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.