Jill Smolowe
September 03, 2001 12:00 PM

Gary Condit had just returned from watching his two grandsons take part in a taekwondo demonstration on May 6 when his wife told him that Dr. Robert Levy had called to say that his daughter Chandra was missing. Initially, says Condit, he battled a feeling of horror, “hoping that she’d just gone somewhere.” But when he got Dr. Levy on the phone, there was no escaping the panic in the distraught father’s voice. “Just the tone of his voice sent chills running down my spine,” says the congressman from Ceres, Calif. “It made me really fearful that something might have happened to her.”

Last week Condit broke a four-month silence to address the swirl of questions set off by the mysterious disappearance on May 1 of former Washington intern Chandra Levy, 24, and the subsequent barrage of reports that linked Condit romantically to Levy and suggested that he impeded the ongoing investigation into her whereabouts.

Condit, 53, at a private home in Beverly Hills, was alternately cool and nervous, stony and impassioned during his 90-minute interview with PEOPLE—his first magazine interview since Levy’s disappearance. He spoke in a monotone and often wrung his hands and shot anxious looks at his grown daughter as he spoke about Levy, his marriage and his future. (His wife, Carolyn, 53, attended a photo shoot and then excused herself from the interview.)

Often parsimonious with his responses, Condit left a trail of unanswered questions, particularly on the subject of Chandra, whom he called “a good friend.” Police sources have said that Condit acknowledged he had an affair with the intern, but this week he repeatedly refused to answer questions about the nature of the relationship. “In the interest of my family and the Levy family,” he says, “I am not going to discuss my relationship.” He said neither his staff nor his children, Chad, 34, and Cadee, 25, both of whom work as aides to California Gov. Gray Davis, knew about his close friendship with Chandra. He would not comment about what his wife might have known.

When asked to recall Chandra, however, Condit grew intense. He couldn’t remember how often Levy visited his office, but he said, “Chandra came into the office and we talked; that’s how we got acquainted.” He described her as “very nice, very smart, very interested in politics, very interested in her career,” and noted how she liked to read articles on the Internet, then discuss them with him. He says she was also excited to be going home for a May 11 commencement to collect her master’s degree in public administration at the University of Southern California. “She seemed totally normal,” he says. “She seemed full of life.”

Their last meeting, on April 24 he believes, was at his condo in Washington, shortly after she learned her job with the Bureau of Prisons had ended. “I said to her, ‘If there’s anything you need me to do,’ ” he says. Despite the job disappointment, he adds, “she was very upbeat. This is a person who was looking to the future.” Afterward they talked about her plans to return to California by train. Their parting was not tearful, he says: “We were friends and the friendship was going to continue.”

As to the details of their alleged affair, he was often terse and dismissive. Many of the specific items that have appeared in the press he simply denied.

Did he buy Chandra a graduation gift? “No.”

Did he buy her a bracelet? “I’m not going into that.”

Did he ask her to not carry an ID or to get off his condo’s elevator at a different floor so no one would know they were together? “No.”

Did she ever tell him she was pregnant? “No.”

Did he have a vasectomy? “No.”

Condit bridled when queried about the repeated suggestions by Susan and Bob Levy, who declined to comment for this article, that he is withholding information about their daughter’s disappearance. “I have children, and I can’t think of anything that would be worse, so I feel for them,” he said. “My heart aches for them every day. But you know what? They don’t have any reason to be suspicious of me. I would never do anything to harm Chandra. And I think it’s unfair when they make reference to maybe I had something to do with the disappearance. It’s not correct. Next to them and their family,” he added, “I’m probably hoping to find Chandra more than anyone else.”

Walking a fine line between personal indignation and sympathy with the Levys’ pain, Condit repeatedly stressed that what he and his family were going through “is just a little bit of what they have gone through.” He said that he drew his own spiritual strength from prayer. “No matter what happens to me,” he said, “I will never lose my faith.” Asked if he prayed for Chandra, he answered, “Absolutely, every day.” And did he miss her? “She’s a friend. I miss her, yes. Absolutely.”

Condit denied Susan Levy’s assertion that he had lied about his relationship with Chandra when she spoke by phone with him shortly after her daughter’s disappearance. “I never lied,” he said. Levy, he asserted, parsing matters in a Clintonesque manner, had never asked him whether he had been involved with Chandra. “She named some people who she thought might be involved with Chandra. My name was not mentioned…. She asked me about other members of Congress.”

