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The Difficult Road Ahead for Gary Condit

Aired August 31, 2001 - 10:13   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We continue this morning's special look at the Gary Condit story. As we showed you a few minutes ago, last night, Larry King had an exclusive interview with five members of the congressman's staff. They had some very strong opinions about the public-relations crisis that Condit is facing over the disappearance of Chandra Levy.


LARRY KING, HOST: Do you think he should have done this differently, public relations-wise?

MAGGIE MEJIA, CONDIT FIELD REPRESENTATIVE: Well, you know, Larry, I have a question on that. They have said over and over again that he is not suspect. So why are they not asking all the others that are on the list, openly like they have with Gary -- is it because he is a congressman? But there are other suspects on the list. I believe that they should be also interrogated and put through the mill as Gary and his family, and we the staff have done.

PAT AUSTIN, CONDIT STAFF ASSISTANT: But we aren't hearing about them.

MEJIA: No, we're not.

AUSTIN: Not a word.

L. KING: Do you think maybe he should have talked openly earlier?


L. KING: Yes.

MOORE: I don't...

L. KING: Just come out and say, look, I'm -- she was my friend, I'm worried about her, anything I can do.

MOORE: He said those, he said those things. She is a good friend, he was concerned, he put up money for a reward fund, which is not unlike he has done for other people in his district in the past. It was as far as discussing this any further with the press, he did discuss it with law enforcement and I'm not going to parse what the police chief has said.

L. KING: No, but you can have an opinion.

MOORE: And my opinion is that...

L. KING: He did the right thing?

MOORE: He did the right thing as far as he did not go to the media to tell his story.

L. KING: But look at all that's happened to him because of that, Jackie. As his son said the other night, it may be regretful, but perception is reality.


L. KING: And that's what happened to him. Do you think he might have handled it differently?

MULLEN: Yes. I would have liked to have seen him go out in the very beginning, and say to media, "I'm not going to talk about this. I have nothing say to you folks. You know, this is something that is between me and my family, this is private." But I wish he would have said, I'm not going to talk to the press.

L. KING: In today's era, Mike, is that a mistake, do you think? Just on the nature...

MIKE DAYTON, CONDIT'S TOP D.C. AIDE: Well, I think -- I don't know if it was you who said that there are no comments over...

L. KING: No comment means something's wrong.

DAYTON: Well...

L. KING: In retrospect, we have the value of hindsight.

DAYTON: In retrospect, we don't have -- yeah, I mean, hindsight is great, but unfortunately we can't go back and I think that was the decision early on -- and I mean, he -- you know, we all received that advice, contemplated it, but I mean, for him to come out early and, you know make a statement about a denial, or you know -- mea culpa. But I mean, we didn't do that. He chose to focus his efforts on law enforcement.


KAGAN: That's what Condit staffers have to say. Conventional wisdom, for some, says that the public-relations campaign is backfiring.

Let's see what the experts think. Joining us with analysis of Condit's media blitz is CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider, Fraser Seitel, author of "The Practice of Public Relations," and Democratic consultant Tom King.

Gentlemen good morning. Good to have you with us.




KAGAN: All these months of silence, and then suddenly we've heard from the congressman, from his son and then last night on Larry from the congressman's staffers.

Fraser, you are the expert in P.R. Is this helping?

SEITEL: Well, you are in bad shape when you have got damage control to handle the damage control. And the people last night, the staffers, were nice people. And they were loyal people. And they were honorable people. But it's a essentially eyewash at this point.

The surrogates come out and they say the predictable things. The thing he's got to do if he wants to continue -- which is the first question I would ask him -- is to come back himself and try to set the record straight.

KAGAN: We are going to get to the future of Gary Condit in a moment.

But, first, I want to bring in Tom King and talk to a Democrat. If you can't convince a Democrat, who can you convince in this case?

So, Tom, is Gary Condit helping himself with this interview after interview after all these months of silence?

T. KING: I think the problem has been that it's two strategies. One is a legal strategy and the other is a political strategy. And they conflict. When you have two strategies, you don't have strategy. And I think, for a long time, they made the legal decision not to have him talk to the press, not to -- just to talk to law enforcement. And then they came out and saw that the political -- that, politically, wasn't working.

And then they came up with a political strategy: talking to Connie Chung. And it just hasn't worked at all.

KAGAN: Bill Schneider, give us the insider feel from inside Washington. Is it -- does it feel like they're grasping for straws here: as I mentioned, all those months of silence, and now day by day, it seems like more and more people are coming out?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you could say they are grasping for straws. But I don't see any straws.

