Modesto, California

"Condit Country" is a bad enough slogan for this agribusiness burg, yet, not satisfied with it, the city boosters have also erected an arch across the main street. MODESTO, reads the self-regarding inscription. WATER. WEALTH. CONTENTMENT. HEALTH. The local Congressman is an embodiment of this narcissistic style, and of the sort of Babbittry that accompanies it. Condit is always there, when it comes to being photographed for a peach parade. He's always there, on the House Agriculture Committee, when it comes to bills on land and water rights. He's an irrigation ditch for the local interests. His blond family–Carolyn, Cadee and Chad–is off a cornflakes box. In common with his sometime friend and patron Governor Gray Davis, Condit will make any political sellout his own idea. Death penalty–yes. School prayer, public display of the Ten Commandments, down with flag-burners and (now that you mention it) let's reveal the names of people with AIDS.

Creeps like Condit are, however, a dime a dozen in the Democratic Party, and I was in a state of general agreement with Dan Rather when I first set foot in the district. The disappearance of Chandra Levy had no importance beyond itself; it was a tragedy only for her family. Condit may have flirted with obstruction of justice by wasting the time of the DC police, and with suborning perjury in asking Anne Marie Smith to sign a false affidavit, but this was not on the Clinton scale of abuse of power. Condit hadn't used the forces of the state or mobilized large sums of public money in his battle to insulate himself from unwelcome inquiries. What he has done has at least been done on his own dime.

Thus I reasoned, idly, until I got to the corner of 16th and H streets downtown, where Condit has his headquarters. There wasn't much in the window, except a banal poster enjoining one and all to say no to hate crimes and two other exhibits. The first of these was a missing poster for Levy, who, as is now notorious, disappeared a whole continent away in Washington and is unlikely to be lurking in the greater Modesto area. The second was a missing poster for a local girl named Dena Raley, who has vanished in what the authorities call "suspicious circumstances." I asked an experienced local if Congressman Condit has always kindly displayed the posters for missing females in his district office window. "Oh no," came the reply. "That's a new thing."

I was at once seized with a powerful feeling of disgust. Condit and his team of lawyers and publicists have been saying unctuously for some time that they so much hope Chandra Levy hasn't gone the way of all those other girls who go missing. "I pray that she has not met the same fate," as Condit himself piously phrased it in a letter to his constituents. The not-so-subtle message is that life is unfair, whaddaya gonna do and don't look at me. But to use the posters of the missing as an accessory in this fashion is to take cynicism a stage further. I actually live in a place more or less equidistant between Levy's old apartment in Dupont Circle and Condit's oddly located pad in Adams Morgan, and I can tell you that the disappearance of single females is not as everyday an occurrence as some would have you think. I can also tell you that the Washington Police Department is a laughingstock, as much among criminals as among the law-abiding. It never called Dr. Levy back after he rang to report his daughter missing in the first place, and when it says it has no suspect in the case it really, really means it. It's a police department that doesn't suspect anybody, and has for these many years employed rather more crooks than it has managed to apprehend.

The following night I watched Condit himself on TV. Considering that our craven mass media had actually allowed him to choose a lenient and unqualified interviewer, I thought that his performance was not so much disastrous from a PR point of view (the Dick Gephardt "take" on the matter) as calamitous from a moral one. How incredible that he could say, not once but several times, that in refusing to clarify the real nature of their relationship he was honoring "a specific request from the Levy family," who had done no more than tell another TV station that they were more concerned with recovering their daughter than with discovering the details. How contemptible! A man who will do this, and plainly rehearse to do it with the assistance of the degraded professions of attorney and media adviser, can be held to be capable of pretty much anything. The squalor and shadiness of his other responses–alluding to Ms. Levy repeatedly in the past tense, making out her family to be liars, answering questions he wasn't asked, resorting to the word "we" when he meant "I" ("we've taken a polygraph test," for Christ's sake) and blaming his lawyers for a draft falsification submitted to Anne Marie Smith–paled when set next to this one.

So I have changed my mind, for what it's worth. By acting in this depraved way, by managing to evoke only mild reproof from his party and by employing the techniques of spin and "privacy" and procrastination when a girl's life is in question, Condit has demonstrated something of importance about our political class. Of course I don't know if poor Chandra Levy went for an ill-advised ride on his motorbike, or somebody else's. But after I had digested the Congressman's window display, I walked over to the former Mel's drive-in, which is featured in George Lucas's Modesto classic, American Graffiti.

An ancient Chevy stood next to a battered Packard in the parking lot, Elvis was on the jukebox, girls served from rollerblades and the slogan ("Where the food is as good as the root beer") was roughly accurate. A leathered biker pushed past me as I emerged from the "Poppa Bear" restroom. On the back of his jacket he had inscribed the words: IF YOU CAN READ THIS–THE BITCH FELL OFF. It wasn't the most callous remark I heard in Modesto: I had to sit through Connie Chung to hear it surpassed.