Lessons from the summer's whodunnit

Should a politician ever want to write a book on how to mishandle a personal crisis and wade into ever-deeper waters, I have just the man: Representative Gary Condit, the obscure 53-year-old California Democrat whose relationship with a 24-year-old female intern has provided the American media with this summer's sizzling soap opera. Even DC police say Condit is not a suspect in the disappearance of Chandra Levy last May, yet every single thing Condit has done since then - or failed to do - has fuelled public suspicion that they see before them not just the sleazy adulterer and political phoney that Condit is, but a murderer, too.

Nearly 24 million people watched what was to be his mea culpa television interview, when he would shed a tear or two for Levy, offer to do anything to find her and help her family, and put his 26-year-old political career back on its tracks. Yet he could not admit to the watching millions what he finally confessed to detectives in his third interview with them on 6 July: that he had, indeed, been having an affair with Levy.

Instead, he repeated four times that he had been married 34 years and was "not a perfect man". He managed to deny what everybody by now knew to be the truth as well: that he had simultaneously been having a relationship with Anne Marie Smith, a 39-year-old flight attendant ("it would probably be her definition of a relationship versus mine", he parsed away disastrously).

The interviewer, Connie Chung - no Jeremy Paxman, she - none the less asked him 15 times, in one form or another, whether he had had a relationship with Levy. He stonewalled away with quite catastrophic results: a Gallup poll next day revealed that 62 per cent of people believed Condit was involved in Levy's disappearance, while 75 per cent thought he had obstructed the police investigation. An NBC poll showed that only 2 per cent of people thought he was motivated by wanting to help Levy or her family, while a Zogby poll found 93 per cent of people convinced that Condit was more concerned about his political career than he was about Levy. Having not lost an election for 26 years, but facing re-election next year, Condit now looks destined for political oblivion.

Even his political friends started to desert him after his woeful media appearances. Last June, Dick Gephardt, House Democratic leader, described Condit as "a wonderful public servant and a wonderful human being"; last week, he was back saying that what Condit said on television "was disturbing and wrong . . . it all adds to the general perception that politicians are a bunch of bums". The Republican attack dog of Georgia, Bob Barr, snarled: "I have even less respect for him than I did before." Most woundingly of all, Gray Davis, the Democratic governor of California - for whom Condit's two grown children work - said: "I am disheartened that Congressman Condit did not speak out more quickly or more fully." His own son, Chad (speaking peculiarly of "Gary Condit" rather than "my father" or "dad"), expressed the hope that Condit would now bow out of politics for good.

The saga, I suspect, tells a lot about small-town America v the big time. During his four months under scrutiny, Condit hired the best public relations people and one of Washington's toughest lawyers, Abbe Lowell; but when he had to face the glare of the spotlights himself, even as personified by the likes of Chung, Condit regressed to being a small-time, small-town politician, unable to take the big punches or even see them coming. His one national position of any note - membership of the House's Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence - had not prepared him for dealing with anything but routine questions from, say, the Modesto Daily.

Anne Marie Smith - interviewed by the FBI in California, then flown to New York for nine more hours of questioning - is threatening to sue Condit after he was so needlessly dismissive of her. More lawyers earn more money, and of Chandra Levy there is still no sign.

In the most disingenuous part of his interview with Chung, Condit said piously: "I pray that she has not met the same fate as the other young women who have disappeared from the same neighbourhood." In fact, only one woman - Joyce Chiang, a government lawyer who vanished in 1999 - is known to have disappeared in recent years from the same area as Levy.

"Do you miss her?" is the one question I would have liked Chung to ask Condit. Instead, there was not a flicker of emotion for Levy, with whom Condit told police he "could not recall" whether he had been "intimate" during their last meeting in April - just before Condit's wife, Carolyn, whom Condit habitually told people in DC was "unwell", flew in from California. On 1 May, Levy logged on to the internet for three and a half hours, looked up various travel sites - she was heading home for her graduation in California - and was never heard from again.

She remains one of around 100,000 people, predominantly young and female, who disappear here every year; last year, 876,213 were reported missing. Most turn up again - Chandra Levy will not. Joyce Chiang's body was found in the Anacostia River four months after she went missing; with nothing to go on and no leads suggesting anything to the contrary, the police concluded she had committed suicide.

Perhaps the emotion is too raw, too real, for Condit; perhaps he weeps in private. But the likelihood is that his lover, more than three decades his junior, suffered no less terrible and final a fate than the already forgotten Chiang.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.