The consensus here in Washington is, they're flailing. There doesn't seem to be anything for them to hold on to. There was news this morning that the redistricting plan for California has come out and he is going to have a whole lot of new voters in his district -- many of them Democrats, but Democrats who don't know him.

The point of the staff coming out last night on "LARRY KING" was to say: There's a Gary Condit that we know personally that you don't know.

And his constituents presumably know that Gary Condit, not the one portrayed by the media. But now he is going to have to face a lot of new constituents who don't know him at all.

KAGAN: We'll get to that also ahead, when we talk about Gary Condit's future. We want to talk about credibility, not just of Gary Condit, but of his staffers, who have had to come out publicly and say one thing. And then, as others of us have learned along the way, they have had to retract those statements.

Let's listen to another sound bite, this one on "LARRY KING" last night with Mike Dayton.


DAYTON: I've made denials, I made emphatic denials. Perhaps hindsight, you know...

L. KING: In retrospect...

DAYTON: No, but I mean, I always say what I believe to be true. I mean, you have to put yourself in my shoes. I'm getting calls at 8:30 in the morning, D.C. time, it's 5:30 out here, and I get a call from a reporter saying she's going to air a story, you know, right then, that these two are dating. And I've never even, you know, I have heard of this woman, but I don't even put them together. I don't even know who she's talking about, so obviously I'm going to say no.


KAGAN: Fraser -- let's go to our P.R. guru once again -- credibility a factor when you're aide comes out and says emphatically there is no relationship here, and later on we learn, well, indeed, there probably was.

SEITEL: Yes. No, it's amateur hour all around.

I mean, from the get-go, this has been amateur hour. And I think that Tom hit it. If he was innocent -- if he's innocent, there's nothing wrong with getting the truth out clearly at the get-go. That will solve everything. If he's guilty, it's a completely different story. Now you have got this muddled message and you've got people blaming the staff and blaming the media and blaming Gray Davis. It's completely mixed up.

KAGAN: Tom, frustration within the Democratic Party what has happened with Gary Condit in what was one of the most solid districts of all the districts that the Democrats held on to?

T. KING: You know, it's not that solid a district, No. 1. Gary Condit was solid. Gary Condit is a very conservative Democrat. He is a member of the Blue Dogs. He has good relationships with the Bush White House, good relationships with the Republicans in Congress.

One of the reasons you haven't seen much Republican activity speaking out against Condit is because he does have those good relationships across the aisle. So it was -- it's a -- it was a safe district for Gary Condit. It was not a safe district for Democrats. What you are seeing now is, in the redistricting process, that being shored up, more Democrats being put in.

And I agree with Bill that Congressman Condit has a problem because these new Democrats don't know Gary Condit. In fact, Gary Condit might be primaried. I think it makes his road a lot, lot tougher.

KAGAN: Fascinating topic, the way they are recarving the districts in California. We are going to talk about that, as well as future of Gary Condit. Should he run again? You heard different opinions from within his own staff.

We will talk about that after this.


KAGAN: We are back with our guests, taking a special look at Gary Condit's media campaign -- also his future.

We have with us CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider, Fraser Seitel, author of "The Practice of Public Relations," and Democratic consultant Tom King.

Bill, I'm going to go for you first because you brought up the topic of redistricting. Yesterday, the map comes out of how California Democrats would like to restructure their districts. This is happening, of course, in states across the country -- interesting in California because of what it could mean for Gary Condit's future. Tell us what is happening in that area and how that map yesterday described what Gary Condit's district would look like.

SCHNEIDER: Well, basically, what the Democrats, who control the process in California, are doing is beefing up the Democratic representation in that district. They're putting


KAGAN: Which would seem like a good thing. More Democrats could seem like a good thing to help Gary Condit. Why might it not?

SCHNEIDER: Well, if he were to be the Democratic nominee, if he were to run again and receive the nomination, it would help Gary Condit. But a lot of Democrats fear -- or want -- him not to run again, because they think it will be tough to elect him, even with more Democrats in the district.

What they're beefing it up for is to elect another Democrat, possibly a new face, possibly a Hispanic Democrat, because most of the new Democrats voters they're putting in that district are of Hispanic heritage. And, therefore, the easiest kind of Democrat to elect, if it isn't Gary Condit -- and he may not be the easiest -- probably would be a Hispanic Democrat. So they're trying to keep that seat Democratic, and expecting that it won't be Gary Condit.

KAGAN: Tom King, Bill makes a good point: More Democrats also pave the way for another challenger to come in, even in the primaries, and challenge Gary Condit.

