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Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan

By Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
July 23, 2001
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The disappearance of Chandra Levy and her relationship with Democratic Congressman Gary Condit has nearly all the elements of a great Beltway soap opera: sex, a possible crime, a police investigation and an elected representative. What the story is missing, by and large, is a truly partisan political angle: Condit's affair was part of his private life, and there is no evidence of any abuse of his official power.

In truth, the Condit case is essentially non-partisan. There is no special prosecutor, no lying under oath, no charges of sexual harassment. Its bearing on national politics is minimal, though it is certainly legitimate to question Condit's fitness for office. If the affair involved anyone except a politician, of course, not only would it receive little media attention, but there wouldn't be even the faintest whiff of politics in the air.

Yet just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the chattering class. In the past ten days, some pundits have attempted to turn the Condit story into a partisan controversy. These pundits play on existing attitudes towards President Clinton, feminists and the media to give a new and complex scandal a familiar cast. They have exploited similarities to past scandals and debates to reframe the Condit affair as yet another example of lying Democrats, hypocritical feminists and a biased media, even though the facts are much more complex.

Spinning by analogy: Comparing Condit to Clinton

Condit himself has added fuel to the fire by launching a spin campaign of his own, including legalistic denials and a whispering campaign about Levy's sex life. His behavior is, of course, questionable at best, and in some aspects downright disreputable. Yet some pundits have used Condit's public relations blunders as the starting point for a campaign to make the whole case seem political.

There are plenty of politicians who have lied about extramarital affairs, but President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent public relations campaign provides an obvious analogy for the Levy-Chandra case. Yet the comparison has mutated from simple analogy to a comparison for the sake of politics, using Clinton's name and its negative associations to frame not only Condit, but Democrats more broadly.

The Clinton comparisons started early, with pundits both left and right chiming in about Condit's "Clintonian evasion" in his statements to the press and police (Maureen Dowd of the New York Times was the first, on June 20). The second level of association came at the level of analogy between the two cases as a whole, as syndicated columnist Marianne Means put it on June 29: "The Clinton and Condit circumstances are different, but the operating principle is the same." Others have drawn a comparison between the cases based on the media personalities involved in the Condit case, as Mary McGrory did in the Washington Post on July 12, writing that "the cast is strikingly familiar, although there is just one holdover from the original [Abbe Lowell, Condit's attorney]" (which also makes the absurd suggestion that Clinton was somehow associated with a murder).

Last week, pundits began making closer comparisons. On July 16, Debbie Schlussel called Levy "Monica II" and wrote that "Unlike Condit's fictional 'Killer Tomatoes,' there is no real-life pizza man to save America from sex-crazed Democrat officials, while their liberal leadership in Congress stays markedly mum." The next day Rush Limbaugh claimed that "Gary Condit is to Bill Clinton what Mini-Me is to Mike Myers" (see this article based on his comments at RushLimbaugh.com). The heart of the spin is associating Condit with Clinton in the most negative sense possible, then using those associations to allege some sort of Democratic pathology. By playing on the strong emotional associations of sexual peccadilloes and legalistic evasion, these pundits can, through a leap of logic, spin the Levy case as a partisan one.

Continuing the Clinton analogy: Attacking "feminists"

A more recent tactic has used the Clinton analogy as a stepping stone to an attack on feminists. The first shot in this campaign was fired by Mona Charen in her July 13 syndicated column. "Perhaps what we really need is a new feminism," Charen wrote. "It won't be based on killing the unborn, or putting women in combat, or promoting the liberal agenda. But it will focus on something that liberal feminism has failed to do -- instill a sense of dignity, honor and self-respect in young women. A sense of morality would be nice, too, though we can't push our luck."

Note the twist of logic here that allows Charen to blame feminists for the affair: she establishes a straw-man version of feminism using the most negative associations possible, then asserts that this version of feminism does not instill "dignity, honor and self-respect." Thus the straw man somehow failed Chandra Levy, a gross oversimplification of a complex case - and one that allows Charen to advance a particular view of politics.

