Echoes of Lewinsky Affair in Condit-Levy Case

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America has seen this before: The silver-haired politician, the naive young intern, the seduction of power, the shifting answers.

Echoes of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are everywhere as Rep. Gary Condit is pressed to explain his relationship with Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old government intern who has been missing for more than two months.

Unlike the Clinton melodrama, however, the story this time is both weighed down and propelled forward by the awful uncertainty about Levy's fate.

The situation's gravity hasn't stopped TV comics from milking it for laughs, just as the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the long unraveling of its salacious details provided nightly punch lines.

Other common threads run through the story as well: Pleas for a zone of privacy; staff members sent out in public without the full story; a stream of additional information trickling out oh so slowly. Even a lawyer for key supporting players in the drama is making a return appearance: Billy Martin, the attorney for the Levy family, represented Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis.

Condit himself, facing criticism for failing to be forthcoming about his relationship with Levy, was among those pressing three years ago for full disclosure from the president of details about his affair.

The California Democrat called it the "drip-drip-drip theory" and introduced a resolution to require more complete disclosure of evidence in the Lewinsky case.

"You can't close this issue without getting all the information out," Condit argued in September 1998. "Let's just do it at once, see where the chips fall, and then let's get on to making the decision of what we're going to do about what we think happened."

Now, the tables are turned. Condit lawyer Abbe Lowell is the one vowing to protect a "zone of privacy" for the congressman's family. (Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, had used the same phrase on "60 Minutes" in 1992 to try to stop prying into their marriage.)

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political analyst, said both cases demonstrate the conflicting demands of politics and the law.

Where the smart legal strategy might be to offer only the information that is demanded, she said, the better political strategy often is to "tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." She was quoting Lanny Davis, a veteran Clinton defender.

Early on, Jeffe said, the Clintons "acted too much like attorneys in a political situation. ... I see that same tension as things play out in the Condit case."

Condit denied having an affair with Levy. Levy's aunt says her niece told her they were involved. And a source speaking on condition of anonymity said the congressman, in his third interview with investigators, said for the first time last weekend that he had a romantic relationship with the intern, a constituent from Modesto, Calif.

Levy, whom the congressman has described as "a good friend," disappeared April 30 after completing a federal internship in Washington, D.C. Police say they consider her disappearance a missing persons case, not a crime.

As in the Clinton case, it is Condit's aides who are left to answer most of the questions in public -- at times apparently without the benefit of the full story from their boss. The congressman's aides repeatedly denied a romantic relationship between Condit and Levy in the early days after her disappearance.

Now, as details about Condit's alleged affairs with both Levy and a California flight attendant trickle out, the aides are more reticent, a tactic also adopted by Clinton's supporters. Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary during the Lewinsky scandal, joked of being "double-parked in a no-comment zone."

Asked to clarify the congressman's relationship with Levy, Condit lawyer Lowell over the weekend offered this feint: "If I say she was a friend, what does that mean? And if I say she was something else, what does that mean? I don't think that helps anybody."