Is an intense interest in Congressman Gary Condit proof of a low character or a weak mind? My hope is that it isn't, because I'm among those millions of television watchers for whom the last few months will always be remembered as The Condit Summer.
The question is partly a matter of conscience: Should I, an allegedly serious person, devote careful attention to Larry King's big story of 2001? There's also social pressure to contend with. Certain friends treat my interest in Condit as no better than an addiction to supermarket tabloids. At times I can hear, coming my way, what Milton calls "a dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn."
But in truth, those who consider this narrative beneath their attention either fail to grasp its nuances or are too priggish to notice that a riveting passage in the human comedy is being performed in their living rooms. The disappearance of the adulterous Congressman's lover, Chandra Levy, is of course no comedy, and not the subject of enjoyable drama either. But Condit? Condit is pure gold, a compelling character, crammed with peculiar self-deceptions and foibles.
He's a gift to those who are curious about the pathology of everyday life, to those who have learned something of human nature from the theatre, to those who are grateful for a chance to glimpse self-righteous anger at its most grotesque, and to those who follow with fascination the Byzantine methods by which politicians decide which poses to strike in public. There's been no one like him since Richard Nixon began displaying the look of a cornered weasel in 1973.
Condit's appearance with Connie Chung on ABC, after months of silence, was a high moment in the Theatre of the Absurd. When that historic interview began, many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But almost immediately, we realized he was constructing an unforgettable performance as The Man With Something To Hide. No one knows why he chose to sit down with Chung for half an hour when he was determined to say nothing, but we are grateful he did. He justified, for once, the frequent claim that TV cameras uncover the flaws of character. Half an hour of videotape brought into view all the shadowy corners of his personality: the slyness, the fear, the frustration, the fury peeking through the blandness.
Before our eyes, Condit turned himself into a 17th-century character, a hypocrite out of Molière. A hypocrite doesn't necessarily lie: Hypocrisy is more a habit of speaking about one subject while thinking of another. As Condit twisted and writhed under even the gentlest question, he became Congressman Tartuffe. Like pietistic Tartuffe, he put himself forth as a man who (while "not perfect") operated from admirable motives. He claimed that what mattered, above all, was the fate of the missing woman. (Tartuffe: "All my thought is but to do my duty.") The more Condit insisted Levy's disappearance was the issue, the more we realized his concern was his own reputation.
A hypocrite himself, he elicited hypocrisy in others. In The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote one of those "What does it say" articles. In this case he asked: "What does it say that more Americans watched Condit and Chung than any other TV show this summer or any other news broadcast in more than two years?" This implied that it said something bad. But Rich's article demonstrated that he had followed the case with as much curiosity as any of us. He was typical of the audience for which the Larry King programs were produced, but as a serious and dignified commentator he felt called upon to obscure this fact.
Viewers soon learned that Congressman Condit has a stupendous and totally unjustified faith in his own plausibility. When polls turned against him, he didn't take that as a defeat. He blamed Chung, and sent in a fresh wave of defenders: his son, Chad, his daughter, Cadee, and no less than five loyal aides. Together this huge cast gave a superb demonstration of dramatic irony, a form that goes back at least to Oedipus Rex.
Dramatic irony calls for characters to believe something the audience knows is wrong. The Condit supporters were ignorant of their effect on the audience. They somehow imagined that a furtive refusal to say anything of consequence would be read as candour. The more they spoke, the less they convinced us. They believed they were shoring up Condit's reputation while the audience knew it was falling to pieces.
Chad ("My dad has always taught me to be a gentleman") Condit, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, was dogged in his defence of his father; like a suspect in a crime drama, he repeated himself suspiciously often. The Congressman's daughter, Cadee, a chronic smiler, was charming until she off-handedly revealed her utter contempt for the Governor of California, in whose office she loyally served until a couple of weeks ago. She told Larry King she wasn't surprised when the Governor criticized her dad. The Governor, she now disclosed, was interested only in people who give him financial or political support.
The five staff members divulged nothing at all on the literal level, but subliminally delivered an abundance of information. On relations between their boss and his girlfriend, they said they didn't know and wouldn't ask him and didn't care, thus depicting themselves as the least curious human beings ever to work in politics. This was true even of the aide who originally lied to reporters about whether Condit was Levy's lover; he told them it wasn't true when, as he has since said, he had no idea what he was talking about. Now he claimed he had never known the truth or asked for it.
The Condit drama has also been interesting for what it omits. Condit is a Democrat, so why haven't the Republicans pointed out his defects? Because they have the sense to practise economy of effect. In the theatre, this means you create only those scenes that move the audience toward the drama's resolution. In politics it means you never murder an opponent who is in the act of committing suicide.