Defending Gary Condit
Jude Wanniski
August 27, 2001


Memo To: Rep. Charlie Rangel [D-NY]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Devil’s Advocate

To tell you the truth, Charlie, I have not followed the Gary Condit matter at all, have read no news stories about it, and have switched to other channels when I find a show devoted to it. I chose to do this not because I believe it is of little importance, but because I realized early on that I would have to spend more time on it than I have. I did, though, stay tuned to FoxNewsSunday when I saw you on the show defending the California Congressman. Because I at least know by now that nobody else seems to be defending him, I was most interested in why you decided to do so. It was only when you mentioned Adam Clayton Powell that it immediately became clear. Powell, of course, held the Harlem seat in Congress that you now have, and in fact you defeated him in 1968 and have held the seat ever since, frequently endorsed by both major political parties. Most adults under 60 years of age probably do not recall the scandal surrounding Powell, which led to serious attempts by his colleagues in the Congress to boot him out. The point you made is that the people of Powell’s district removed him, not the representatives of the other 434 congressional districts, and you became sensitive to the constitutional issues involved.

We had not met back then, Charlie, but at the time of the Adam Clayton Powell scandal I was a young political correspondent for the DowJones newsweekly, the National Observer. I never covered the story, but I was a close observer because Powell was clearly the most powerful black American in government. He had been in Congress long enough to get the chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee, and there were serious enough questions about his management of the committee that Congress censured him in 1967 and vacated his seat, which he won back in the 1968 election that followed. Congress again refused to seat him, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he took his seat in June 1969. As pastor of the First Abyssinian Church in Harlem, Powell suddenly found himself in deep difficulties when it was reported that he had a young lady on his congressional payroll who never showed up for work. Instead of showing contrition or apologizing profusely to his parishioners and constituents, Powell flew off to Bimini, a little island in the Caribbean, and allowed news photographers to take snapshots of him in a colorful shirt, his one arm around a Bimini tootsie, his free hand holding up his favorite drink, cold milk laced with Scotch whiskey -- the perfect combination for a preacher/politician. You ended the embarrassment by beating him in the 1970 Democratic primary.

What was going on? Back in those days, the private lives of politicians were off limits to the press corps. If we knew about the shenanigans of the Kennedy boys, and we thought we did, they did not make it into print. Before I came to Washington in 1965, I’d been political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where I’d learned that when he was Senator and came to visit, Jack Kennedy would watch the show at the Desert Inn and have his pick of the chorus girls for the night. Sometimes, I was told, he could not make up his mind, so took two to his room. There were stories at the press table in the Senate wing of the Capitol about several of the Senators of both parties who enjoyed annual junkets to Las Vegas and carried on practically everywhere they traveled. If Powell had a tootsie on his payroll who never showed up for work, he had lots of company, but it was not until he became serious at Judiciary that “news” of his escapades began to appear in the papers. There was always the suspicion in my mind that if he had not been rocking the boat politically that there would have been no such stories. Boys will be boys.

Yes, there were never any ladies who disappeared, as far as I know, which makes the Condit case much different. But as long as there is not the slightest evidence that Condit had anything to do with the young lady’s disappearance, I can appreciate your defense of his constitutional position. As you put it Sunday, is Congress supposed to remove him from office because “he gave a bum performance on television?” Your defense of him acknowledges that in politics, what goes around comes around, and you want to make sure Condit’s colleagues and constituents keep their perspective and basic principles. Good job, Charlie.