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The story began quietly, as most of them do. A small flyer taped to the window of a local health club. A back-page article in Washington, D.C.’s daily newspaper. But like a storm scurrying across the plains, the Chandra Levy case only gained strength and speed as it moved forward, as it knocked down telephone poles, sucked up trailer homes, and left a trail of devastation in its wake. Even the most somber politics-and-policy journalists, the ones who like to stay focused “on the issues,” the ones who prefer their Starbucks black and their health care debates solidly bipartisan, couldn’t resist forever, couldn’t keep out of the morass for good. As the weeks passed, he became a metronome, a metronome that sort of looked like Harrison Ford on a very bad day, pounding your brain ceaselessly. Con-dit … Con-dit … Con-dit. Sure. Some news outlets like CBS claimed to be above the story of the missing intern, Chandra Levy, and her affair with the 53-year-old Central California congressman. And maybe you thought that about yourself, that you could stay still in the eye of the media hurricane and write about the new FBI director and mundane things like that. You were kidding yourself. You’re more Fox News Channel than The Economist. Your blood was boiling, aching, pushing you to get involved, get the story, join the pack, bark at the moon, and, most important: Chase Gary Condit. Tuesday, July 10, 3 p.m. House press gallery Capitol Hill You start with the obvious place. Things have taken a rabid turn. Over the weekend, Condit is reported to have confessed about his affair with Levy. And his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has been furiously spin-doctoring ever since. But Condit has remained elusive. Meanwhile, the Internet is aflame. Chandra’s disappearance has made everyone in cyberspace a forensic homicide investigator, and suspicions are traded like Pokemon cards. Last Week’s Theory (Chandra was pregnant and was threatening to go public) has already been replaced by Today’s Theory (Chandra was an unintentional victim of Condit’s reported interest in kinky sex games). But on that unspoiled island of tranquility that is Capitol Hill, our elected officials don’t seem to think it’s all that big a deal. Why else would a group of House moderates who call themselves the Blue Dog Democrats even think of calling a press conference on energy policy when one of their own, Condit, appeared to be in hiding? The group of nine Democratic legislators who ambled into the small press gallery in the Capitol might have wondered what all the attention was about, and why there were 50 journalists and 10 cameras staring at them instead of the usual handful. But they would have been the only ones. “It’s the lion’s den,” says one photographer. “Look at all these people waiting for him.” “I’m here for the energy stuff,” one reporter declares. And the room laughs as one. “One member seems to have a hell of a lot of it,” another reporter says. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Texas, takes the dais and begins to detail the Blue Dogs’ energy plan. Most of the reporters don’t write a word. Camera shutters stay silent. There is a rustle of uneasiness floating about the room, as if the story was taking place somewhere else, anywhere else, but here. “We can take soybeans and make diesel!” Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., tells the gathering. Watches are checked. No Condit! Finally, after an inexorable amount of time, the members are done with their statements and the floor is opened for questions. A few dutiful reporters ask about tax credits and alternative sources of energy. Eyes roll. Then, at last, a reporter booms out a question about Condit’s absence and all metaphors concerning flood prevention (gates, dams, etc.) are enabled. “Why isn’t he here?” one reporter shouts. One by one, the Blue Dogs leave the room, scampering for cover. “We’re here to talk about energy,” says a beleaguered Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla. “Now, does anyone have any other questions about energy?” One hand goes up. “Do the Blue Dogs support any further drilling?” Despite the unfortunate choice of words, nobody left in the room laughs. Wednesday, July 11, 12:05 a.m. Condit’s apartment building Adams Morgan Gary Condit lives around the corner from you, and you suddenly find that disturbing. It’s midnight, and the D.C. police are tossing Condit’s apartment, looking for clues to aid their investigation of Levy’s disappearance. But despite the drama, it’s an oddly placid scene on Adams Mill Road. Just a spatter of TV cameras and photographers, all straining for that picture-perfect shot of a police searchlight shining through the shuttered blinds of the married congressman’s top-floor bachelor pad. One cameraman has been standing there since eight that morning. “I’m supposed to be back here at six,” he laments. Condit has his defenders. A pickup truck drives by, and the driver shouts, “Go home, you losers!” There is no way of knowing whether it was Richard Jewell. A small group of local residents are sitting in front of Condit’s building, swapping conspiracy theories. The media horde that has sacked Casa de Condit doesn’t bother Patricia Davis, a writer who lives in the adjacent building. “A lot of my neighbors are really annoyed. They can’t find a place to park,” she says. “But I find it exciting.” Davis says she saw a man she thought was Condit walking near the building earlier in the week. “He was in a baseball cap and sunglasses. It was an obvious disguise,” she says. She adds, without hesitation: “I think he did it. I think she said, ‘Gary, I’m gonna have your baby.’ “ Davis shakes her head. “It’s so sad,” she says. In the back of Condit’s building, a man with the look and build of a plainclothes detective grabs a plastic bag from an unmarked sedan. The media descends. “Are you an aide for Condit?” one reporter yells. “Are you connected to this?” “No and no,” the man says. He walks back inside. The plastic bag contains rolls of Bounty paper towels. They brought the extra absorbent ones, you think. Blood stains! Finally, you’ve got that tabloid mind-set. Wednesday, July 11, 11:30 a.m. U.S. Attorney’s Office Judiciary Square Chasing Condit must be temporarily interrupted. Anne Marie Smith, the “flame-haired flight attendant” who claims she had a fling with Condit, is in town to talk to federal investigators looking into her allegation that Condit tried to make her sign a phony affidavit. Except no one knows where she is going to be. Especially not the NBC cameraman slumped in a folding chair in front of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “She’s not here, and she’s not supposed to be,” he says. But that’s the game of media roulette that news organizations have to play in the full-court press that is the Chandra Levy Story. You divvy up resources and cover all the bases you can. Today, Anne Marie Smith could be coming here. Or to police headquarters. Or to the FBI field office in Virginia. The networks have crews everywhere — all for a five-second shot of the woman entering or leaving a building. The cameraman’s radio crackles. “We’re moving,” he says. All of one block, that is. The house money now is on the FBI field office up the street. Sources say Smith is going there. The NBC crew sets up camp. Soon they are joined by Fox and CNN. Not long after, the local stations show up, and there is blood in the water. Every taxi that slows in front of the FBI building is scrutinized. The afternoon’s heat increases. Food is ordered. The lull has the broadcast folks comparing stakeouts. “I liked the Ken Starr one the best,” one says. “I got to go to a yard sale. I bought a five-dollar Royal Daulton.” Word spreads that Smith is already inside, talking to investigators. A man drives by. “Who’s in there?” he yells. “The stewardess!” someone yells back. He nods. It’s all that needs to be said. For all of the waiting and the gamesmanship, Smith and her lawyer want no part of the cameras. They sneak out the back entrance of the building around 2 p.m., hurrying away in a black sedan. Wednesday, July 11, 4 p.m. office of Abbe Lowell 15th and M Streets With Smith out of the picture, you decide to monitor some other ongoing stakeouts. A small band of cameramen are parked at the corner of 15th and M Streets, camped outside the offices of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Lowell’s law firm. (He hasn’t returned your call, either.) No sign of Lowell, they say. Manatt Phelps, of course, has an underground parking garage, allowing Lowell to avoid the cameras at will. You move on, finding an even more subdued stakeout: One lone cameraman sitting in front of Chandra Levy’s apartment building on 21st Street. Beside him is a monstrous satellite truck. On a small monitor, he’s watching a soap opera. Thursday, July 12, 9 a.m. Condit’s apartment building The day’s big news is splashed all over The Washington Post: The Capitals have acquired Jaromir Jagr. Oh, and there is the big news about D.C.’s other prolific scorer. The Post reports that Condit had an affair with an 18-year-old girl in California. A minister’s daughter, to boot! It all has Condit Fever running at four alarms outside 2611 Adams Mill Road. The cameras are packed together at the edge of the steps. Two photographers start talking: CAMERA 1: “You know, I understand staking out Dick Morris, but this — “ CAMERA 2: “Hey, I just got the stewardess!” CAMERA 1: “What! Where?” CAMERA 2: “Outside her hotel!” They are interrupted by another cameraman’s warning. “Fire in the hallway!” he screams. Everyone tenses. False alarm. A man approaches you. “Hey, do those cameras use VHS or Betamax cassettes?” he asks. “I don’t know,” you say, wanting to add: Excuse me, but I’m stalking a congressman here! Just like that, an SUV drives up and idles in front of the building. It’s Condit Time. The Man himself comes out of the doorway and bounds down the steps, that ever-present tight smile stretched across his face. “Good morning, guys,” Condit says. Shutters whir. The pack starts shouting questions. Most are of the “Did you have an affair with (insert name here)?” variety, but one reporter belts out the tongue-tangling “Do you believe your effectiveness as a congressman is waning?!!!” Condit jumps into the SUV and is gone. A wave of pleasure washes over the pack. One more job accomplished. “Was it good for you?” one cameraman asks. The crowd begins to disperse. One media member gets on his radio, saying, “Congressman Condit is rolling.” And ID’ing the car Condit is traveling in. It’s a White Ford Explorer. Thursday, July 12, 11:30 a.m. Rayburn Office Building It just isn’t enough — a single glimpse of Condit. So, you’re back to Congress, heading for his second-floor office. You’re expecting an Adams Morgan Mob, just like earlier in the morning. You get … two people and a camera. “There’s nothing happening here,” one says. “If you want to stick around, get yourself a book.” Condit hasn’t been to his office. You turn for the House floor — one place where no one can get to him. You’re on the elevator with a senior Democratic lawmaker. “Between campaign finance reform and Gary Condit,” he moans, “what the hell are we supposed to do around here?” But Condit isn’t on the House floor either. While he has cast a vote on a measure, he is nowhere to be seen. In the House press gallery, you see a monitor showing the image of a politician standing on the steps of a legislature, surrounded by microphones. It’s Condit, you think. He’s confessing! You’re missing it! Instantly, you imagine your crumbling future: Washington correspondent for Ranger Rick magazine. Then you see the visage of the late Carroll O’Connor. It’s a rerun of “In the Heat of the Night.” Tired, dispirited, drained by the effort that pack journalism requires, you retreat to your office. The National Enquirer is reporting that Chandra was, indeed, pregnant at the time of her disappearance. You try to look for an ending, but you don’t see one. You see a limitless parade of stakeouts, of mistresses, of rumors. At that moment, writing about politics and policy looks pretty damn good.

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