Josh Marshall

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For those who haven't noticed, Evan Bayh announced officially last week that he won't be running for president in 2004. Despite what some say, that really should not come as a surprise for several reasons. First, he is up for reelection in 2004, which makes a presidential run difficult. More important though is that he was just too far off the reservation on the Bush tax cut -- and that's a proxy for much else.

Bayh is the Chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. One of the highlights of the tax cut debate for Dems was the fact that the pro-business, centrist DLC ended up having pretty much the same position on the tax cut as the left-labor Economic Policy Institute -- i.e., the two wings of the Democratic party. But Bayh wouldn't even get on board with his own organization's position -- a real embarrassment for him and the DLCers.

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.

I wrote an article for today which covers a good bit of the ground already covered in these virtual pages about the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy story -- particularly Condit's weird reluctance to issue any clear denials of most of the more damning allegations which have appeared in the press.

As I describe in the article, Condit's press secretary, Mike Lynch, and his lawyer, Joseph Cochette, were conspicuously unwilling to directly deny a Levy sleepover when I interviewed them (more details on this are in the piece). But already on Wednesday, Lynch at least seemed to be groping toward the new explanation that emerged on Thursday.

At one point when I was asking Lynch whether Levy had ever spent the night at Condit's apartment he said she wasn't there "that night." This immediately caught my attention because none of the press accounts had ever mentioned a specific night -- just that she had spent the night at his apartment. When I pointed this out, Lynch dropped that line of argument entirely and fell back on the standard restatements of Condit's denial of telling anyone about an overnight. (Again, I give a word for word run-down in the Salon article.)

When I spoke with Condit's lawyer, Cochette, on Wednesday he was unwilling to say anything more than what he had said in his letter to the Post. (See the article for the full quotation) But by Thursday morning he seemed to have picked up the specific night argument when he told Good Morning America:

"[She] absolutely did not" sleep over at Condit's, Cotchett said. "If she did, she had to spend it on a couch because Congressman Condit's wife was in Washington the entire week [before] she [went] missing."
Now, again, this is really just a textbook non-denial denial -- a vehement denial of a question that really wasn't the question. No one but Condit's folks ever brought up anything about a specific night in question.

I know from my own reporting that subtle attacks on the Levy family's credibility are starting to bubble up from the direction of the Condit camp. And even the stuff coming out of the Condit camp publicly is starting to get so cockamamy and weird that you start to wonder: what are we going to hear next, Condit announcing his search for the 'real killers'?

On a more serious note, let's take a look at Cotchett's statement on Good Morning America about the alleged Levy sleep over. Cotchett pointed out that a Levy overnight was implausible since Condit's wife was in town that week. According to this article in Friday's Washington Post, the actual days were April 28 to May 3, and Condit's wife only comes to DC two or three times a year.

I must confess to being a touch on edge because of how freely the Condit camp is throwing around talk of libel suits. But Condit's wife was in town for a fairly rare visit to DC at precisely the time when Levy was making repeated phone calls to Condit's answering service, and when she subsequently disappeared. Doesn't that raise some pretty obvious and pretty troubling questions?

Frankly, we're at a very touchy and difficult stage in this whole story. In their interview on MSNBC yesterday Levy's parents were pretty clearly turning on Condit, and at least entertaining the possibility that he might be involved in Chandra's disappearance. And the weirdness and stubbornness of Condit's non-denial denials are for the first time getting people in the media to seriously consider whether there may be some connection between the Condit-Levy relationship (of whatever sort) and her disappearance.

What makes this so touchy is that there is no real evidence at all pointing to any Condit connection to Levy's disappearance. Intriguing theories, no evidence. All there is is the increasingly strained, incredible, and bizarre nature of Condit's denials of an affair which cannot help but fuel speculation that there is something more than an affair to hide.

At this point though, it's worth remembering: as to any connection between Condit and Levy's disappearance, there are theories aplenty, but no real evidence.

