Is This a Condit Country?

Bill Clinton may be the toast of Harlem, but the corrosive effects of his political chutzpah are still poisoning Washington. Look no further than the shameful performance of Gary Condit, who's decided to end the stonewalling tactic. The poor-Chandra phase is over; it's poor-Gary time now. Spare us.

Condit sexually exploited a woman three decades his junior. When she disappeared, he lied to her parents and the police, and by extension, the nation about their intimate relationship. A decade ago, this would have been cause for an immediate resignation in disgrace. Gary Condit came to office after Tony Coelho resigned in 1989 over a sleazy junk-bond deal. Ten years ago, John Sununu was forced from his chief of staff's office for taking too many personal jaunts on government aircraft. In neither case was a still-missing young intern involved.

But then Bill Clinton came along, a man so shameless in his behavior, and so effective in lowering the moral standards for our elected leaders that even the credible charge of rape wasn't enough to rebut him. In the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he insisted for months and months that he was an innocent man who hadn't lied in court about his adultery. By stretching the game out over months, Clinton allowed a media, who within days had tired, vocally, of this silliness, to exhaust the American people and their commitment to ethical standards. Indeed, many ultimately came to feel sorry for poor Bill as he struggled valiantly just to "do my job for the American people."

Oh, how our self-important media had projected themselves as the fierce watchdogs of ethics in politics in the pre-Clinton - read: Reagan - era. All that was tossed aside when the Man from Hope arrived. Now democracy would become a kind of mob rule by focus group, in which anything goes, as long as the constituents say so. There is no such thing as an honorable politician, or an honorable legislative body to uphold since dishonor no longer can be said to apply to either.

So we've arrived at the scandal of Gary Condit. Ethics and principle be damned. Whatever Modesto wants, Modesto gets, and by extension, so does America.

Gary, meet Connie. Connie, Gary. Gather 'round America, get the popcorn and brewskies out. Let us enjoy the spectacle.

Those pompous ethical fussbudgets who insisted Newt Gingrich should pay a $300,000 fine for having a nonprofit group fund a college course on "Renewing American Civilization" now can't spare the mental exertion of wondering whether Gary Condit should be the focus of an itty-bitty, preliminary House Ethics Committee probe for misleading the authorities about a young woman everybody's left for dead.

House Ethics Committee? The House has an ethics committee? Why bother.

Sleepwalking out of the Clinton years, reporters today encourage a nation plagued by self-doubt, intimidated into silence, as if only God could make judgments, but who cares what He thinks, anyway. Wanting to sound reasonable, Condit's constituents are quick to allow, "He hasn't been proved guilty of anything." That's the new, toes-low Clinton standard: If the man hasn't been convicted of obstructing justice in a court of law (and in Clinton's case, even if he did), he's honorable enough to write laws for the rest of us, Modesto permitting.

Modesto isn't a Condit country; the United States is. We're much more interested in politics as a spectator sport or soap opera.

It's sickening to watch television and watch amoral journalists wonder - "Wow, how's Gary going to get out of this jam?" - as if that would be an admirable outcome, so long as he could pull it off. "It's been another tough week for Gary Condit," declared ABC anchor-in-training George Stephanopoulos, as if somehow that means something. Condit deserves "another tough week" every week until he resigns in disgrace. But it won't happen because the press, with a healthy dollop of assistance from a wholly unprincipled Congress, will focus on anything but Condit's repugnant behavior.

Boy George interviewed Condit's campaign strategist Richie Ross, who defined how democracy now operates in America. Stephanopoulos asked, Won't Republicans exploit Condit's lying? to which Ross boldly reported: "Well, who are they running, Mother Teresa? I mean, at the end of the day, the election's going to be a choice between two candidates." Translation: Everybody Does It, and as long as Condit brings home the bacon and votes for a prescription drug subsidy, who really cares how many interns go missing?

To this stunning answer, Stephanopoulos could have, should have betrayed a moral outrage. There was none. Instead, all he could see was the political: "If they play hard, you're going to play hard?" It probably never occurred to Stephanopoulos to ask the question many people had on their lips: "Knowing all you know, how can you still work for this lowlife?" After the era of the standard-shattering Clinton White House, that's no longer a question any respectable member of the media would ever ask.