He offered to sit down alone with the Levys “to talk about anything they want to talk about,” but the offer is unlikely to be accepted anytime soon. On an NBC Dateline aired Aug. 10, Susan spoke of her dissatisfaction with the one meeting she and Condit had in Washington on June 21. She said that his body language reminded her of someone “who is hiding a whole lot.” On Aug. 20 on Rivera Live, the Levys’ attorney Billy Martin said his clients are “very angry with Gary Condit right now.” Referring to statements that Chandra’s aunt Linda Zamsky told PEOPLE Chandra had made about how she loved Condit and believed he planned to marry her, Martin said, “Even if he by chance had nothing to do with her disappearance, he’s hurt their daughter.”

Linda Zamsky has also said that Chandra told her she and the congressman had talked about a “five-year plan,” during which Condit would leave his wife and start a family with her. Condit says there were no such plans and, what’s more, they never discussed love or marriage: “It didn’t happen.” To the contrary, he maintained, “I would never do that to my wife. I’ve been married for 34 years. I love [Carolyn] very much. I’ll stay with her as long as she’ll have me.” He added, “It’s about forgiveness. My wife and children know I’m not a perfect man.”

Whatever the state of the Condits’ marriage, they clearly head a close family. Last week, when the couple arrived for the photo shoot with People, daughter Cadee was the cheerleader, fretting over every shot of her mother. She’d say, “There’s a hair in the way,” or “I think she is too smiley.” When Carolyn looked awkward or tense, Cadee leapt in: “If I’m around, she’ll relax.” Son Chad provided quieter support, assuring his mother after she was made up, “You look beautiful.” As for husband and wife, Carolyn appeared frail and uneasy, smiling tentatively at her husband as he placed an arm around her.

While acknowledging personal faults, Condit could find no error in his conduct during the investigation. He has held four interviews with the police and FBI. “How can I have any regrets when I have cooperated with all the authorities?” he says. “I have done everything they’ve asked me to do. I answered every question that law enforcement asked me in every interview. I answered every question truthfully. I had nothing to do with the disappearance of Chandra Levy.” He adds, “I took the DNA test for them. I did the polygraph for them. They had no probable cause, but I let them search my house.” As for taking a lie detector test arranged by his lawyers and refusing to take one supervised by the FBI, he says, “We found the best [tester]…. We thought that he would meet the objective that the police and the FBI wanted.”

Although Condit has not been named as a suspect, police take a slightly more jaundiced view of his level of cooperation. “We didn’t have a full accounting from the congressman until the third interview,” says D.C. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer. “The accuracy of his statement lies in the eyes of the beholder. Getting information from him has been time-consuming to us. But that in itself is not necessarily criminal.”

Condit feels that it is time that police looked elsewhere. “Do I think that they ought to focus on different areas? Yes,” he says. He says that he is especially frustrated by the media coverage: “If the media want to make things up and print rumors and innuendos and misstatements, I can’t do a lot about that.” Given the chance to respond to the many rumors and allegations that have fueled the press frenzy, he declined to answer in any depth.

Flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, for instance, who claimed to have had an affair with Condit, told investigators that the congressman had phoned her in early May and said, ” ‘I’m going to have to disappear for a while. I think I might be in some trouble.’ ” Condit’s response? “I might have returned her call,” he says. “And I might have said I’m going to be gone for the weekend. I might have said something like that.” But trouble? “No.” As for Smith herself, who has asserted that Condit told her to lie to investigators about their relationship, Condit says, “I’m just puzzled by people who interject themselves into something that’s not—it just puzzles me. She does this for her own publicity. Anne Marie Smith has nothing to do with Chandra Levy. Not one thing.”

He was even more dismissive about one of the more puzzling aspects of the case: the Tag Heuer watch case that a man claimed to have seen Condit dump in a trash can in a park in Alexandria, Va., hours before police searched his Washington condo on July 10. Joleen McKay, who worked as a staff assistant for Condit in 1994, has told investigators that she gave the watch to Condit while they were having an affair. “The watch box has nothing to do with Chandra Levy, and I took nothing out of my apartment before the search,” Condit says. “I took nothing out of my apartment after the search.”

Looking toward the future, Condit says that he is now weighing whether or not to run for an eighth term. The most recent polls in his 18th congressional district, until now known as Condit country, indicate that a majority of his constituents, who in 2000 handed him 67 percent of the vote, no longer support him. Local papers have called for his resignation, among them the Modesto Bee, which concluded that he “knowingly hindered—if not obstructed—the police investigation.” Adds Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters: “There’s a lot of pressure on him not to run. But, at least financially, he needs to run. He needs money. He has no wealth, no other job to fall back on. He has zip.”

But Condit says he will not give up: “I will sit down and talk to people in my district. I will talk to my family…. I will trust the people. They’ll figure out what they think of this, what parts of it are important.” He is, he says, “a stand-up guy.”

Jill Smolowe

Champ Clark, Elizabeth Leonard and Colleen O’Connor in Beverly Hills, Ron Arias in Los Angeles and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

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