There are several very big developments on the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit front. Stay tuned for more later today. If you can't wait for the whole TPM run-down you can check out this article at MSNBC and this one at

Needless to say I'd really prefer that the Tory party remained moribund for a generation to come. But for those who wish otherwise it's a very good sign that Michael Portillo (odds-on favorite to succeed William Hague) has decided to throw his hat in the ring. (And, no, put that fancy Spanish pronunciation back where you found it -- it's pronounced PORT-I-LOW.) Portillo very likely would have become Conservative party leader after John Major but for the humiliating happenstance that Portillo himself was voted out of office in the 1997 Labour landslide. At the time Portillo was Defense Secretary.

That night in 1997 I remember watching Portillo give what we'd call his concession speech. It was simply one of the classiest, most impressive performances under duress and pressure I've ever seen.

Portillo would also seem to have what the Tories need now to get up off their backs. He's a one-time Thatcherite, who moved to the center after losing his seat in the Commons in 1997. He's embraced what he sometimes (embarrassingly) calls 'compassionate conservatism', but in a way that actually appears to have some content (unlike some other people). Finally, at a time when the Tories are being pilloried for appearing intolerant, exclusionary and even isolationist (with regards to Europe), Portillo has credentials which instantly inoculate him: he's the son of a Spanish immigrant (the fact that his dad was an anti-Franco refugee is a nice touch) so it's hard to see him as anti-immigrant or anti-Europe. And he's also admitted to having had a series of homosexual relationships while in college -- which certainly takes some of the edge off the normal Tory starchiness.

And let's be frank: having sharp looks and an appealing manner is no small thing for a politician. Especially when your predecessor looked less like an opposition leader than a preening lemur.

Still considering throwing his hat in the ring to oppose Mr. Portillo (and apparently enjoying the support of Baroness Thatcher herself) is the current shadow Defense SecretaryIain Duncan Smith. That makes a certain amount of sense of course since what the Tories really need today is a youngish, uppity, balding, anti-Europe Thatcherite to restore the party's fortunes.

I don't expect Linc Chafee to switch parties any time soon. But he seems to have told Charlie Bakst, head political writer for the hometown paper, The Providence Journal, that he's still seriously considering it. And he's already operating as the de facto 52nd member of the Senate Democratic Majority. What do I mean by that? He told Bakst that if and when the Senate flipped back to Republican hands (like with a Torch indictment, say) he'd seriously consider switching parties and flipping it back. Take a peek at the article and see for yourself.

If you can read only one article on politics this month make it Jonathan Cohn's article in New Republic Online about Bill Clinton and the current state of the Democratic party. It is as blisteringly accurate as it is elegantly executed.

There is an important debate going on among Democrats today over this question: was welfare reform, fiscal discipline, and Clintonite triangulation a tactical effort to fend off the right and restore belief in tempered, but activist, government? Or was it simply a new approach to progressive governance which is good public policy on it own merits?

Cohn takes aim at another group who believe Clinton's two-terms in office did great damage to the Democrats, ceding all sorts of intellectual ground to the right, and accomplishing nothing worthwhile in the process.

(I know many of the people Cohn is talking about and frankly, they're one of the reasons I'm now freelancing -- but that's a story for another day.)

It's one thing to argue that faith in activist government has now been restored to the point where progressives can again afford to think (and spend) big; quite another to believe that there was really no problem with the progressive project that needed solving and that we'd be better off today if Bill Clinton had come back after the 1994 debacle and reproposed National Health Care Insurance and gobs more spending on everything under the sun.

It's hard to listen to these folks and not be reminded of some gaggle of nasally-voiced French intellectuals circa 1948, puffing cigarettes and sipping coffee in some Montmartre cafe, whining about America's many evils while remaining utterly oblivious to the fact that the US Army saved their collaborationist asses from national humiliation only a few years before.

Anyway, read the article. It's very good.

Gary Condit's newly-hired lawyer Joseph Cotchett is now sending out a series of threatening letters to the Washington Post and other publications which have questioned whether Condit was carrying on a romantic relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy.

