Rep. Gary A. Condit's attempt at damage control brought forth a torrent of criticism yesterday, producing nearly unanimous agreement that his nationally televised interview cast him in a poor light and prompting the first serious call for congressional action against the California Democrat.
A day after he broke his silence on the Chandra Levy case, Condit was challenged by representatives of the missing woman's family, second-guessed by the pundits, proclaimed a failure by image consultants and castigated by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who called his Democratic colleague's lack of candor "disturbing and wrong."
The 30-minute interview Thursday night on ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday," watched by nearly 24 million people, had been billed by Condit in a letter to constituents as an attempt to "answer questions that help people understand" his actions in the Levy investigation. The expectation was high that he would admit to an affair with the 24-year-old federal intern -- as law enforcement sources have said he acknowledged in interviews with police. But Condit steadfastly refused to do so and instead employed the same language over and over to explain his silence.
Condit attorney Abbe D. Lowell, who sat off camera in the ABC interview, said yesterday that the congressman accomplished what he set out to do. He said Condit showed that he had concern for the Levy family and established that he did not impede the investigation into her disappearance, as his critics have charged.
But Lowell seemed a near lone voice of support. From the streets of Condit's congressional district in central California to the halls of Congress, where he has served since 1989, the lawmaker was criticized for failing to own up to an affair that most have long accepted as fact. And by challenging specific parts of the Levy story, in the process contradicting the missing woman's family and others, Condit gave his critics ammunition that they promptly let loose on him yesterday.
Joanne Tittle, a close friend of the Levys' who lives two doors down from the family, watched the televised interview with much dismay. "I was yelling 'liar' at the television. He's saying Chandra's a liar, Linda's a liar, Sue's a liar -- and he's not?" Tittle said, naming the intern's aunt and mother, respectively. "Unbelievable. How can he go on national television and lie like that? It's scary. It's appalling."
Tittle said she is organizing a campaign to urge Modesto residents to mail back the letter Condit sent to his constituents. "I put a dead fly in mine, and I'm telling everybody else to do the same. For symbolism. Actually, I'm going to put two dead flies in my envelope."
The comments from Gephardt were especially portentous. In mid-June, when Condit was buffeted daily by reports of his involvement with Levy, the minority leader described his Democratic colleague as "a wonderful public servant and a wonderful human being.
"I'm sure that Gary is going to do everything he can to help," Gephardt said then.
But in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the TV interview, Gephardt indicated that Condit may be asked to give up his seat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Of his colleague's performance on television, he said: "I think it fell way short. It all adds to the general perception that politics are no good and politicians are a bunch of bums."
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoed the criticism. "I was very disappointed with last night's performance," he said. "First, he should have apologized to the family. Second, he needed to explain exactly what his relationship was with Chandra Levy. Third, he needed to do a better job of why he was not forthcoming with the police from Day One."
McAuliffe said it was up to Condit to decide whether to seek reelection and to his constituents to determine his political future. But he added that Condit would have been better served by not doing the interview with ABC's Connie Chung. "He didn't offer any new answers," he said.
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who earlier had called for Condit's resignation, said the congressman "didn't do himself any good at all. . . . I have even less respect for him now than I did before."
Even President Bush was pressed to comment on Condit's performance yesterday. He said he had not watched the interview and dismissed what he called "the Washington whispers."
"I am not paying attention to the congressman," Bush said. "I am paying attention to whether or not this poor girl is found. And that's what I'm interested in."
Condit on Thursday also granted interviews to a Sacramento television station and the local Merced Sun-Star newspaper. His comments on the Levy case were generally consistent -- he often used the same phrasing.
He was more aggressive in the local interviews, however, in defending himself. He criticized D.C. police and offered various other scenarios that have circulated to explain Levy's disappearance, including the possibility that she was the target of a serial killer or that her work on the execution of Timothy McVeigh while an intern at the Bureau of Prisons may have put her at risk. Both theories have been dismissed by police.
