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Exile Marks the Spot


Published January 30, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

I woke up early a few days ago and saw scrawled on the pad next to the bed: "Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov: Everything is permitted." What could it mean? Flying out of New York Ñ I speak metaphorically, since I actually went no farther than Connecticut, on the train Ñ I stopped in Darien to see my brother and his wife, Ginny, my Southern sister-in-law. Ginny came to Darien unexpectedly, you might say, by way of Smithfield, North Carolina, and is still Ñ permanently Ñ amazed by "the things Americans get up to," as she puts it.

"Guess who they've been talking about all morning on CNN!" she said when I was barely down for breakfast. I tried … couldn't … might be anybody.

"Katie Couric?" I suggested limply.

"Chandra Levy!" said Ginny, nodding her head, eyes wide, practically dead from incredulity.

"No shit," I said: "What's happened? Have they found her?"

Her look told me everything before she spoke: "Nothing has happened. It's just what it was."

She has a point, when you figure that nearly half a million Americans disappear every year, most of them on purpose.

"Then why?" I asked Ñ but what a question! The conglomerate media Ñ what Nation media critic Mark Crispin Miller calls the "monoculture" Ñ needs to know what's going to sell, needs to take polls, needs to know what position Chandra Levy, famous only for her disappearance, might still occupy in the post-9/11 American mind. Right now, Monica Lewinsky is writing books and selling handbags, desperate to turn her incidental notoriety into something that might pay her lawyers' bills.

So, what's with Chandra all of a sudden? Are Americans tired of Afghanistan and the undeclared, undefined, unwinnable war against terrorism? Are the networks worried that bin Laden, wherever he is, might not have staying power?

Congressman Gary Condit is up for re-election this year, so that's something. But the election's not until November, and someone might find what remains of Chandra Levy before that happens. So, God knows, although it's only January Ñ what's a newsman to do?

Actually, when I went to look it up, I found out that what Ginny had told me wasn't strictly true. No, sir, all kinds of things have been "happening" on the Chandra front since anyone but paid pundits and reporters thought about her. I exclude her parents, who are rightly upset by the precipitous decline in Chandra's "news quotient" since the war on terror began.

I speak from experience, having been involved in a minor version of these televised scandals several years ago: My sister Barbara's appearance on NBC's "Dateline" was postponed for a week because Frank Sinatra died; meantime, she still can't remove the scuff marks left by Jane Pauley's shoes on her bathroom floor.

But I digress: Sometime between September 11 and this very moment, when Tina Brown and her ill-conceived magazine, Talk, went belly-up, one of Tina's silly girl reporters did a story about Chandra in which everything dealing with the missing intern was recycled and rehashed Ñ mainly her love life. No "news" here, unless it's the usual thing about sex and sin in perfidious Washing-ton. Try as they might, Ameri-can media can't make a scandal out of Enron; the only kind of lying that sells is lying about sex.

"She's sleeping with the fishes," Ginny said with a sigh. "She's wearing concrete boots."

I don't remember which one of us said it first, Ginny or me. But our thought was the same: "Maybe she's in Tora Bora!"

That is to say, Chandra Levy might, this instant, right now, be hidden underground in caves that even native Afghans won't explore. I read something about this in The New York Times: "Even Die-Hard Foes of Taliban Balk at Cave Exploration," the headline read. In Afghan terms, Tora Bora is like Idaho Ñ nobody goes there, and the only people who live there are gun-toting renegades.

Well, this gave us quite an idea: Could it be Ñ and if not, why not? Ñ that all kinds of mysteriously unresolved people are lost in the caves of Tora Bora?

Three months ago, did you even know there was a Tora Bora? And if you did, didn't you think it was an island in the South Pacific?

So, why not? Let's put Chandra there, and Tina Brown while we're at it, since she has nowhere else to go. The mind staggers at the possibilities: Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Crater, all of the Romanovs, half of the Kennedy clan, the Lindbergh baby, Kathie Lee Gifford, Roseanne, Irene Silverman Ñ the over-generous New York landlady whose still-missing corpse nonetheless convicted Sante and Kenneth Kimes of her murder. Then there are every single one of the shapely girls who've made life miserable for our elected officials over the past 30 years: Donna Rice, Fanne Fox, Jessica Hahn, Rita Jenrette Ñ can you tell the difference between one and the other? I thought not.

Tora Bora Ñ what a brilliant solution! I was content just to think of all the forgotten celebrities who might be hiding in those multi-acre caves, but not Ginny. She thinks we ought to be sending people to the caves of Tora Bora, not just looking for them. She starts with the lately retired Senators Phil Gramm Ñ colored green, as in money from Enron and bribes in general Ñ and Jesse Helms, a shameful blot on her home state of North Carolina for more years than she cares to remember.

She went on: "Britney Spears, P. Diddy, Lisa Marie Presley, Jim Carrey, Malcolm in the middle … It's too much to hope for," Ginny finally said with another sigh. But the look in her eye told me we'd be playing this game for a long time.

In fact, we want your suggestions. Who Ñ that is, whom Ñ would you send to Tora Bora, since nobody, and nothing, can or will ever be found there?


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