The letter to the Post accuses the paper of "a frightening violation of the ethics and standards of American journalism" and goes on to level charges narrowly tailored to anticipate a libel suit. According to this article, more letters are set to be sent out to "another East Coast paper" (presumably, the New York Post?)on Wednesday and another to a local TV station in California next week. "Since so much as already been distorted regarding this case, all statements published regarding this matter will be reviewed by counsel from the perspective of potential defamation litigation," said Condit's Chief of Staff Mike Lynch.

Now, I don't want to sound like a broken record, but from everything I can tell this is lots of bluster and legal threats without the congressman willing to come forward and deny the actual allegation. According to the MSNBC article, Cotchett's letter says "the lawmaker has never stated to anyone that Levy spent the night at his apartment."

Needless to say, that's not the same as denying that she spent the night with him, let alone denying that she had an affair with him.

I'll be honest, it used to drive me nuts when wiseacres like Mike Isikoff or David Maraniss used to 'parse' my man Bill Clinton's statements for signs of lawyerly evasion or cleverly angled factual loopholes. But isn't it just really, really obvious that these tactics just confirm the very suspicions which Condit is trying to stamp out?

I mean, he apparently refuses to issue a statement denying that he had an affair with Levy, let alone be interviewed by a reporter. Instead he sends this lawyer out to toss around claptrap about a "frightening violation of the ethics and standards of American journalism."


Last week Congressman Gary Condit threatened to sue the Washington Post for a story alleging that Chandra Levy, the missing intern, had spent the night at his house. In furtherance of this threat, he retained an attorney, Joseph Cotchett, to pry a retraction from the Post. Or at least that's what Condit's people said Cotchett had been retained for. (For the complete Condit rundown click here.)

According to Fox News' David Shuster, Cotchett is an accomplished trial lawyer but "doesn't appear to have ever tried a case involving libel or defamation." (June 8th, 2001, Fox Special Report with Brit Hume)

Was this a two-fer by Condit? An attempt to simultaneously bury the fact that he had hired a defense lawyer and try to bully the Post at the same time? If so, I'll say this, the guy's got brass if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes of the Beltway Boys are vouching for Condit.

KONDRACKE:  Condit is denying flatly that any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) such thing occurred, and frankly, I would find it impossible to believe that Condit had anything to do with, with her disappearance. I mean, he is one of our favorite Democrats.

BARNES:  Yes, he is, no, I like him, I know him pretty well. It's hard for me to believe it too. (June 9th, 2001, Beltway Boys)

Go figure...

P.S. Late Update: From a brief review of his website, Joseph Cotchett doesn't seem to specialize in libel or defamation cases. But he also doesn't appear to specialize in criminal work. He's basically a plaintiffs' attorney specializing in suing large financial institutions on behalf of cheated investors. His website does say that he defended Consumers Union in a defamation suit last year.

So where does that leave us? Who knows? Maybe Condit had some bad investments?

This Washington Post article by Dana Milbank perceptively notes the similarities between the Bush administration's tax cut strategy and the tack they're taking on the president's upcoming visit to Europe: smile, talk, give nicknames, do what you wanted to do in the first place.

In the new beltway jargon this is known as reaching out: You announce ahead of time that you will listen to everyone's concerns but still do what you planned to do in the first place actually.

Of course, in real life we have another word for this: being patronized.

Here's another emerging pattern. Even when the Bush White House sees the need to conciliate some person or constituency the same tough-guy, ball-busting mentality just can't help but break through.

The White House is pretty clearly trying to backpedal on the global warming front and at least unruffle feathers among our European allies. But on FoxNews today, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said the Europeans were basically full of it, trying to con us, on the Kyoto Treaty. "I think that they've been driven by emotion rather than by science," said Card said. He then went on to say that "I think it's a little bit of a game that they're playing" because the Europeans also haven't yet ratified the treaty.

Are these two tacks really compatible?

Even when the folks at Bush White House are trying to conciliate or soothe over differences they still can't help kicking a little ass, busting the other guy's chops, showing everyone who's boss.

Hasn't Card gotten in trouble for this tough guy routine before?