As regular readers know, these pages are normally taken up with asides about public policy, handicapping of Democratic presidential aspirations, digs at the Bush White House, and miscellaneous other ideas I have about political matters. I've gotten a number of messages recently praising how I've been following the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy matter. But I've also gotten a few, quite thoughtful, emails from readers asking just why I am spending so much time on what they see as essentially a tabloid story.
Frankly, I've wondered myself. So let me see if I can answer the question.
First a mundane reason. As a journalist, when you pull at a dangling thread and see three more threads come free it's hard to resist pulling on those too. To put this more concretely, every question about this case seems to yield more questions or more misleading responses. And purely on an instinctive level that makes it difficult to resist.
That begs the question, though, of why this got me interested in the first place. The answer is that this first caught my eye as a media story, and a rather important one at that. The press corps here in DC goes wild over all sorts of whacky, unsubstantiated, and irrelevant stories. But this seemed like a story that was actually quite serious.
A young woman disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. And there was strong evidence connecting her romantically to a sitting United States congressman. Let's imagine this case were set in Los Angeles. A young woman disappears under very mysterious and very ominous circumstances. Investigators discover that she was carrying on a secret relationship with an older married man. I guarantee you the LAPD would have turned that guy's life upside down. When women disappear, police routinely look first at the men they're linked with romantically -- especially if those links are furtive. That doesn't mean that's right. And it certainly doesn't mean that the men in question are guilty of anything. But that is what happens.
In this case, though, Condit is a congressman and that's changed the calculus.
Something else has happened with the media, though. Frankly, for a mix of personal and political reasons, the pundit gatekeepers in DC think Gary Condit is good people. They've found it inconceivable that any of these suspicions about the case could be true. And for weeks they largely ignored it. Or at least opted to give Condit every benefit of the doubt. (Let's just say that's a quite different attitude than would have been adopted to some other politicians I can think of.) This issue of the subtle and unspoken establishmentarian attitudes which shape coverage of official Washington is a topic of great interest to me -- as readers of various of my articles in other publications will know.
There's another related reason. Reporters cultivate an image of dogged truth-seekers who kick up rocks and report what they find come hell or high water. The truth is a little different. Reporters conceive of stories in conventionalized terms, standard storylines, motifs and so on. Is it a secret affair story? Maybe a corruption story? A campaign finance shenanigans story? An in-trouble back home with the constituents story?
These are some of the routine storylines that people look for. Some stories though don't fall clearly into any of these rubrics. A secret affair story is juicy and it may mean the end of the line for a politician. But it's basically a victimless crime. No one really gets hurt -- in a literal sense. And to journalists at least, basically a cynically fun time is had by all.
That's where this story is different. This story has been a little dicier for reporters to sink their teeth into because frankly you don't know quite what you're getting into. It's unpredictable. You don't know just what you're going to find. To some extent, this is a very valid reason for caution -- since obviously you don't want to be tossing around charges when someone is missing. But it's also led to a suspicious reticence as well.
So, what's attracted me to this story was the perception -- from the outset -- that there was a deep-seated double-standard at work; that establishment types in DC liked Condit and weren't inclined to give him a hard time; that he's a congressman in a city run by Congress and the police seemed to be giving him a wide berth; and that the media's customary aggressiveness seemed conspicuously absent.
Obviously, now most all of this has changed. And to readers who've been critical of my writing on this I can only say that I appreciate and respect your concerns, and, to a great degree, share them. But for the reasons I have set forth above I thought and still think that this was worth looking into.