Condit also took on the media. "I mean, this is the equivalent of a $100 million negative campaign on me, you know, and today is the first day I have actually said anything," he told the Merced newspaper.
"Political consultants tell you to go out, get in front of these issues, do a big press conference, make a confession or denial, you know, distance yourself from that. I chose not to do that," Condit said. "I chose to do the other thing, and that was simply to help law enforcement to do everything that I can to help the people responsible for finding Chandra."
Condit's words echoed throughout the day yesterday, replayed on the all-news networks and dissected on the talk shows. One of the harshest critics was the attorney for Anne Marie Smith, the flight attendant who said she had a 10-month affair with Condit. Until Thursday, Condit had not challenged her account of a relationship, but in the ABC interview he said it did not take place and accused her of "taking advantage of this tragedy."
Said her attorney, James Robinson: "This, of course, is the equivalent to the finger-shaking by Clinton, who of course lived to regret that. And Condit will live to regret this also."
Robinson said there are numerous facts about Condit's personal life and physical characteristics that Smith would know only if she had an intimate relationship with him. Without elaborating, he said he would prove that his client is telling the truth.
The impact of Condit's long-awaited comments -- occurring 115 days after Levy was last seen in downtown Washington -- was especially felt in the central California communities where Condit has enjoyed overwhelming and bipartisan support.
At dawn yesterday, when farmers from the Central Valley parked their trucks and ambled into coffee shops to begin their day, the subject of Gary Condit was treated like a bad hangover. "I just can't talk about it anymore," said a neighbor of the Condits when asked to discuss the interview. "We've had enough!"
The coffee drinkers, in straw cowboy hats sculpted to fit their heads alone, were mum on the subject. One folded the front page of the local paper, slid it under his plate of eggs and instead opened the classifieds.
All summer long, the Hawaiian Days promotion at Perko's Cafe in Condit's home town of Ceres has dressed the waitresses in hula shirts and silk leis and has served waffles with paper umbrellas stuck in the pat of butter. The conversation there has been just as colorful throughout the summer -- until yesterday.
"I just don't know what to think anymore," said Charbonnie Blunt, 35, a waitress. "You want to believe Gary. Every day, we hold out a little hope that today, he'll clear it all up and explain everything. But he still hasn't done that. He didn't do it last night, and I stayed up late to watch it."
At the Peachtree Restaurant, a favorite of Condit's wife, Carolyn, supporter Sharie Parkinson said the congressman could not have done anything to satisfy his critics and sway the skeptics. "He could've been a bleeding heart, crying, and it still wouldn't be enough," said Parkinson, 53, who owns Ceres Floral, a couple of blocks from the Condits' home.
She is a Republican who has always voted for Condit, and her support is unwavering. "I think they're hanging him, and I don't think it's fair. I don't care that he made mistakes in his personal life. I'll keep voting for him," she said.
But others close to Condit ended years of loyalty Thursday night. In the 1960s, insurance agent Pete Pollard began writing policies for Condit's father, a Baptist minister. When the younger Condit decided to enter politics, Pollard ran telephone banks for him.
For the next three decades, the registered Republican always strayed into the Democratic column on ballots that bore Condit's name. That will never happen again.
"Gary has blown it, and the people who were always for him are hurt because this is so personal," said Pollard, a retiree in his seventies who plans to campaign against his good friend's son next year.
Pollard has looked back at the years he supported Condit, the fundraisers, the hours he volunteered on campaigns, the faith he had in a young man he watched grow up.
"I can forgive. I'm a forgiving man. I waited all summer to forgive. I wanted to forgive him last night," he said. "I hate to say this, because I don't want Reverend Condit to be mad at me, but I can't forgive Gary anymore. It's over."
Staff writers Mike Allen, Dan Balz and Richard Leiby and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report. Dvorak reported from Modesto.