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Jewish World Review July 16, 2001/ 25 Tamuz, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Condit is my neighbor -- REP. GARY CONDIT is my neighbor. He lives around the corner, but I never knew that until reporters, photographers, TV cameramen and their bulky trucks started to clog up the intersection a block away from my home.

We haven't had so many crowds around here since Adams-Morgan Day, a neighborhood festival that takes place every summer when the streets are blocked off and local vendors sell their wares -- fried plantains, jerk chicken, barbecue, spicy sausages and fried dough. You want multicultural, come on to my house.

Adams Morgan -- ask any of us -- is the hippest neighborhood in Washington, with lively clubs, bars, shops and cafes. Not many politicians choose to live here because it's a little earthy for the folks back home. But it's not hard to understand why a cool family-man congressman from Modesto, Calif., would find it a fun place to be. It's a neighborhood with lots of swinging singletons.

Many families live here, too, and the local moms recently organized a playground behind the apartment house where Gary Condit lives. We've had our share of crime, from purse snatchings and burglaries to rape and even murder, but in general we think we live in a safe community, for an urban neighborhood. We resent it when our streets are the focus of a search for a missing person.

But if we're angry about the invasion of reporters and photographers, we're as interested as everybody else in the answer to the question the reporters ask: "What happened to Chandra Levy?'' We take the story personally; it's our very own story out of "Law and Order'' and we already have the set and we can imagine costumes. But we haven't a clue to how it ends.

Those of us who grew up in Washington are fascinated by the changing content of political scandals. In the bad old days, we giggled over stories about old fogies who pinched secretaries in the Capital elevator or copped a feel when a comely aide bent over to reach a shrimp at an embassy buffet. They were the old geezers you might see in a cartoon in a 1940s Esquire in a rack at the flea market.

Occasionally we'd hear about a love affair between a boss and an underling, but before the sexual revolution, "the girl'' was always perceived as the victim of power. There would be no defense of a congressman -- or a president -- who dallied with an intern half his age.

The current scandal takes us back to the old morality. It was hard for many Americans to feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky, and feminists especially defended her right to seduce or be seduced by whomever she pleased. She was young, but old enough. But with Chandra's disappearance, a young "mistress'' of a married man is considered vulnerable again. No real man of character who feels anything for his lover could have lied for 70 days about an affair if he actually cared about what could have happened to her.

When the congressman lied, he made it clear he was worried only about his own skin, and saving it. His defense that he was protecting his family would be laughable if it were not so sad.

Chandra, according to the accounts of those close to her, wanted to marry Gary Condit and have his baby. The sexual freedom that's the fashion today did not stop her from dreaming of a monogamous relationship. Rhetoric and attitudes about sex may have changed, but the feelings in the secret places of the heart have not.

Gary Condit is guilty of more than lying and irresponsible silence. A cad is a cad is a cad is a cad, and no expensive public relations expert will be able to wash away the fact that, by his own reluctant telling of it, he exploited a young intern on his staff. Power is a powerful aphrodisiac, but it can also be a poison when administered over time in amorous doses.

Sally Quinn, who covers social life in Washington for The Washington Post, argues that nobody cares about a congressman who has an affair because we would have no Congress if we did. "And besides,'' she writes, "we have been through so much with Clinton that the last thing anyone is going to get exercised about is the extramarital sex life of a politician.'' But this time that's not right.

Bill Clinton dulled our senses, and Gary Condit has sharpened them. This sordid episode reminds us how treacherous the road of deception, how exorbitant the cost of concealment, how terrible the burden borne by constituents, staff workers and loved ones, beginning with the first lie. The poet got it right: "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.''

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS