Condit's Zone of Privacy—And Ours

The press has done to him what he would do to us.


Put your ear to the deafening roar that surrounds the case of the vanished Chandra Levy, and you may just make out a handful of voices trying to criticize the press's approach to the story. True, most of these voices are in the employ of Rep. Gary Condit, the California congressman who finally admitted to having an affair with Levy while she was a Washington intern this spring, and who has led D.C. cops on a merry chase in the course of their investigation.

According to Condit's congressional staff, and to his lawyer Abbe Lowell, the press has consistently violated a "zone of privacy" to which Condit, in a constitutional presumption of innocence, is entitled. A few journalism academics have turned up on talk shows to criticize the press, too, and on Wednesday, a group of demonstrators appeared outside Condit's west-coast office in support of the seven-term Democrat and in opposition to the supposedly "tabloid" media coverage of him.

Any case against the press is usually drowned out by two responses. The first is that had a voracious media not descended on this missing-person story and transformed it into a Washington scandal, Condit might not ever have told the remarkably respectful D.C. police anything. The second is that Condit's moral turpitude—his numerous affairs, his odd "rules" for girlfriends, his clumsy efforts to keep his paramours silent–is of such proportions that it is a legitimate story in its own right.

In fact, there's a third reason for taking a certain satisfaction in the violation of Condit's "zone of privacy," one that's never been offered. In some ways it's even better than the other reasons, because it involves a certain element of justice. That third reason is that Condit may have forfeited his own claim to privacy by his legislative record, which for seven House terms has demonstrated a consistent disregard for everyone else's privacy. What the press has been doing to his life is what he has long been voting to do to ours.

Take the presumption-of-innocence issue, for example. The federal government's Drug War has prompted more than a few invasions of privacy and restrictions on personal liberty. Among the most egregious is the practice of civil-asset forfeiture, under which the police are able to confiscate a person's property, sell it, and keep the proceeds, without ever having to prove in court that the person committed a crime. In 1999, Congress voted to make the practice a little less draconian. Condit voted against the measure. Legal niceties had little weight with the congressman then, though he may see much more merit in them today.

Or take the issue of the state-sanctioned sanctity of marriage. In 1996, Condit joined 117 other Democrats and 224 Republicans in voting for the "Defense of Marriage Act," to support and preserve the nuclear, heterosexual family, favored by God and the state. Of course, the sole purpose of the act was to thwart a movement towards recognizing homosexual unions. That movement would allow same-sex partners to enjoy a variety of legal benefits that the state distributes to other couples whose unions it chooses to sanction, including health and pension benefits and the right to visit a loved one on his or her hospital deathbed. This was, in retrospect, an act of uncommon hypocrisy, given the congressman's reported involvement in a succession of unsanctioned couplings.

In 1998, the citizens of the District of Columbia were making noise about legalizing medical marijuana. Among other possible benefits, it may ease the pain of glaucoma and allow patients with AIDS to take their medicinal "cocktails" without vomiting them. Condit willingly placed himself between patients and their doctors when he voted for a resolution condemning the effort. Condit's attitude toward the First Amendment may be illustrated by his consistent support for that old conservative chestnut, a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration. He most recently voted in favor of such an amendment on Tuesday, July 17.

One vote in particular deserves special mention. In 1999, he voted for an amendment to a juvenile justice bill that put Congress on record as supporting the right of state bureaucrats, teachers, and judges to post the Ten Commandments in their government buildings. That would of course put the Seventh Commandment—the bit about adultery—on general display for the nation's students, not to mention its defendants.

Based on what we know about Condit today, he's neither Congress's biggest malefactor nor even its biggest hypocrite. He's not in the class of those legislators, recently remembered by The Washington Post who have been caught having sex with 17-year-old pages of the same and opposite sex, or 16-year-old male prostitutes, or with another man in the bathroom of a House office building.

Condit has been the sort of "moderate" who was more likely to take to the House floor to praise a civil servant from back home or to plead for taxpayer funding for avocado marketing, than to rail against sin, vice, and evil. But when it came time to vote, he often preferred a more intrusive government, to one that left folks alone in their private lives.

Turnabout sometimes really is fair play. Condit was consistently willing to meddle in the private lives and private affairs of Americans during his tenure in power. He deserves his presumption of innocence, but he's not entitled to any bigger zone of privacy than he was willing to give the rest of us.