Condit Affair: The Latest D.C. Sex Scandal

ByGeraldine Sealey

July 11, 2001 -- The graying politician and the young female intern — the scandal consuming Washington these days has a familiar ring.

The fury surrounding Rep. Gary Condit's relationship with Chandra Levy is distinct from many Washington sex scandals because it stems from the disturbing disappearance of the former intern. But even if Condit has absolutely nothing to do with Levy's disappearance, as he has stated repeatedly in the weeks since she was last seen, his ties to her cement his place in a long line of politicians who've found their sex lives exposed to the public eye.

For sure, male politicians have had romantic dalliances outside of marriage since the founding of the republic.

Ben Franklin was well known for his extramarital peccadilloes. Slave Sally Hemings is believed by many to have been the mother of several of Thomas Jefferson's children. When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, his lover Lucy Mercer and not his wife Eleanor, was present.

But until the early 1970s, reporters and close associates of politicians were more apt to ignore such affairs than make a story of them. Even the many love interests of President John F. Kennedy, which included such famous paramours as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Angie Dickinson, weren't widely known until well after his death.

Wilbur Mills' Saga

"Before the age of Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, the rule in journalism used to be that the private lives of politicians were usually ignored, unless it affected their work," says historian Michael Beschloss.

All of that changed, though, with Wilbur Mills. When the then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was stopped for speeding one early morning in October 1974 near the Jefferson Memorial, he likely had no idea the incident would lead to the end of his career.

When Mills' car stopped, the well-known stripper Fanne Fox, aka the "Argentine Firecracker," jumped out of the vehicle and into the Potomac River tidal basin. Mills, a long-married Arkansas Democrat, won re-election despite the publicity that ensued.

But just weeks after the vote, Mills showed up apparently drunk on a Boston stage with Fox. That was enough to ignite a revolt among fellow House Democrats, and Mills relinquished his powerful committee assignment. Two years later, he decided not to run for re-election.

Why did Mills' personal carrying-on doom his career when so many carousing politicians before him largely went unpunished?

The Personal Becomes Political

Suzanne Garment, author of Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, says the fallout that felled Mills had more to do with fundamental societal changes than with the man and his personal choices.

"The Wilbur Mills scandal … mainly showed the changes that had already been taking place in this country," Garment said. Around that time, she suggests, conservatives' concerns about private morality in public office converged with the women's movement's drive to make personal matters as significant as those deemed public.

In the years after the Mills scandal, sexual revelations about politicians' lives flowed out of Washington, and became commonplace conversation fodder during many campaigns.

There was Gary Hart, who dared reporters to find evidence of his philandering, only to have that evidence printed in the Miami Herald soon after. Hart still ran for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination despite the embarrassment, but withdrew during the primary season.

In 1991, former Miss Virginia Tai Collins said she had been having an affair with then-Sen. Charles Robb, although the married Robb said they had only shared a bottle of wine and a massage in a hotel room. Robb narrowly won re-election despite the salacious story.

In 1995, then-Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon resigned after saying he was "sincerely sorry" for any "unwelcome" advances he may have made toward female ex-staffers who alleged he had harassed them.

Disappearance Adds Twist to Scandal

Then of course, there was the most infamous politician-intern relationship of all. The sordid, well-documented relationship between former President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky led to Clinton's impeachment and the public airing of excruciatingly intimate details of the president's sex life.

During the months Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, even fellow politicians called on him to "come clean" about the relationship. Among them was Gary Condit.

"Only when we strip away the cloak of secrecy and lay the facts on the table can we begin to resolve this matter — honestly and openly," he wrote in a 1998 letter to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "We owe the American people an honest evaluation of the facts."

Condit has found himself wrapped up in a political firestorm now rivaling Lewinsky proportions. Although Condit has not been labeled a suspect in Levy's disappearance, news about the 24-year-old former Federal Bureau of Prisons intern and the aging congressman from Modesto, Calif., consumes hours of programming each day on cable news outlets. Details of Condit's private life are now front-page material in some newspapers and magazines.

Is Condit just the latest victim of a media feeding frenzy, as his attorney has suggested?

Beschloss says even decades ago when politicians conducted their affairs in private, Condit's involvement with the missing intern case would have warranted public attention.

"Even under the old rules, the private life of this congressman would probably have entered public view because he was one of the last to see a young woman who has disappeared," he said.

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