress or not, should he choose to run.

But the fact is that this is a terrible problem that he's got to overcome.

HEMMER: You know what I'm wondering, Greta, Bill, Bob, Kate. You all can jump in on this, are we making too big of a deal out of one person in the House that has 435 members? Gary Condit after all is just one of two hundred some Democrats.

VAN SUSTEREN: We may be making a lot out of it, Bill, but the problem is in many ways we have been through a similar story, only this story is worse because the young woman is missing. This is not just a run-of-the-mill story. This is a highly significant story with grieving parents out in California wondering where their daughter is that they sent to Washington.

HEMMER: First to Kate and then to Bob. Quickly, Kate.

SNOW: Bill, there are a lot of folks a lot of Democrats, I should say, who are concerned about just that because, in fact, leader Gephardt, the Democratic leader here in the House said last week, it makes us look like a bunch of bums, all this focus on Gary Condit and his interview last week he thought made them look bad, reflected poorly on Congress as a whole and takes attention away from those 434 other members of the House. So that's definitely a point.

HEMMER: Bob, jump in here.

FRANKEN: Of course, Greta is making comparisons too to the situation with Bill Clinton and I think something that has to be noted is that there's a huge difference between this controversy and the one involving President Clinton and that was the fact that if Bill Clinton wanted to, if he felt like it, he could distract attention away from this by bombing somewhere.

Gary Condit is just a single member of the House of Representatives, of course doesn't have anything like that power, but because of the special circumstances of this story, it has become almost as large in terms of a news story as the Bill Clinton saga was 3 years ago.

SCHNEIDER: Well, remember, Bill Clinton lied to the American people and I think that was very much on Gary Condit's mind when he decided he wasn't going speak to the press, which he didn't for almost 4 months. He was essentially relying on Clinton's precedent of separating public and private behavior, saying, my private behavior is not relevant to my public performance, and we heard the same thing from his staff tonight.

The difference is, there is a woman who has disappeared at the heart of this and his private behavior is certainly relevant to her disappearance and the question is, why -- how can he explain, what the police say, is his uncooperative behavior?

HEMMER: And the police were out today. Police Chief Ramsey was on a talk show this morning in Washington, D.C. talking about how they've been literally, paraphrasing his words now, pulling teeth to get the truth from Gary Condit. We will listen to him and talk about it when we come back here. Chief Ramsey today.


CHARLES RAMSEY, CHIEF, WASHINGTON D.C. POLICE: It is up for people to decide whether or not that's forthcoming. That's the whole issue. If you ask a question you will get an answer. It's not necessarily an answer thought that's going to really help you. It's been very difficult in interviewing the congressman, and I think that people had a chance for an hour to see for themselves exactly what we've been going through.


HEMMER: Greta, how about that? How did that strike you today? We heard him today being more candid than we have in some time.

VAN SUSTEREN: It depends on how it's packaged. The congressman had four interviews. If you listen to the chief he said, see, it took four interviews and we are still not getting enough information. If you listen to his lawyer, he packages it differently, he says, look, we talked to them four times. How many times do you want us to talk to him? So it is a question of packaging and of course the police chief is unhappy and Abbe Lowell says we can't do any more. We have given them everything. HEMMER: We have about a minute here. Kate and Bill, I want to get an idea from you guys right now, what you have in your mind in terms of an image on Tuesday after the Labor Day break when Congress comes back to Washington, when Gary Condit comes back to Washington. Kate, what are you thinking?

SNOW: Well, I know that they've all been talking about -- not everybody -- but a lot of folks have been talking about this. Members talking to each other, they're all on vacation, Bill, they've been on vacation all August. Some of them are in Israel, some of the members in other trips overseas. So they're very spread out. But I do know that Dick Gephardt, the minority leader, who made those comments last week, has talked to some of his colleagues.

He has indicated that he wants to see what others think, what the other leadership people and what the whole Democratic caucus thinks about what they should do with Gary Condit and whether they should take any action. They could try to remove him from committees or do something like that, but it's unclear whether that's going to happen.

I think we are going to see a lot more of the same, of cameras following him all over Capitol Hill.

HEMMER: Quickly, Bill Schneider, go ahead.

SCHNEIDER: He will be treated as poison by his colleagues and that will continue. I see only one way that he can turn this around. He more than any other figure along with the Levy family, has to be committed to finding Chandra Levy. Because unless she's found I don't think there's anyway he can resuscitate his career.

HEMMER: And I Bob Franken shaking his head. Bob, go ahead.

FRANKEN: Just very quickly, on of the reasons there's such a feeling that he's going to say something in the next few days about his political future, because that could affect the reception he gets when he goes back to Washington, assuming he goes back.

HEMMER: Bob Franken, Kate Snow, Bill Schneider, Greta Van Susteren.



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