Behind The Smile

Gary Condit learned how to project an image of purity and innocence at a very young age. As a little boy he would stand atop a tree stump at his father's tent revival meetings and sing, in a clear, sweet voice, "Amazing Grace." Then his father, Adrian, a Baptist minister, would step up and deliver a fire-and-brimstone sermon about hell and damnation. In a conversation with a NEWSWEEK reporter, the Rev. Frank (Chinker) Leach, 66, the preacher at the Free Full Gospel Church of Salina, Okla., recalled seeing the father and son perform the ancient drama of sin and redemption. The Reverend Leach reflected a moment on Gary Condit's current predicament and added, "Beware, your sins will find you out."

Condit is hardly the first preacher's son to fall from grace, and his sins may not go beyond the commonplace ones of bearing false witness and adultery. Like most of the people who have known Condit, the Reverend Leach refuses to believe that the congressman had anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance. Yet there is little doubt that the congressman has led an elaborate double life over the years, playing the role of dutiful family man while leading a racier existence away from home. As a politician, "Condit's friendliness and apparent lack of guile has enabled him to make friends across all lines," states Michael Barone's usually authoritative Almanac of American Politics. On closer inspection, however, Condit appears to have been a maverick with a manipulative streak--which he used on other lawmakers and his romantic interests alike. The congressman has been widely criticized for not being forthcoming about the true nature of his relationship with the 24-year-old intern. The implication, at least in the media circus, has been that he is covering up darker crimes, but he may well just have been acting furtively out of deeply ingrained habit.

Condit men have been battling the Devil for generations. The congressman is the son, grandson and nephew of evangelical preachers. Their fundamentalist religion banned drinking alcohol and dancing, and the Condits went to church four times a week. With mixed results: one of Condit's brothers is a policeman, while the other has been in and out of jail and legal trouble for at least 18 years, on charges ranging from burglary in 1983 to use of methamphetamine and a hypodermic needle in 1999. Gary Condit was a "good boy" with a winning smile. He was married while he was still a teenager. In Oklahoma a male had to be 21 to get married without the consent of his parents. It's not clear whether Condit had his parents' permission, but he used a driver's license that gave his age as 25, though he was only 19 at the time.

Condit likes to remind voters of his blue-collar roots as a roustabout in the oilfields of Oklahoma, but he rarely mentions the decade he spent in public relations for a health-care company in California, where he moved shortly after he got married. As a candidate for the state legislature in 1982, he ran as a pious, modest young father who preached family values. His motto was "A Good Example." Once in the state capital, however, he does not seem to have exactly practiced what he preached.

Sacramento was a gamey, randy town in the mid-'80s, run by lobbyists and the fun-loving self-proclaimed "Ayatollah" of the state assembly, Speaker Willie Brown. The FBI was ploddingly trying to nail Brown (who is now mayor of San Francisco) on bribery charges, but the high-living and nimble Brown shrugged off the G-men. The common social code for lawmakers at the time was "married on weekends." It was not unusual for legislators to have a Sacramento "wife" as well as a real one at home, to appear in campaign posters with the kids. Condit, say those who knew him at the time, stood out only in terms of the number of women and level of hypocrisy. "This guy would position himself as Mr. Bible," says a former Democratic staffer. "We would watch and say, 'How does he get away with it?' "

Back home in Modesto, Condit wore jeans, boots and a work shirt. In Sacramento, one local magazine writer observed, he favored "pleated Italian trousers, softer-than-chamois loafers, and yards of linen and silk," as well as a "blond-streaked, blow-dried $50 coif." Said a former legislative aide: "We used to wonder if he stopped in a phone booth on the way home. The guy was like two different people."

In many ways, Condit's model was Speaker Brown--not his liberal politics, but his style and power. According to a Democratic staffer, "he was always checking out Willie's suits," which were handmade and cost $2,000. The joke among lawmakers and lobbyists was that Condit was also trying to "keep up with Willie" in the romance department. Brown, in turn, noticed Condit's political skills and ambition and made him something of a protege, giving the teetotaling preacher's son control of legislation on liquor and gambling. (Brown refused to comment.)

But when Brown's control over the legislature began to slip in the late '80s, Condit and four other young lawmakers who styled themselves as "the five amigos" conspired to overthrow him. Newspaper columnists referred to the upstarts as the "Gang of Five," and Brown stripped them of their plum assignments and banished them to the back bench. "The others would come to us and complain about how unfair it was," said an ex-Brown lieutenant. "Not Gary. You got the sense that he wore it all as a badge of courage. He really enjoyed the intrigue." The Gang of Five reportedly started using a private investigator, the brother of Condit's chief of staff, to try to dig up dirt on Brown and his camp. When Maxine Waters, then a close ally of Brown's in the legislature, publicly accused Condit and his friends of planting phony stories of drug use in her office, Condit denied any connection. Last week Condit's chief of staff, Mike Lynch, denied that his brother had ever worked for Condit.

"There was always this sense about [Condit] that he was the chosen one," a former campaign adviser told NEWSWEEK. A few months after Condit tangled with Speaker Brown, Condit's hometown congressman, Tony Coelho, quit his seat to head off a financial scandal. Condit, who has never lost an election in 26 years, quickly seized the opportunity. His father, Adrian, told the papers: "I'm a very strong Bible-believing minister, and I believe in all my heart that God has had his hand on Gary, because every time he was ready for a step up, a door opened up."

