Redemption vs. unshakable resolve. These were the two competing scripts at work Thursday night when Connie Chung interviewed Representative Gary Condit on the ABC News program "Primetime Thursday." Ms. Chung and Mr. Condit tried to invoke these popular narratives to get what they wanted. Both failed.
"Primetime Thursday" and its sister television programs form a public confessional, with the interviewer in the role of the minister and the audience cast as the congregation. Americans love to forgive, but we exact a price in exchange. The sinner has to offer up an appropriately heartfelt and detailed account of his transgressions. He has to be remorseful. Then, and only then, do we decide whether he has been forthright and sincere enough to earn our indulgence. Prurience first, then rebuke and then -- probably -- forgiveness. In the redemption script, Ms. Chung's role was to extract Mr. Condit's confession of a sexual relationship with Chandra Ann Levy and speed him toward forgiveness. She pressed for the exact nature of his relationship with Ms. Levy, who has been missing since April 30. She asked how many times she had visited his apartment and whether he had been forthcoming with Ms. Levy's family.
Mr. Condit responded by throwing up a stone wall built of perfectly repeated and perfectly oblique sentences. "I have not been a perfect man," he said. "I have made mistakes in my life. But out of respect for my family, out of a specific request by the Levy family, it is best that I not get into the details of the relationship."
In his performance, Mr. Condit may have been trying to change the script from one American tale -- confession and redemption -- to another, the story of the strong, taciturn hero who does his duty quietly and keeps his own counsel. Ms. Chung's story has its origins in sweaty, crowded Baptist services. Mr. Condit's narrative comes from the dry, solitary spaces of the wide-open frontier. He knew his duty, he said, and had cooperated with the police -- "the people responsible to try to find Chandra Levy." He had not been part of "the media circus." He elaborated little and tried to let his actions speak for themselves, implicitly reproaching Ms. Chung for wanting prurient details. She was Oprah, and he was trying to be Shane.
But you can't play the part just by mouthing the words. It isn't just that the Washington police complained that Mr. Condit impeded their investigation, or that Shane avoided extramarital affairs. Mr. Condit's performance felt evasive, insincere and completely self-interested.
Even if Mr. Condit were a more convincing candidate for the part, he would face another problem. Oprah trumped Shane a long time ago. Our culture is confessional, and politics is not exempt. The two most recent presidents, a backsliding Baptist and a cowboy rancher, have both known how to use the confessional story. Although they have used their considerable charm to wink away direct admission, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have hinted at or confessed to personal sins.
The mystery is why Mr. Condit insisted on having 30 unedited minutes to unfurl his two minutes worth of tight-lipped self-righteousness. The interview degenerated into farce as Ms. Chung, denied her scripted role, tried others. At moments she was a prosecuting attorney, rifling through scraps of conflicting information. She even tried to be Encyclopedia Brown for a moment, reminding Mr. Condit to no effect that he could not have phoned Ms. Levy on the nonexistent April 31. There is no blaming her. She was running out the clock on an impossible conversation.
Gary Condit tried to appeal to the queasiness many Americans feel at the country's appetite for sexual scandal and its long, messy redemption narratives. Certainly, most are tired of watching politicians make self-serving half-confessions, and any confession of an affair from Mr. Condit would have been taken cynically.
But whatever happened between Gary Condit and Chandra Ann Levy, a measure of candor from Mr. Condit, even at this late date, would have been the principled choice. In fact, when a 24-year-old woman is missing, it's the only decent alternative.
Copyright 2001, The New York Times