T. KING: Oh, absolutely. You just don't know at this time.

But it's -- Gary has been a controversial figure within the Democratic Party in California. He took on Willie Brown when Willie Brown was speaker. He has -- he remained very close to the governor. But that support seems to be waning. So he has got a tough road to hoe in this whole thing.

But, you know, as somebody said, 14 months is a long, long time. The Bush economy being where it is, a Democrat will have an advantage in that district if the economy stays the way it is. If he can get the nomination, he would still stand a chance. It's an up -- but let me tell you, it's an uphill battle.

KAGAN: The man has never lost a race in his political career. He has been popular in his district.

Let's listen to a little bit more sound from one of his staffers last night on Larry King.


MEJIA: I do want him to run again, and I see the future of the Valley. And Gary has done so much for the Valley. And after he's gone, everyone is going to kick themselves in the butt for allowing this to happen.


KAGAN: Bill Schneider, let's bring you back in here.

Gary Condit has been particularly popular with agriculture interests. Will they be sorry if and when he is gone?

SCHNEIDER: Some will, because even now his constituents that we polled in the district say he's doing a good job representing the district in Congress.

His job isn't the issue. It's his character that's the issue. And too many voters have reached the conclusion that he has been hiding something, that he was more interested in protecting his personal life than in finding Chandra Levy, and that that's why he was so uncooperative with the police and the media. It's his character that it is the issue, not his ability to represent the district. They can hope that some other representative will do just as good a job, but they don't know that.

KAGAN: Well, let's bring Fraser in here and hire you for a moment. How do you turn around the perception of character in those 14 months?

SEITEL: You mean, if he hired me?

KAGAN: Yes, we're hiring you right now, Fraser.

SEITEL: He'd have to pay a lot...

KAGAN: Big bucks coming your way.

SEITEL: He would have to pay -- exactly -- he would have to pay me a lot of money.

I think this -- I think Bill just said it. It's his credibility. It's his reputation. It's his character. If he wants to confront this thing -- and that's the first question -- he's got to isolate all of those issues that are still open to question.

KAGAN: Such as.

SEITEL: Remorse, the watch box, the flight attendant, talking to the Levy investigators, all of that -- he has got to confront all of that. He has got to acknowledge all of that. He has got to agree to all of that. And, ultimately, maybe, if he wants his seat, he has got to take a public lie detector.

KAGAN: Public -- that Washington Police or FBI would control, rather than a private lie detector expert.

SEITEL: Public.

KAGAN: All right. Let me ask you...

SCHNEIDER: One more thing.

KAGAN: One second, Bill. I want you to hold that thought. I want to go back to Fraser here.

Let's just say Gary Condit did hire you, Fraser, and you're sitting down, you have a heart-to-heart talk with this man.

SEITEL: Right.

KAGAN: What are you going to you say to him that he's not going to want to hear?

SEITEL: Well, what I am going to say to him is everything that everybody has been saying for four months. And that is that his credibility has waned and is suspect.

And there are 60 percent of the population that thinks he had something to do with disappearance of this woman. The Connie Chung interview was a disaster. So, therefore, what he has got to do is isolate these questions, acknowledge them, and be willing to admit them and answer them in one more -- one more -- public forum. KAGAN: And just accept that life is not fair and certainly politics is not fair.

Bill, let me get your thought in now.

SCHNEIDER: One more thing that he has got to do. And he can't do this, but he can help. They have got to find Chandra Levy. I don't think he can survive politically unless she is found.

If she is alive -- as we all hope -- she will tell her story, which may exonerate him. If she is not alive, tragically, then it has got to be clear that he had nothing to do with her disappearance and, if that's the case, her death. But that has to be resolved for him to survive politically.

And, by the way, the primary is March 5. So there's a lot less than 14 months.

KAGAN: And, on that, Tom King, I want to throw you the last question here. What's the time frame here in terms of: When does Gary Condit have to decide whether or not he's running again for his congressional seat?

T. KING: I think it's soon. I think has to make a decision, just based on what's going on with the redistricting, what's going on with the Republicans, and based upon what he has to do.

If he doesn't run, a lot of this stuff will go away. The fact of the matter is, none of the Republicans who serve with him believe he has got anything to do with this. None of the Democrats who serve with him believe he had anything to do with it. He went on TV and looked guilty, and he wasn't. That's the P.R. disaster.

KAGAN: Bill Schneider, Fraser Seitel, Tom King, gentlemen, thanks for your insight this morning. Appreciate it. Enjoyed the discussion.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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