Thank you, Gary Condit - Aug. 27, 2001
In an atmosphere of reluctance and suspicion, Gary Condit has managed to provide the nation with a valuable service. Students with aspirations of becoming media consultants now have a textbook example of what not to do during a television interview.
In a much-anticipated, live-to-tape interview conducted by Connie Chung on Aug. 23, the consensus seems to be that Rep. Gary Condit performed poorly indeed.
Looking as though he may have sought makeup tips from Al Gore and adopted the camera techniques used by Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debate, Condit licked his lips habitually and broke eye contact to the point of distraction. Rarely did he let his voice escape its monotone range. Neither did the content of his responses make up for his lack of grace.
His answers were repetitive and mechanistic. He admitted to nothing, except to having the innate flaw of imperfection found in all of us. After granting this minimal acknowledgment, Condit proceeded to point a finger of blame at the mother of missing intern Chandra Levy, at flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, the D.C. police chief, former aide Joleen McKay, Chandra's aunt, the press, and his own attorneys.
Although Condit did not raise the issue, there is something else that is found in all of us at one time or another. It goes by the name of guilt. As human beings we recognize that a normal response when we have committed a wrong is to feel guilty. Guilt may be most palpable by others when we are able to display its proper counterpart, remorse.
In watching the interview, the expectation on the part of pundits and private citizens alike was that Gary Condit would acknowledge wrongdoing and convey the appropriate degree of sorrow. He did not. Consequently, neither understanding nor forgiveness from the audience would be forthcoming.
It was clear to most of those who watched that Condit is far from the ideal television personality. The congressman is known for being a politician who operates behind the scenes. Before the scandal erupted, he rarely made local TV appearances, much less dared to step into the national spotlight.
Most likely, Condit is now painfully aware that the very notion of engaging in a television cross-examination was a mistake. To make matters worse, he must relive his unsophisticated and untrustworthy performance as it plays out endlessly in reruns on virtually every network.
Still, the greatest favor that Gary Condit may have provided the nation was to inadvertently send a warning signal to politicians everywhere. Many in our political ruling class thought we were in a new-era, post-Bill Clinton time. Old rules set forth after Watergate had been transcended. William Jefferson Blythe Clinton had established a new paradigm.
Prior to Clinton, the maxim in Washington, D.C., had been to disclose as much as possible, as early as possible, especially when it came to highly damaging material. But Clinton utilized his office and resources to engage in the dirty sport of propaganda and delay. The fact that he played the game so well created a precedent in which other politicians, such as Gary Condit, took false comfort.
But now we all know, elected officials included, that this is a ruse few people can pull off. No war room, no stable of spinners, no government agencies at your disposal, no power of the presidency, no media alliance - no win. The more our leaders believe that Bill Clinton was an anomaly, the better it will be for our system of government, for our rule of law and for our country.
Some political figures have already had an epiphany. The polls taken after Condit's performance were apparently so unnerving, the Democratic House Minority Leader felt it necessary to reverse himself. Condit suddenly went from being an "honorable man" to being "evasive," among other things. The question remains whether other members of Condit's own party will continue in their silent, shameful solidarity of support.
Thanks, Gary, for letting our leaders know that they follow the Clinton model at their own peril. Here's hoping that when we talk about a comeback, we'll now be referring to our rules of honor.