The theme was picked up on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on July 16 and continued for several days on "Hannity and Colmes" and "The Edge with Paula Zahn" on Fox News Channel. Some pundits attacked feminist groups for not denouncing Condit. Kim Hallmark informed us on "The Edge" on July 19 that "the National Organization for Women ... appears to be very politically motivated, willing to attack Bob Packwood and perhaps other Republicans, but not willing to look at the conduct of Clinton and Condit, no matter how sleazy or abusive it might be."

Not only is this factually incorrect, as former National Organization for Women (NOW) president Patricia Ireland pointed out on "Hannity and Colmes" on the 16th (the group denounced Clinton's personal behavior), but the rhetoric is intentionally deceptive. First, Hallmark claims NOW and others are "politically motivated," alleging partisanship by asserting that it is the other side which is playing politics. Certainly most feminist groups are left-leaning and attacked Packwood, Clarence Thomas and others accused of sexual harassment. But Hallmark's premise that feminism is even relevant here is a questionable one. Her statement plays on the negative associations of feminists and Clinton to frame the Levy case as political.

Thie Condit/feminist attack reached its apotheosis in Ann Coulter's column of July 19. She asks, "Why are feminists the principal lobbying group for Congressmen Who Had Affairs With Missing Interns?" Coulter then claims that there is a "feminist enthusiasm for Condit" and asserts that "[f]eminists are actually trying to claim credit for the dumb decision of a girl who is now missing," concluding with this gem:

So in a maniacal pursuit of equality -- we've fully transitioned into my analysis now -- these querulous little feminists stripped women of the sense that they can rely on the institution of marriage and gave men license to discard their wives. But at least women can choose to be pigs now, too! This is what happens when you allow women to think about public policy. It's also what happens when you start assuming the whole country has the mores of prostitutes, criminals, mental patients and, evidently, congressmen.

The attack on feminists has come full circle in Coulter's column, which accuses feminists of a double standard, asserts that they have taken some action that aided Condit, then attacks feminists based on a point that has nothing at all to do with the Chandra Levy case. All this takes place through little more than aggressive rhetoric and assertions repeated over and over until they assume the patina of fact.

"Media bias" claims

Another method some pundits have used to fit a new story into an old political box are claims of bias in the media. Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center (MRC) made the first allegations of media bias in a July 12 email to the MRC email list, claiming that the major networks did not label Condit a Democrat in 92 percent of their stories. Bozell also denounced Dan Rather for the lack of weekday coverage on CBS News.

Bozell has received a great deal of mainstream coverage for his claim despite a number of problems with his analysis. First, he dismisses the stated objection of CBS producer Jim Murphy concerning what Murphy sees as the tabloid nature of the story. Bozell's analysis of media labels is even more troublesome: MRC provides no baseline level of labeling to compare with the 92% figure, excluded CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel from the sample, and counted only audio labels (not on-screen labels like "D-CA"). (For more on these problems, see my sidebar.) Meanwhile, Rather and Murphy have come under such intense pressure that CBS ran a story on the case last Wednesday evening.

Bozell has taken the bias allegations one step further, uniting them with Clinton associations and attacks on feminists in his column on July 17. He claims that "all the old rhetorical fire that feminists used against Clarence Thomas, against Senator Bob Packwood, and even against the late Senator John Tower in their early-'90s heyday, has vanished." Later in the column, he repeats his media bias charge before penning this paragraph:

It was one thing when feminists and their media lapdogs threw their whole believe-the-woman, sexual-harassment jihad out the window for Bill Clinton, the man who would keep abortion legal and profitable for them. But now Chandra Levy is missing, and all theorists like Molly Ivins can muster is how ridiculous it is that the value of her life could be compared to really important crusades that "change people's lives," like campaign finance reform.

Here we have state-of-the-art spin. Bozell, helped along by other pundits, has managed to reason from a scandal involving a Democratic Congressman to a link to Clinton, an attack on NOW and other feminist groups, and allegations of media bias all rolled into one.


Some pundits, searching for a way of making the Levy-Condit scandal partisan, have decided to fit it into a old framework, using the case to associate Condit and Democrats with Clinton, advancing claims against feminists, and alleging media bias. They have done so not through a reasonable argument, but through twisted logic and misleading rhetoric that reveals they're not so much interested in the case as they are in advancing their own political agenda.

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Related links:
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16) - analyzes Coulter's use of inflammatory language in columns this year

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