Over the past 12 years, Condit has turned his district into a one-man political machine. Democratic but culturally conservative, the region around Modesto in California's vast Central Valley is called "Condit Country." Condit has ruled with a modest, down-home manner and a keen sense of control. His attention to constituents is legendary. His aides have been known to buy groceries for the housebound elderly, and Condit personally sends notes to golden-anniversary couples and Eagle Scouts. "If somebody has a tear in his eye, he's over there with a tissue," says Nicholas Bavaro, a Republican who counts himself as Condit's friend. "Gary has the silver glove," says a Democratic rival, who, like most of Condit's political critics, refuses to speak on the record. "You don't want to cross him. He could be so nice. Other times, he would give you a cold stare that would chill you."

In Washington, Condit has been a loner and a party renegade. After six terms, no major legislation bears his stamp. He is one of about 30 conservative "blue dog" Democrats who cannot be counted on to vote the party line. The term "blue dog," reportedly coined by Condit, is a play on an old sobriquet, "yellow dog" Democrat--a Democrat so partisan he'd rather vote for a "yellow dog" than a Republican. A "blue dog," by contrast, is a Democrat choked blue by the liberal leadership. Some Democrats find Condit to be courtly and polite. "I've never seen him lose it. He's gentle and well mannered. He stands up when a woman enters the room. He's very charming. He knows how to give you that little-kid smile," says California Democrat Loretta Sanchez. But Condit is known to have few real friends, except for John Kasich, the former Republican Budget Committee chairman. Kasich and Condit were often spotted in a corner of the House Members Dining Room, engrossed in conversations about religion and philosophy. They also went to rock concerts together. "He likes country music and I like rock 'n' roll. We swap that back and forth," Kasich once told Condit's hometown paper, The Modesto Bee. "I took him to hear Pearl Jam last year and he got himself stuck in the mosh pit."

Not many congressmen wander into mosh pits. The life of an obscure congressman can be a dreary grind: sharing a cramped apartment with other weekday bachelors on Capitol Hill, eating canapes for dinner at fund-raisers, slogging back to Washington on the red-eye after a quick trip home to see the wife and kids. Condit lived a faster, though more shadowy, life. His apartment is in Adams Morgan, a funky part of D.C. with a nightlife rarely frequented by staid lawmakers. "The reason he lives there," says a House GOP aide, "is because he can go out and nobody knows who the hell he is." Back in Modesto, he likes to cruise on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. ("I go riding all over the district," he once told a reporter. "Most people don't recognize me. It's therapeutic.") He once posed--as a goof, he says--for a "Hunks of the Hill" calendar. But he generally tried to steer clear of the press.

At least some of his colleagues had known about Condit's womanizing. "I was told early on that his wife was ill, and that he went out," said California Republican Rep. David Dreier. "I'd heard she'd been ill for 30 years. This is a guy who's active, and if his wife can't do much of anything with him that's sad and unfortunate, and if he ends up seeing other women, it wouldn't come as a humongous shock." Dreier added, however, that when he saw a photo of Condit's wife, Carolyn, she was "not quite the invalid I envisioned." Carolyn Condit's ailments have been mysteriously rumored about as MS or lupus or some kind of immune deficiency. Described by friends as "sweet" and "fragile," Carolyn has apparently suffered from severe headaches, but she is healthy enough to do charity work and fill in for her husband at political events around Modesto.

Condit apparently swore his girlfriends to secrecy. "He was very adamant about it," said Anne Marie Smith, the United Airlines flight attendant who claims to have had a 10-month affair with Condit at the same time he was seeing Chandra Levy. " 'Don't talk to anybody about this, don't talk to other flight attendants, don't talk to your friends, you know, totally keep it a secret'," Smith told Fox News, allegedly quoting the congressman. Condit also appears to have taken careful measures to keep anyone from finding out about his love life. Both Levy and Smith had to call anonymous phone beepers to reach Condit. (By contrast, Condit's home number in California is listed in the telephone book.) According to Levy's aunt, Condit coached Levy to get off the elevator at his Washington apartment on the wrong floor if another tenant from his floor got on. When they'd leave the building, Chandra departed alone, got in a cab and waited for him to hustle down, wearing a baseball cap pulled low. They'd head to out-of-the-way suburban restaurants to avoid being recognized.

Smith also claims that Condit pressured her to sign an affidavit swearing that she'd never had an affair with the congressman. He was not threatening, she said, but rather "manipulative." (Condit denies that he has ever asked anyone to lie for him.) On "Larry King Live" on Friday night, Smith alternately described Condit as "caring" and "fun" and "controlling" and "cold." His anger, she said, was "really quiet." Back in Central Valley, Condit's constituents are disgusted by the media frenzy but also confused about Condit. "We can talk about the Gary Condit we thought we knew," said Sal Cannella, a former local official who has been close to Condit. "We don't know that Gary Condit. Apparently, we were missing something."

In front of other congressmen, Condit is hanging tough. "Gary, they're talking about your resigning," a California colleague said to him on last Thursday. "Why would I resign?" asked Condit. "I haven't done anything." But Condit's smile, so natural and easy for so many years, now looks taut and labored, observed this congressman. Condit's sins, whatever they are, may finally be seeping through the mask.